Make us your home page

The nuclear dilemma

A woman evacuated from an area near the stricken Fukushima nuclear facilities is checked for radiation contamination this week in Koriyama, Japan.

Associated Press

A woman evacuated from an area near the stricken Fukushima nuclear facilities is checked for radiation contamination this week in Koriyama, Japan.

New York Times

Japan's multiple calamities

Any comment on the disaster in Japan must begin with the stunning scale of human loss. Thousands dead or missing from the devastating earthquake and a huge tsunami surge. Hundreds of thousands homeless. Whole villages wiped out. And now there is the threat of further harm from badly damaged nuclear reactors. The worst-case accident would be enormous releases of radioactivity.

The unfolding Japanese tragedy also should prompt Americans to closely study our own plans for coping with natural disasters and with potential nuclear plant accidents to make sure they are, indeed, strong enough. We've already seen how poor defenses left New Orleans vulnerable to Hurricane Katrina and how industrial folly and hubris led to a devastating blowout and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

It is sobering that such calamities could so badly hurt Japan, a technologically advanced nation that puts great emphasis on disaster mitigation. Japan's protective seawalls proved no match for the high waves that swept over them and knocked out the safety systems that were supposed to protect nearby nuclear reactors from overheating and melting down.

The New York Times has endorsed nuclear power as one tool to head off global warming. We suspect that, when all the evidence is in from Japan, it will remain a valuable tool. But the public needs to know that it is a safe one.

Los Angeles Times

Nuclear fails the test

Pity President Barack Obama: Every time he tries to compromise with Republicans on energy reform by backing dirty or dangerous forms of power generation, a disaster occurs to demonstrate why pursuing such strategies is a bad idea. It happened a year ago when a BP oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico after Obama had been talking up the advantages of expanded offshore drilling, and it's happening again this week with the nuclear crisis following Japan's massive earthquake and tsunami. A year ago, Obama called the construction of new nuclear plants in the United States a "necessity," but the political fallout from the Japanese disaster now renders it unlikely.

That's not a bad thing, at least for now; sometimes disasters lead to wisdom.

We take the threat of climate change very seriously, and would be delighted if a safe, cost-effective way of producing carbon-emissions-free nuclear power were developed. Sadly, we're not there yet. Nuclear power plants are so expensive, and their risks so extreme, that private investors are reluctant to fund them even with huge government subsidies and loan guarantees. Plans to build a national repository for nuclear waste in Nevada have been shelved, meaning radioactive waste is being stockpiled at individual plants in a way that is unsustainable. And then there's the threat of a Japan-type disaster.

The United States gets 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear plants, and many are nearing the end of their useful lives, so limited construction of new plants in inland states where the risk of natural disaster is low might be acceptable — at least if Washington ever gets a handle on the waste-storage problem. But there are more cost-effective ways of weaning the country off climate-warming fossil fuels, namely improved energy efficiency and more renewable power. In the cost-benefit analysis, nuclear doesn't add up.

Chicago Tribune

Nuclear reaction

Day by day, the news from the stricken nuclear reactors in Japan has grown worse. If you, like we, have been hoping that the long-touted renaissance of American nuclear power would finally materialize, then events in Japan are likely to shake your optimism and your confidence.

But let's step back. Other sources of fuel — oil, coal, natural gas — carry their own proven dangers. That's not only for workers who drill and mine, but for all of us who breathe air, drink water and eat food.

Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar hold great future promise. But scaling them up to power cities and factories is a costly prospect.

The best power source for the future, today as always, is human ingenuity driving scientific discovery.

Right now, there's a nuclear accident to tamp down and clean up. And after that? There will be global skepticism about building nuclear plants.

Good. That's how we avoid preventable accidents. But before we dismiss a thriving future for nuclear reactors, we need to weigh the risks of every alternative.

The nuclear dilemma 03/15/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 15, 2011 3:11pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours