News reports out of Japan regarding the status of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant have been almost unintelligible. Alarming statements are put out by TEPCO, the plant’s owner, only to be contradicted hours later. Government agencies tell us that radiation levels hundreds of times higher than safety standards have been discovered in water or produce, but that there is “no immediate danger to human health.” (Which leads one to ask: why did they set the standards in the first place?)
Amid all the confusion, Frontier Group’s Travis Madsen has been one of the key people – joining many others (here,here, here, here, here and here) – who has been working overtime both to keep the facts straight and to begin to help Americans figure out What It All Means.
But with unfamiliar talk of sieverts, becquerels, grays and isotopes swirling through the public debate like discarded newspapers on a windy Manhattan street corner, it’s worth taking a step back to contemplate the real question at the heart of the nuclear power debate: are we willing to risk the possibility – however remote – that an event like the Fukushima Daiichi disaster could happen here?
Our latest report, Unacceptable Risk: Two Decades of “Close Calls,” Leaks and Other Problems at U.S. Nuclear Reactors, shows that the risk is indeed real. Throughout the history of nuclear power in the United States, there have been numerous instances when the door was left wide open for nuclear catastrophe. Most recently, in 2002, the corrosion in the reactor vessel head at the Davis-Besse nuclear reactor in Ohio left the facility just three-eighths of an inch of stainless steel away from a loss of coolant to the reactor core and possible meltdown.
On dozens of other occasions, the nuclear industry has allowed radioactive material to spill uncontrolled into groundwater. The levels of radioactivity are miniscule in comparison to those in Japan, but the failure to manage and fix even the seemingly basic problem of keeping radioactive material inside the plant does not lend confidence that America’s nuclear operators could respond any better than TEPCO has in the event of a serious malfunction.
Technical issues aside, though, what Fukushima is teaching us – again – is that the implications of a widespread release of radioactivity on life in a region is profound. Who knows when – or if – residents of the 20 kilometer exclusion zone around the plant will be able to return? Or when farmers in that agriculturally important region will be able to sell their crops? Or what the long-term impacts will be on the marine environment?
Personally, I keep coming back in my thoughts to the Pilgrim Nuclear Reactor about 40 miles south of my home. My worries are less about the prospect of my family being exposed to radiation as to what a tremendous loss it would be to the people of that historic and culturally important region if it were to become exposed to radiation on the scale of the area around Fukushima. Who would plant cranberries? When would schoolkids again be able to visit (and inevitably be disappointed by) Plymouth Rock? Who would ever get to enjoy once again the splendid beaches of Cape Cod?
The discussion around nuclear power is often couched in terms of statistics: the probability of an accident, competing figures on number of added cancer deaths that result from radiation exposure, and the costs and benefits of nuclear vis-à-vis other energy technologies. All of these are very important points of discussion and we policy wonks have an obligation to help the public and decision-makers come to factual conclusions.
But the rational case against nuclear power – strong as it may be – is only part of the story. The impact of a nuclear disaster on our soil cannot be summed up in either cancer counts or dollars and cents. As anyone who has watched the news coverage from Japan and put themselves in the place of the people there would realize, it extends to the hard-to-quantify damage that would result to everything we hold dear – home, family, landscape, history, culture, and the prospect of passing a sustainable world off to our children and their children.
Let’s hope that the people of Japan reclaim their homes and the things they hold dear soon. And let’s also hope that Fukushima is the last nuclear tragedy the people of the world will have to face.
Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.