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The Fukushima Daiichi incident demonstrates the power of the human mind

After the destruction caused by the Japanese earthquake, the world continues to watch the story of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. While the immediate worries have been about the extent of the meltdown and leakage of radioactive material, those looking at the bigger picture have wondered what the accident means for the future of nuclear power.

Since the advent of industrial-scale nuclear energy, this technology has often been portrayed as an example of the double-edged sword of human ingenuity. On one hand, a single nuclear power plant is capable of providing large amounts of energy using a small quantity of fuel: typical reactors can generate 10 TWh using about 25 tons of fuel in a single year, compared to several thousand tons of coal required to generate a comparable amount of energy.

On the other hand, incidents like the Chernobyl disaster, the far less damaging accident at Three Mile Island, and now Fukushima Daiichi are cited the show the dangers of wielding so powerful a technology. The fundamental issue in the debate over nuclear energy comes down to whether or not human beings are capable of using such power effectively and responsibly.

Opponents of nuclear energy tend to seize on nuclear accidents as evidence that we are fundamentally incapable of controlling nuclear technology. In the wake the Fukushima Daiichi incident, critics claim a variety of factors as reasons to limit the spread of the technology, ranging from the dangers of aging facilities and the disposal of spent fuel, to the vulnerability to unanticipated natural disasters and terrorism. The common thread in these objections is that nuclear energy presents problems that man is not and never will be capable of solving.

But the critics of nuclear energy fail to mention that examples of actual nuclear disasters are difficult to find. Mathew James of the Emory Wheel rightly points out the vanishingly small number of meltdowns and subsequent breaches of containment associated with nuclear energy:

The only full nuclear meltdown to ever occur at a civilian power plant occurred at Chernobyl. . . . Reactors in the U.S. are designed so that it’s physically impossible for what happened at Chernobyl to occur.

Three Mile Island demonstrates these features perfectly. When the reactor started to melt down [sic], containment vessels collapsed and prevented a large-scale explosion and radiation leak from happening.

An article in The Wall Street Journal further explains how flaws in the design and operation of the Chernobyl reactor caused the graphite used to absorb high energy neutrons to catch fire, a physical impossibility in today’s nuclear reactors. It could be argued that the Chernobyl disaster owes more to Soviet ineptitude than inherent dangers of nuclear energy.

Nuclear fission provides a significant fraction of electrical energy generated by the industrialized nations of the West, where there has never been a meltdown and loss of containment. Nuclear plants are constructed so that in the event of external damage or operator error, control rods fall into place halting the nuclear reaction. Newer designs even employ a “passive cooling system” that requires no external electricity to cool the nuclear fuel in the event of power loss. Even the technical problems of waste disposal have been addressed with the construction and operation of facilities like Yucca Mountain (which has been derailed by political opposition). The industrialized world has clearly demonstrated efficacy in understanding and managing the problems that come with nuclear energy.

Consider the sequence of events that precipitated the nuclear scare in Japan. The recent natural disaster is nearly unprecedented in its magnitude. The Earthquake and tsunami combination is among the most fearsome natural onslaughts a civilization can face. This magnitude 9 quake was one of the most powerful ever to hit Japan, while the resulting tsunami was over thirty feet in height and barely slowed by Japan’s sea walls. In the middle of this disaster was a forty year old nuclear power plant operating at nearly full capacity.

Through it all, the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi have not breached containment. The safety protocols to shut down the nuclear reaction worked correctly, and even though the emergency generators designed to cool the reaction were knocked out, resulting in a partial meltdown (something passive cooling designs would avoid), the containment features of the reactors have given crews time to work on a solution and have successfully kept any significant amount of radioactive material from escaping. There has been some leakage into the surrounding areas, but not enough to seriously endanger the public.

Contrast this with the tens of thousands who lost their lives due to the natural disaster itself and it becomes clear that the harm caused by damage to the manmade nuclear reactors pales in comparison to that caused by nature. The fact that this nuclear plant was able to withstand this kind of blow and effectively keep the situation from turning into another nuclear disaster should be a ringing endorsement of the efficacy and safety of nuclear power, not a reason to abandon this technology that has so much value to offer us.

The Fukushima Daiichi incident does not reveal humanity’s helplessness in the face of natural disaster, but our ability to cope with and make ourselves safe from such disasters through the use of our reasoning minds. Whatever problems may arise through the use of nuclear energy in the future, the incident at Fukushima Daiichi should give us confidence in our ability to solve those problems.

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