In the next couple of weeks, you’re going to hear a lot of nuclear apologists trying to make the argument that the lesson we should learn from Fukushima is that the disaster proves that safety systems are in place that make catastrophic accidents unlikely.
First, the Japanese nuclear crisis is an ongoing event. We know that hundreds or perhaps thousand of people have been exposed to radiation, and we won’t know for some time what the extent of the health effects are. We do know that three people at the reactor were admitted to the hospital with full-on radiation sickness, although trying to find out the current condition of the three is virtually impossible due to the reluctance of the Japanese government to release negative information. Additionally, all the workers remaining at the plant have been exposed to huge amounts of radiation. The government acknowledged as much when they raised the maximum amount of allowed exposure for nuclear workers from 100 millisieverts to 250.
Deaths from radiation exposure are difficult to access in the short term, and will ultimately rely primarily on statistical evidence on increased rates of thyroid cancer and leukemia. Direct causality is almost impossible to prove. The nuclear industry uses this uncertainty to avoid any responsibility for increased mortality from radiation exposure. I believe that, unless a worker is actually impaled on a fuel rod, as occurred at the SL-1 research reactor in 1961, the nuclear industry is never going to acknowledge that any death was caused by nuclear power.
They say that all comparisons are odious, but a trenchant analogy is often the best way to explain a complex situation. Suppose you were driving at 60 miles per hour and there was a sudden obstruction ahead. You put on your brakes to avoid a collision, but the brake pedal goes to the floor. You swerve to avoid the obstruction, lose control and slam into a tree. Your airbag fails to inflate, but your seatbelt saves you from serious injury, but your car is totaled. Is your first thought going to be: “See? The seatbelt worked!” Or are you going to want to know why the brakes failed and the airbag didn’t deploy?
Take the analogy a step further, and you discover, for example, that the brake failure and airbag problem were known issues in your make and model of car. Wouldn’t you think it reasonable and prudent to at least expect the car maker to divulge what they know about the problem and issue a recall to attempt to prevent what happened to you from happening to others? If it turns out that the brake problem is caused by a particular kind of brake system used in a number of cars, wouldn’t you want to see the recall expanded and sale of new models with the suspect brakes put on hold until all the facts were gathered?
Of course, like all analogies, this one can be strained and twisted, particularly if you are a manufacturer or dealer who sells the faulty cars. In the case of nuclear power, the defects and design flaws run to the fundamental technology. All we are saying is that we need to put the brakes on new nuclear plants and license extensions until we know what went wrong with the Japanese reactors, and complete a thorough review to assure that the same kind of loss-of-power accident can’t happen here.