An article in the Wall Street Journal, among other publications, tells us that Japanese regulators, though aware of new cooling technologies for nuclear plants, chose to ignore the vulnerablity of existing reactors, focusing instead on using the better technology in new reactors.
If the new "isolation condensers" had been in place at Fukushima, they could have prevented or at least minimized the problems being faced there now. But there was "no serious discussion of retrofitting older plants with the alternative technology," government advisers told the paper.
"Experts said doing so was likely deemed too costly and cumbersome given what was seen as a small risk of total power outage," the Wall Street Journal reported.
I wonder why this was seen as such a small risk only 6 years after the tsunami of December 2004, which surely did lead to "total power outage" in some parts of Asia. Is it a lack of imagination that prevents us humans from taking into account the possibility of a nuclear nightmare unleashed by earthquakes and tsunamis in the quake-prone country that gives the tsunami its name? Or is it an optimistic gene that assumes things will never get any worse than we imagine them to be?
Granted radiation levels still appear to be manageable in Japan - and one sincerely hopes they will stay that way - and, yes, granted, too, that the words "nuclear accident" evoke dread that does not necessarily match the known risk. However, there is a reason these words provoke such a strong negative reaction in many people, which is that a nuclear accident has the potential to create painful death and lingering illness in large numbers. Moreover, this misery is man-made, unlike the destruction caused by forces of nature, which we cannot control.
The question really is this: should we create forces that can unleash misery on large numbers of people? And if do create such forces, should we delude ourselves into believing that we can make them failsafe, which means believing we can anticipate everything that nature and the world can throw at us, and believing we can control all these natural forces we think we can predict?
I can hear supporters of nuclear energy tell me that far fewer people have died from nuclear accidents than from almost any other cause. Some reports say "only" 31 people died as a result of the Chernobyl disaster, ignoring the later deaths, the disease and the anxiety of people living and bringing up children in an area where leukemia and throat cancer levels increased dramatically.
And what of nuclear waste? Once again, we are told it is being handled very efficiently and safely. I'm sure that's true. But how much waste are we going to be putting into our planet - even "safely?"
We know that the world needs energy, and nuclear energy, we are told, is available, efficient, and less polluting than coal and other sources. That may be true, and I don't see the world scrapping its nuclear reactors, or its plans for new reactors, anytime soon.
But in weighing our options, should we consider only the relatively recent history of nuclear power, and the relatively small number of deaths known to be directly and immediately related to an accident? Or should we also consider the potential for immediate deaths plus those that occur a little later, higher levels of illness, and the misery of people who might have to see their kids exposed to radiation unleashed not by forces beyond man's control but by man himself? And the potential harm that nuclear waste can do to our planet over the short and long-term? Should this potential not at least be weighed in the equation? And should we not also consider newer, less harmful, "greener" technologies even though they may at this point be less cost-effective? Or do we write those off too as too "costly and cumbersome?"
I am not a scientist of any description, let alone an expert on nuclear energy. This is clearly not an "expert opinion" on the world's energy options and I'm sure a clever expert can pick holes in some of the arguments. But my aim is not to win an argument, but only to support a debate on issues that affect us all as human beings.
Though not an expert on nuclear energy, I am an inhabitant of this planet and I am concerned about my home and the rest of my human family. I think perhaps it's time for the whole family to think about such issues, calmly and politely, with the subject experts adding their expert opinions, but all of us asking ourselves some pertinent questions and carefully considering our options.