Should we reconsider nuclear power?

Along with all the other troubling reports out of Japan, Americans seem to be keeping a particularly close eye on updates about the nation’s nuclear power plants, two of which were disabled in the immediate wake of the disaster. Joe Lieberman, among others, has suggested we “quickly put the brakes on” nuclear power in this country until we can study the results of the situation in Japan more closely.

But over at Slate, Will Saletan says we shouldn’t be afraid of nuclear power — that, in fact, nuclear energy is still cleaner and safer than oil or coal:

In advanced countries like Japan and the United States, nuclear plants are built to standards no drilling rig can touch. If a sensor, cable, or power source fails, another sensor, cable, or power source is available. Containers of steel or concrete envelop the reactors to prevent massive radiation leaks. Chernobyl didn’t have such a container. Three Mile Island did. That’s why Three Mile Island produced no uncontrolled leakage or injuries. . . .

If Japan, the United States, or Europe retreats from nuclear power in the face of the current panic, the most likely alternative energy source is fossil fuel. And by any measure, fossil fuel is more dangerous. The sole fatal nuclear power accident of the last 40 years, Chernobyl, directly killed 31 people. By comparison, Switzerland’s Paul Scherrer Institute calculates that from 1969 to 2000, more than 20,000 people died in severe accidents in the oil supply chain. More than 15,000 people died in severe accidents in the coal supply chain—11,000 in China alone. The rate of direct fatalities per unit of energy production is 18 times worse for oil than it is for nuclear power.

Even if you count all the deaths plausibly related to Chernobyl—9,000 to 33,000 over a 70-year period—that number is dwarfed by the death rate from burning fossil fuels. The OECD’s 2008 Environmental Outlook calculates that fine-particle outdoor air pollution caused nearly 1 million premature deaths in the year 2000, and 30 percent of this was energy-related. You’d need 500 Chernobyls to match that level of annual carnage. But outside Chernobyl, we’ve had zero fatal nuclear power accidents.

Read the whole thing here.


Margaret Cabaniss is the former managing editor of Crisis Magazine. She joined Crisis in 2002 after graduating from the University of the South with a degree in English Literature and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She now blogs at

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