Until this recent catastrophe in Japan (it’s awful, please consider helping out), I was very pro nuclear-power. I’ve never been afraid of technology, and I was raised in France, where 80% of electricity comes from nuclear power and there has been no serious safety problem with it. Plus, nuclear power can be green. And with newer technology, it can be made passively safe, where even if everything fails, a meltdown cannot occur (unlike the Japanese reactors, unfortunately.)
So the recent crisis has changed my mind. I don’t think we can afford the risk of nuclear power. I’m not a nuclear power expert, and I would welcome counter-arguments. But I am fairly well versed in thinking about risk and risk mitigation. Three things now worry me greatly about nuclear power:
- Dramatic outcomes: in case of dramatic failure, the outcome could be disastrous on a scale that’s difficult to comprehend. You think the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was bad (and it was)? Try decades or centuries of life-killing radioactivity. Imagine a meltdown that could contaminate large, heavily populated areas. The damage could be enormous. Yes, the probability is very, very low. But as we are seeing today in Japan, it’s far from zero, and if they had not reacted as well as they did, the result could be indeed as bad as I describe here. (To folks I work with on voting technology: isn’t this what we worry about regarding Internet voting for public office? That the outcome of an attack would be dramatically bad, not matter how low the likelihood?)
- Storing nuclear waste: a friend on Facebook said “if Romans had used nuclear power, we would still be guarding their nuclear dump sites.” Think about that for a second. That’s just breathtaking. Are we ready to impose on our descendents 1000 years from now? We can barely figure out broad swaths of history from that long ago, let alone instructions on how to safeguard nuclear materials. Maybe it can be done. But it seems incredibly arrogant of us to assume that it’s okay to impose this burden on the next hundred generations.
- Regulation (or lack thereof): this is my most pragmatic point, and it applies mostly to the US. We can’t even get our act together in this country to agree on requiring relief wells for deep-water oil drilling. Do we really think we can get our act together to regulate a nuclear industry to be truly safe? It looks like even Japan couldn’t quite do it, and they’re far more open to government safety regulation than we are.
So, I’m open to others’ arguments. But right now, I’m thinking nuclear power is not such a great idea.