Japan can learn from Chernobyl

There’s been a lot of sensationalism about the meltdowns at the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility. I just read an article that puts Fukushima into perspective without minimizing its seriousness.

Here’s a link to it.

Many of us who are concerned about the need to replace fossil fuels as energy sources for geopolitical and environmental reasons have been looking to nuclear energy as part of the solution. The events at Fukushima, serious as they are, have not fundamentally changed the arguments, pro or con, regarding nuclear power.

The reactors that failed were approaching the end of their useful life and would have been replaced in a few years or a decade by newer technology that, analysis shows, would have survived even the extreme event of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

But the failure should, at least, give us pause about how our political and corporate decision making process works when complex technology is concerned. We are facing many open questions.

In my 1995 book for young readers Catastrophe! Great Engineering Failure–and Success, I had a chapter about the lessons of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. If I were writing that book today, I would have to add Fukushima into the mix.

But I would still end it with open questions and a challenge to my young readers as they look ahead in their lives.

Here’s what I wrote then (cut and pasted from my submitted draft–the edited version was quite similar):

Still, 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 grow.

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.

Add Fukushima to those paragraphs, and the message today is the same as it was in 1995.

Fred Bortz

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