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Whatever Happens Next, Let's Think Clearly About Nuclear Risks

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyMarch 14, 2011 6:18 AM


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Precipitated by the horrible unfolding disaster in Japan, we are poised to have a big public policy debate about nuclear power in this country--and the advisability of the much touted "Nuclear Renaissance," which President Obama has thrown considerable weight behind. Whatever happens next--and it is not clear right now just how bad the problems at the two afflicted Japanese nuclear plants are, or how well those problems will be contained--I'm hoping that the unfolding debate over nuclear power will based on the best available science. On this front, risk assessment scholar David Ropeik, writing at Scientific American, has already thrown down the gauntlet big time. His view well represents the pro-nuclear side of the debate:

...nuclear radiation, in addition to being actually physically hazardous, has some psychological characteristics that make it particularly frightening, and a frightening history, and as a result, the worst case scenarios get played up, and magnified in the scream-a-thon that 24/7 global communication creates around events like those in Japan. Fear of nuclear energy is reinforced, fear that unquestionably in the coming weeks and months will infect the ongoing debate over what kind of energy future we should have. Nuclear energy certainly has its risks, but are they as great as those from burning coal and oil, given what’s happening to the climate of the earth? Are nuclear emissions, including releases from accidents, as bad as the particulate pollution from fossil fuels? Not close. Remember the low radiation-induced cancer death toll among the hibakusha [survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki], or the WHO estimate of 4,000 lifetime cancer deaths from radiation for Chernobyl. Fossil fuel particulates kill several hundred thousand people around the world per year. (Estimates for this risk are all over the place, but Dr. Joel Schwartz of the Harvard School of Public Health, a pioneer in the study of air pollution risks, estimates the number could be as high as 250,000 in the United States alone, annually. Estimates for the annual US death toll from fossil fuel particulate pollution, on the low end, are 20-30,000.) Catastrophe? Yes, we should worry about what’s going on in Japan, and about the risks of nuclear energy. But the more we exaggerate those risks, the more overall harm we could be doing to ourselves, by letting our fears drive energy policy that heavily favors a much more dangerous fossil fuel-based power supply.

What do people think? Is Ropeik's view reasonable? My understanding is that some might put the death toll from Chernobyl higher--Greenpeace puts it as high as 100,000. Still, I find myself tending to agree with Ropeik overall. Put nuclear next to fossil fuels, and nuclear will tend to look pretty good. Put nuclear next to wind and solar, though--or just plain energy efficiency--and it's a very different story....

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