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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Fukushima Meltdown is a Triumph, not Tragedy for Nuclear Power

The devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan proved once and for all that nuclear energy is a remarkably, I daresay, miraculously safe source of clean and reliable energy-- though you wouldn't get that impression from watching the mainstream media coverage as events unfold at the earthquake-stricken Fukushima power plant in Japan.

With overblown scare headlines using loaded words like "Nuclear Disaster" (m), "Nuclear Nightmare" (m), and "Dramatic Escalation" (m), you'd think the media was trying to sell more newspapers and garner more viewers.

While body counts as a result of the earthquake and tsunami number into the tens of thousands, establishment media outlets shamelessly try to outdo each other in their alarmist and sensational rhetoric for a bigger piece of the public's attention. But the truth is often less dramatic, exciting, or scary.

Another reason for the brazenly biased coverage of Fukushima is a strong underlying prejudice against nuclear power that has always confounded and annoyed me. While activists with an axe to grind may want you to think that nuclear power is unsafe, consider what really happened in Japan.

To paraphrase one clever Facebook user's recent status update regarding Fukushima: a 41-year-old nuclear reactor got rocked by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake- Japan's worst in over a thousand years, slammed by a 7 meter tall tsunami, and then hit by multiple hydrogen explosions that destroyed parts of the reactor housing, yet the nuclear core remained intact and contained. And you're telling me nuclear power isn't safe?

Another important clarification to make is that the explosions and reactor over-heating that we are seeing at Fukushima are not a "nuclear accident." They're damage, caused by Japan's most powerful earthquake on record and a subsequent tsunami that swept entire towns away in its wake.

No one is calling derailed trains or capsized boats as a result of the disaster "train accidents" or "boat accidents." That would be absurd. Yet for some reason, the miraculously well-contained meltdown at Fukushima is somehow inherently the fault of nuclear energy, not plate tectonics.

As for overblown fears of radiation leaks and fallout, they are just that- overblown. According to Dr. Josef Oehmen, a PhD research scientist at MIT:

"There was and will *not* [sic] be any significant release of radioactivity. By 'significant' I mean a level of radiation of more than what you would receive on – say – a long distance flight, or drinking a glass of beer that comes from certain areas with high levels of natural background radiation."

(His entire article is definitely worth a read to understand nuclear power and what is happening in Japan.)

Indeed, radiation is all around us all the time. To put levels of leaked radiation from the Fukushima plant in perspective, consider that bananas, like many other foods, are naturally radioactive because of the potassium-40 they contain. Radiation leakage at Fukushima has been consistently measured at levels that would be equivalent to consuming a few bananas. Scary huh?

Also remember that the kind of radioactive isotopes that are leaking from the plant "decay" relatively quickly- some in a matter of minutes- and lose their radioactivity. So if you're genuinely concerned with radiation exposure, stop obsessing about Fukushima in front of your television and opt for a pat-down next time you pass through airport security.

In the end, the Fukushima nuclear power plant withstood two natural disasters of biblical proportions and a dizzying number of other unforeseen setbacks and challenges without ejecting any nuclear material from its reactor core.

This isn't a moment of shame for nuclear energy, but the moment of its triumph. Fukushima should not discourage Americans from powering their cities with the atom, but serve as final proof of the safety and stability of nuclear power in even the absolute worst of imaginable circumstances.

It's time for the United States to put the age of petrochemicals in the past and begin using the clean, affordable, renewable, and imminently safe power of nuclear energy to light our way.

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