There is an old proverb that, “A lie will go round the world while the truth is pulling its boots on.” In the case of the Japanese nuclear accident, the mainstream press has done very little to stem the flow of lies and misinformation and great harm has been done to the cause of nuclear energy. However, instead of killing the nascent nuclear renaissance before it has even started, we would be well advised to learn from this incident to better secure America’s energy independence and reduce carbon emissions.
Even though power has been restored to the cooling systems for all six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, panic and irrationality are spreading to every corner of the globe. Instead of an irrational fear, we should have admiration for the engineers who have so far prevented a far more serious nuclear disaster on top of the already staggering loss of life from the earthquake and tsunami.
Press reports of radiation releases do little to educate the public about the difference between short-lived bursts of radioactivity from quickly decaying noble gasses and the much more harmful release of certain isotopes of uranium, and plutonium which have half-lives that are measured in thousands or even millions of years.
Although venting radioactivity to the atmosphere is not a good thing, the highest measurements in Ibaraki prefecture directly to the south of the accident show a brief spike in radiation to roughly 4.9 micro-Sieverts per hour, which is comparable to having a dental X-ray.
That said: there are many, many lessons that we can and should learn from the accident. Older reactors that rely on a similar design should be retrofitted to use additional power backups in case of generator failure. Spent fuel storage pools should be relocated to stronger containment structures or to dry casks in a more prudent fashion. Instead of reacting with panic, a sober and rigorous examination will ensure that a similar accident never happens again.
We must remember that when an airplane crashes, people do not stop flying.
When the Deepwater Horizon exploded, killing 11 and spewing crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, people did not stop putting gasoline in their cars. When the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia collapsed, killing 25 miners, people did not unplug their appliances or stop charging their cellphones. Nuclear power has its dangers, but so does every other form of energy. However, unlike coal, nuclear power is far cleaner and unlike oil, is not susceptible to massive price shocks caused by instability in the Middle East.
When the crisis is over, we won’t have to wait for very long for a made-for-TV dramatization to perpetuate the fear-mongering and misinformation that has abounded in the mainstream press. However, the truth is that a few dozen engineers at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant have bravely and calmly responded to an impossible situation and are slowly bringing the reactors under control so they no longer pose any danger of meltdown.