March 11, 2011 was a day of calamity the Japanese people will never forget. According to the National Police Agency of Japanthe Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami left 15,841 dead, 5,890 injured and 3,490 people missing (as of December, 2011). Mother Nature’s freakish, one-two punch also triggered the partial meltdowns of four reactors in the Fukushima Daaichi complex, one of the worst commercial nuclear power plant disasters in history.
The Fukushima incident has stoked nuclear dread around the world and led some to conclude that nuclear power is too risky. Perhaps the most dramatic shift in public attitudes has been in Germany, where a conservative-led government recently unveiled a plan to close down all the country’s nuclear power plants by 2022.
Americans, however, should not endorse this knee-jerk anti-nuclear policy. For the foreseeable future, nuclear power will remain a vital part of a balanced and realistic national energy portfolio. Moreover, as champions of reason and science, U.S. progressives have a responsibility to avoid panicky overreactions and instead undertake a clear-eyed assessment of the actual risks of nuclear energy.
Generating electricity—like getting out of bed in the morning, or any other human activity—carries inherent risks. That’s true regardless of the fuel used to generate power. Instead of carefully weighing and comparing such risks, however, some environmental activists have tried to pose a false choice between “clean” and presumably safe renewable fuels like wind, solar and geothermal energy, and “dirty” fossil fuels or allegedly “unsafe” nuclear power. This dichotomy has nothing to do with science.
No sensible person is against renewable energy. But it will probably be a long time—likely decades, not years—before such sources have a realistic prospect of providing the base load needs of our national economy, let alone meeting the growing requirements of the entire globe. The Obama administration takes a more realistic approach in including nuclear energy along with other non-carbon emitting sources in its “Clean Energy Standard.” To understand why this is the case, we first need to review a few of the often overlooked, but important subtleties of electrical power generation.