Japanese Nuclear Crisis: TMI, Chernobyl, or In-between

My favorite chapter from my 1995 book Catastrophe! coverCatastrophe! Great Engineering Failure–and Success is the one where I discuss two very different nuclear reactor accidents, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. It is my favorite because of the way I ended it. That ending applies to the current situation at the reactors in Fukushima, Japan.

…sometime in your lifetime, the question of nuclear power is likely to arise again. The designs will be safer, the plans for waste disposal will be better, and the concerns about other sources of electric power will arise again.

Both sides will argue that we have learned the lessons of TMI and Chernobyl. One side will say that the lessons teach us that nuclear power plant technology will always be too risky to try. The other side will say that the we have learned the lessons of failure and that we can succeed in spite of the risks.

Coming to the right decision then will be no easier than it is now, nor will it be any less important. TMI and Chernobyl are two spectacular failures from which we will be learning for a long time.

As I follow the unfolding story, I am struck by the different views being expressed by experts in the media. On ABC’s Nightline last night, a Japanese professor compared the situation to Chernobyl, when a non-nuclear explosion (there is no risk of a nuclear explosion because reactors are very different from nuclear bombs) spewed huge amounts of radioactive material into the environment. To hear him speak, you would have thought that a similar explosion at the Fukushima Daiishi reactors was inevitable.

This morning, the reporting on NPR’s Morning Edition was less sensational without understating the problem. At present, the situation is closer to TMI times 4 (the number of reactors in trouble). Despite a partial meltdown, TMI’s environmental impact was restricted to the immediate vicinity of the plant, and retrospective health studies show no measurable increases in cancer more than 30 years later.

The brave Japanese workers who are still in the plant will not be so lucky. They will face serious cancer risks, even if they can avoid the immediate effects of radiation sickness. Still, beyond the plants themselves, the increase in radiation exposure is not likely to impact many people very much. The amount of radioactive material released so far is clearly greater than TMI, but it is, at present, nowhere near the devastating scale of Chernobyl.

Listening to the NPR report, it was also clear that a much greater problem may still lie ahead. The question is, can the current emergency measures cool the fuel enough to prevent a massive explosion until power is restored to the cooling pumps. The answer to that is unknown, so the evacuations are prudent.

Assuming the cooling is restored in time, and the people can return to their homes, the world will still be faced with the same difficult political choices I outlined in Catastrophe!. We will need to evaluate whether today’s vastly safer reactor designs are robust enough to withstand future geologic events or terrorist attacks.

We will need to compare the risks of nuclear power to the steady damage from coal-powered plant emissions and greenhouse gases produced by all fossil fuels. We will need to face the difficulties of disposing of spent fuel and nuclear proliferation.

The political decisions will be difficult and compounded by a fog of information, much of which is clever propaganda or media accounts that are over-stated or sensationalized to get readers or viewers.

More than ever, critical thinking will be needed in a world where sound-bite and YouTube clip mentality rules. I urge all my readers to arm themselves with solid information and a realistic but skeptical mindset, rejecting oversimplification and conspiracy theories and seeking careful, detailed, and accurate accounts instead.

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