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No Such Thing as Risk-Free Nuclear Power

Posted on Mar 15, 2011

By Eugene Robinson

Nuclear power was beginning to look like a panacea—a way to lessen our dependence on oil, make our energy supply more self-sufficient and significantly mitigate global warming, all at the same time. Now it looks more like a bargain with the devil.

I wish this were not so. In recent years, some of the nation’s most respected environmentalists—including Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog—have come to champion nuclear power. But as Japanese engineers struggle frantically to keep calamity from escalating into catastrophe, we cannot ignore the fact that nuclear fission is an inherently and uniquely toxic technology.

The cascading sequence of system failures, partial meltdowns and hydrogen explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was touched off by a once-in-a-lifetime event: the most powerful earthquake in Japan’s recorded history, which triggered a tsunami of unimaginable destructive force. It is also true that the Fukushima reactors are of an older design, and that it is possible to engineer nuclear plants that would never suffer similar breakdowns.

But it is also true that there is no such thing as a fail-safe system. Stuff happens.

The Earth is alive with tectonic movement, volcanism, violent weather. We try our best to predict these phenomena, but our best calculations are probabilistic and thus imprecise. We have computers that are as close to infallible as we can imagine, but the data they produce must ultimately be interpreted by human intelligence. When a crisis does occur, experts must make quick decisions under enormous pressure; usually they’re right, sometimes they’re wrong.

The problem with nuclear fission is that the stakes are unimaginably high. We can engineer nuclear power plants so that the chance of a Chernobyl-style disaster is almost nil. But we can’t eliminate it completely—nor can we envision every other kind of potential disaster. And where fission reactors are concerned, the worst-case scenario is so dreadful as to be unthinkable.

Engineers at the Fukushima plant are struggling to avert a wholesale release of deadly radiation, which is the inherent risk of any fission reactor. In the Chernobyl incident, a cloud of radioactive smoke and steam spread contamination across hundreds of square miles; even after 25 years, a 20-mile radius around the ruined plant remains off-limits and uninhabitable. Studies have estimated that the release of radioactivity from Chernobyl has caused at least 6,000 excess cases of thyroid cancer, and scientists expect more cancers to develop in the years to come.

It seems unlikely that the Fukushima crisis will turn into another Chernobyl, if only because there is a good chance that prevailing winds would blow any radioactive cloud out to sea. Japanese authorities seem to be making all the right decisions. Yet even in a nation with safety standards and technological acumen that are second to none, look at what they’re up against—and how little margin for error they have to work with.

At first, the focus was on the Unit 1 reactor and the struggle to keep the nuclear fuel rods immersed in water—which is necessary, at all times, to avoid a full meltdown and a catastrophic release of radiation. Pumping sea water into the reactor vessel seemed to stabilize the situation, despite a hydrogen explosion—indicating a partial meltdown—that blew the roof off the reactor’s outer containment building.

But then, attention shifted to Unit 3, which may have had a worse partial meltdown; it, too, experienced a hydrogen explosion. Officials said they believed they were stabilizing that reactor but acknowledged that it was hard to be sure. Meanwhile, what could be the most crucial failure of all was happening in Unit 2, whose fuel rods were fully exposed. Scientists had no immediate way of knowing how much of that reactor’s fuel had melted—or what the consequences might be.

The best-case scenario is that Japanese engineers will eventually get the plant under control. Then, I suppose, it will be possible to conclude that ultimately the system worked. As President Obama and Congress move forward with a new generation of nuclear plants, designs will be vetted and perhaps altered. We will be confident that we have taken the lessons of Fukushima into account.

And we will be fooling ourselves, because the one inescapable lesson of Fukushima is that improbable does not mean impossible. Unlikely failures can combine to bring any nuclear fission reactor to the brink of disaster. It can happen here.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group


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LocalHero's avatar

By LocalHero, May 7, 2011 at 7:55 am Link to this comment

It’s beyond tragic that the only country that has seen
the horror of the atom used against it, was sold such a
shoddy, bill-of-goods by the quacks in the nuclear
power industry.

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By Maani, March 17, 2011 at 11:54 am Link to this comment


Hi.  Re Yucca Mt. (not, as we have been saying, Yucca Flats), note that it was one of three sites for which studies were done by the NAS; i.e., the Yucca Mt. study was not done in a vacuum, as an exclusive site.  However, as the studies went forward, it became clear fairly early that Yucca Mt. was going to be the “preferred” site of the three, for quite a number of geologic, seismologic, hydrologic and other reasons.

Again, I certainly understand that one cannot account for every possible (however unlikely) contingency. But Yucca Mt. satisfied the requirements of all likely contingencies, and then some.


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By C.Curtis.Dillon, March 17, 2011 at 9:00 am Link to this comment

The Blog Fodder:

Where in Ukraine are you? I’m in Simferopol.

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By C.Curtis.Dillon, March 17, 2011 at 5:31 am Link to this comment


Well, maybe you’re in a better position than I am but that’s what I was told by friends in Los Alamos. I have no problem with putting nuclear waste underground but we need to find the best place to put it. Not sure about Yucca Flats anymore but it may be the best option given we no longer have the time to find anything else. Yucca has been under development for a long time and any other option will require similar study.

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By DaVinciCodex, March 16, 2011 at 8:02 pm Link to this comment

Sorry pro-Nukies.
You’re willfully blind or hopelessly ignorant or just plain evil. No matter how many degrees, DoE resume items or ‘Get Yer Facts Straight’ scolds you pull out of your egos.

Some of us actually worked in the industry, shilling for more nuclear plant construction (“To Save the Environment” of course. Praise duh lord and fissile U238).

Some of us were blacklisted for blowing the BIG whistle, before our employers blew up our state, province or region.

Some of us did forensic audits of nuclear units for fraud/ racketeering cases.

Some of us know what really happened at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl Unit 4 (and dozens of other nuclear plant screw ups that never hit lamestream media or your attention).

**We are the filthy hippies with those NUCLEAR IS NOT THE ANSWER protest signs.**

Fatal Screw Ups—from willful fraud or plain ole human error—is the DEFAULT MODE for this form of energy generation. And that was Eugene Robinson’s whole radon-decay-daughter point.

So, keep yammering about the uniqueness of each nuclear plant disaster. (What’s doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results?? Oh, yeah: Insanity.)

Keep blubbering that TMI wasn’t so bad awful after all. And Chernobyl Unit 4 was a whole different kinda technology—built by Bulgarians and Russkies, no less. (Whaddya expect from them?)

Do keep splitting armpit hairs over the bedrock suitability of Yucca Mountain for nuclear waste disposal. (Ever heard of WIPP—Waste Isolation Pilot Project—in those supremely suitable 20,000 year old salt formations in New Mexico? Now THAT’S a showstopper.)

Keep reaching for that Big Strange, that Unique Situation. And sleep well, dear children.

Here’s what one of us, the forensic utility auditor, said about those critical emergency cooling pump diesel generators at Fukushima that totally and utterly failed when needed:

“These safety back-up systems are the ‘EDGs’ in nuke-speak: Emergency Diesel Generators. That they didn’t work in an emergency is like a fire department telling us they couldn’t save a building because ‘it was on fire.’”


“When we checked the emergency back-up diesels in America, a mind-blowing number flunked.” “The (emergency) tests were faked ...” “We nicknamed the diesels, ‘Snap, Crackle and Pop.’”


“More likely is that the diesels and related systems wouldn’t have worked on a fine, dry afternoon.”

About that last item—So much for those odd ones here who repeat: But but but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime tsunami what done it!! What are the odds? What are the odds?

You forgot about the Default Screw-Up Mode and/or Fraud. Please work out the odds for you never dying. (Op Cit: Faust)

The forensic auditor posted in Truthout / Buzzflash
The no-BS info on Japan’s disastrous nuclear 0ps
by Greg Palast March 14, 2011
Or see:

I think the More Nukes! More Nukes! comments showing up at sites like this come from Nuclear Industry PR Front Groups or their Useful Tools.

See how they work in PR Watch’s
“Moore Spin: Or, How Reporters Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Nuclear Front Groups”
By Diane Farsetta

See how they work thru Useful Tools like the Glen The Insane Beck-ster:

“Glenn Beck Laughs at Worries about Japanese Nuclear Disaster; Dismisses Concerns as Soros Propaganda”

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By Maani, March 16, 2011 at 2:14 pm Link to this comment


I said, “Thus, while Chernobyl was a unique situation, ANY core meltdown will have the same catastrophic effect, no matter what type of reactor it happens at.”

You said, “I don’t think that’s quite true, Three Mile Island was a meltdown situation, by Chernobyl standards TMI was not a catastrophe.”

The difference is that Chernobyl had no containment vessel, so the explosions caused a direct exposure of (and probably actual damage to) the core.  At TMI, although the core had melted down about 70%, the containment vessel held, and little if any radioactivity was released.


“It would really help if some of you would do a little research before sticking you foot in it. The concern at Yucca Flats is over the possibility that ground water will be drawn to the hot salt (heated by residual heat from the still decaying nuclear waste), will corrode the metal containers and release the waste into the ground water where it will migrate to populated areas…So scientists (you guys know them ... those pesky geeks who keep messing up the hysteria with stupid and stubborn facts) have been expressing concerns that Yucca Flats may not be as good a place as originally thought.”

Poppycock.  As it happens, my mother, a pre-eminent structural geologist and former nuclear plant site specialist for the NRC and DOE, coordinated the Yucca Flats study at the NAS.  The NAS panel - which included geologists, seismologists, and others, including arguably the foremost hydrologist in the world - was unanimous in its recommendation of Yucca Flats, and rejected the ground water scenario.

In this regard, the two or three non-panel scientists who harped on the ground water charge were either paid by Big Energy (in the case of the “loudest” of them) and/or did not have degrees in relevant fields.

Obviously, as we see in Japan, no plan can account for EVERY possible exigency.  But the science FULLY AND COMPLETELY backs up the Yucca Flats site.  It was derailed by the equivalent of climate change deniers.


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By The Blog Fodder, March 16, 2011 at 1:43 pm Link to this comment

I too live in Ukraine and agree with much that C. Curtis Dillon has said about Chernobyl.  Tourists are allowed in for very limited times, some people still live there and the landscape has “recovered”, though the jury is still out on the animals and birds.
The death toll mainly from thyroid cancer is never going to be known for sure. 250,000 seems a bit high but “it ain’t over till it’s over”.  Some of the cancers could have been mitigated with iodine treatment, I think.  Certainly food from the area (zone 4) is being sold but is checked first.  Kyiv actually received more radiation than many of the areas in Zone 4 as the “cloud” blew over them.
No electricity source is without risk, as the author points out.  The risk problem of nuclear generators is calculated by multiplying the probability (miniscule to none) with the consequences (too horrific to imagine). Compared with the environmental damage of coal, in mining, and burning (whether you believe in AGW or not) nuclear energy is pretty clean in the short run. We need better storage facilities for so-called spent fuel rods or better yet, learn how to recycle them.

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By reynolds, March 16, 2011 at 1:22 pm Link to this comment

“What did I say that was wrong?”. you’re the only one
pretending confusion. you only say the same stupid
shit. eunuch.
have you been hovering around harrisburg for the last
thirty years, steeped in research, really? the most
offensive shit you say is when you’re pretending to be
your half wit has half lives.

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By prosefights, March 16, 2011 at 10:22 am Link to this comment

The US apparently imports about 93% of the uranium it consumes, we read.

Most currently comes from decomissioned former USSR nuclear warheads, we read.

Post on EnergyPulse informed us on Tuesday March 15, 2011 that this source of import is to end in 2012.

So nuclear pollution problems may diminish in the US?

Uranium is a good source of BTUs for generation of electricity.  More than twice 3412.14163 BTU = 1 kWh are required [Heat Rate] even for nuclear generation of electricity, we read on PNM electric IRP foil.

From: “Donald Frederick Fournier” .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
To: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Cc: “Ben Joseph Sliwinski” .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Sent: Monday, November 23, 2009 8:59:53 AM GMT -07:00 US/Canada Mountain
Subject: RE: btu/pound of uranium

It gets a little complex, but on the issue of 900,000,000 vs 35,000,000,000. The larger number is just for U235. A typical power reactor is mostly U238. The U235 is about 2.5% of the original fuel load. This may explain the difference in the numbers. Also, all reactors breed a bit so some of the U238 is changed to plutonium (Pu239) and some of that fissions to provide a significant percentage of the energy from a typical power reactor.

Hope this helps.

Donald Fournier
Chair, Building Research Council
Program Manager, SEDAC
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
(217) 265-0681
(800) 214-7954

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rico, suave's avatar

By rico, suave, March 16, 2011 at 9:16 am Link to this comment


What did I say that was wrong? “Some plants” are 40 years old. OK, so what? How old are the Fukushima plants? Are they built to safer standards than Chernobyl? Do you know?

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By RightPaddock, March 16, 2011 at 8:46 am Link to this comment

Maani, March 15 at 11:37 pm wrote

You wrote “Thus, while Chernobyl was a unique situation, ANY core meltdown will have the same catastrophic effect, no matter what type of reactor it happens at.”

I don’t think that’s quite true, Three Mile Island was a meltdown situation, by Chernobyl standards TMI was not a catastrophe.


John, March 15 at 5:19 pm wrote

“it wasn’t the earthquake that did in the plants in
japan it was the tidal wave. That’s what knocked out
the back up generators. Arm yourselves with facts not

No disagreements, but how come the batteries and control rooms and the people survived the tsumani.  The backup generators are just as critical to the operation of a nuclear power station as the batteries & people.

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By C.Curtis.Dillon, March 16, 2011 at 8:12 am Link to this comment

It would really help if some of you would do a little research before sticking you foot in it. The concern at Yucca Flats is over the possibility that ground water will be drawn to the hot salt (heated by residual heat from the still decaying nuclear waste), will corrode the metal containers and release the waste into the ground water where it will migrate to populated areas. This concern exists because these radioactive containers need to be stored for many thousands of years. We’re not talking about a few weeks here. Things have to be stable for a long ,long time. So scientists (you guys know them ... those pesky geeks who keep messing up the hysteria with stupid and stubborn facts) have been expressing concerns that Yucca Flats may not be as good a place as originally thought. That’s why we can’t find one mountain to store this stuff in. But, if one of you geniuses wants to volunteer to store these radioactive containers in your back yard ... hey, I’m sure someone at DOE or EPA will want to hear from you.

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By surfnow, March 16, 2011 at 7:49 am Link to this comment

Nuclear power was beginning to look like a panacea—a way to lessen our dependence on oil, make our energy supply more self-sufficient and significantly mitigate global warming…

Really ?  A panacea?  Who was thinking that? Robinson is such an obnoxious “liberal”  Chris Hedges is right about liberalism and what it has done to the political discourse. Four decades ago the radical left was predicting the dangers here- but did anyone listen? Of course not. They were just ” kooks”. Look at all of the dangers that the left warned about years ago- and they are coming to fruition.

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By Ching-Ching, March 16, 2011 at 7:00 am Link to this comment

There seems to be a built in fear that goes with nuclear power and it is understandable. However, we need to ask ourselves what are the alternatives. It is clean, it is efficient and yes it is relatively safe. Far more people have died in car accidents than have died from accidents in nuclear power plants. Yes there is a heavy toll on the environment when an accident does occur but there has been far more of an impact on the environment from coal mining. The key I think is to find ways to make it even safer and the problem in Japan will help to raise an awareness. It’s just unfortunate that it always takes a catastrophe to wake up the legislators.

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By pundaint, March 16, 2011 at 6:21 am Link to this comment

Is America fearful because we are stupid, or are we stupid because we fear. 

An honest argument would use more comparisons between our energy alternatives.  But we’re talking public policy here and there’s no room for that. 

Scare everybody over to one side so you can lead them more easily.

We are literally plowing away mountains going after coal, and we can’t designate just one mountain to keep standing to store our nuclear waste?

How is one mountain to special to be used for nukes, but twenty mountains can be leveled for coal?  Wont somebody think of the mountains?

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By C.Curtis.Dillon, March 16, 2011 at 6:03 am Link to this comment

One other point: everywhere I see this phrase ... “Chernobyl was a graphite cooled reactor”

Chernobyl, and a host of similar reactors throughout the former Soviet sphere, was a graphite moderated, water cooled reactor. The explosion that destroyed the reactor in Chernobyl was a steam explosion brought on by a massive spike in heat production when the operator stupidly removed too many control rods from the core and it had a massive power surge. A second explosion was of unknown origin but lifted the massive cover from the reactor and started the fires. There is a low power instability flaw in all Soviet graphite moderated reactors which contributed to the disaster. And, those who say that kind of explosion is not possible anymore are unaware that many of those Soviet era graphite reactors are still running throughout Eastern Europe. Another Chernobyl is a definite possibility.

What all of you fail to understand is the major cause of radiation spread is fire ... hot air and contaminated particulate matter rising from the fire carries the radiation into the upper atmosphere where it is distributed far and wide by the prevailing winds. Fire, although somewhat less likely in a water cooled reactor, is not impossible as we see in Japan. If there is a containment breach in Japan and an accompanying fire, the overall effect could be much the same as Chernobyl. Graphite burning (and there are many scientific types who argue that the pure graphite used in these reactors will not burn no matter how hot it gets) only produced the heat and ash which pushed the radioactive cloud higher. There was nothing special about the graphite that made the disaster worse. It was the fire that did the damage.

And one final comment: someone here mentioned that they are conducting tours on the dead zone. That’s true. The government wants to make some money off the disaster (how wonderful is that idea). But visiting the zone for a few hours isn’t the same as living there. Some people do live in the zone but they are old and don’t care if the radiation kills them. It’s their home! The government has given up trying to drive them out.

And, there was some die off of vegetation and even animals in the zone but limited to the immediate area around the stricken plant. There was never a dead moonscape. Most trees and other plants simply absorbed the radiation into their wood and kept growing. However, they seem to be much better adapted to radiation exposure than most animals. I wouldn’t want to eat any food raised in the zone.

I suggest anyone who wants a reasonably sane presentation of what happened at Chernobyl should read the wikipedia entry. It’s not a hysterical rant but a reasoned analysis of what happened and what the after effects were.

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By C.Curtis.Dillon, March 16, 2011 at 4:41 am Link to this comment

I always love it when Rico shows up. Makes my day when he puts his foot in it. Sounds so like a conservative. Find that one example where nothing bad happened and use it as the worst that can happen. The plants in Japan are up to 40 years old. Several represent the first generation of GE reactors. They are definitely neanderthals and the fact that 4 of them are having serious problems in an indication that there is something seriously wrong with the technology.

I happen to live in Ukraine and Chernobyl casts a huge shadow over this country as well as Belarus. There is a 30 mile radius exclusion zone around that reactor and it will remain in place for years to come. The cost of maintaining that still radioactive pile of graphite is staggering and they are now working to build an even bigger containment structure because the original one is failing. We are constantly worried because some crooks have been slaughtering cattle from the zone and selling the meat which is filled with heavy metals and somewhat radioactive. I’ll tell you what Rico ... come to Ukraine and I’ll see if I can get you a guided tour of the radioactive rubble. I’m told you can spend up to 15 minutes in there before your radiation limit is reached. Come see the miracle of nuclear power. It’s great I can assure you.

The great risk of nuclear energy is the far reaching impact it has. 2 opposite examples of what I mean. In the 70’ a huge gas fired power plant in New Mexico’s 4-corners area blew up, destroying the plant and causing damage (broken windows mostly) miles from the epicenter. Locals said it was like a small nuclear explosion. The damage was confined to a small area around the plant. Obviously those working in the plant didn’t survive. But the damage was limited to the immediate vicinity around the plant. Second example, Chernobyl. The radioactive cloud circled the globe and they found radioactive reindeer in Scandinavia and sheep in Scotland. The plant was destroyed but the town, which lay within eyeshot, was not damaged at all. People continued their daily routine even as the reactor burned. A guy fishing in the cooling pond not 100 feet from the building was not hurt by the explosion. And yet the aftermath of the disaster still haunts this country 25 years later. The father of a friend of my wife was there, fighting the fires, and he has long-term health problems caused by radiation exposure. We have hundreds of young people suffering from thyroid cancer caused by the radioactive iodine they ingested from cow’s milk. The number of people who’s lives have been destroyed by that disaster is unfathomable. But we have Rico telling us its all being overblown. The resident expert in nothing has proclaimed everything OK so we should relax. I feel so much better!

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By Maani, March 15, 2011 at 9:50 pm Link to this comment


Good comment re Chernobyl.  In fact, scientists have been absolutely astounded at how quickly the area began to support plant life again: literally decades quicker than was assumed.

Of course, this does not mitigate the deaths caused by the Chernobyl accident, which range from 10,000 (direct) to almost half a million.  Ironically, a new study was released on the number of people who have died or othrewise been affected by Chernobyl (cancers, radiation poisoning, etc.) just two months prior to the Japanese quake.  The newest study claims a figure of 250,000.


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By RightPaddock, March 15, 2011 at 8:34 pm Link to this comment

ROBINSON - “In the Chernobyl incident, a cloud of radioactive smoke and steam spread contamination across hundreds of square miles; even after 25 years, a 20-mile radius around the ruined plant remains off-limits and uninhabitable.”

Rubbish, you can take a tour to Chernobyl ==>>

Hydro-electric power generation has killed more people than nuclear power generation.  In 1975, the Banqiao hydroelectric dam in China collapsed during a typhoon, which caused several other dams downstream to collapse.  The dam collapses killed 26,000 people; another 145,000 deaths were caused indirectly due to disease and famine created by the disaster - total 171,000.

That’s about the same number that died as a result of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.

What I don’t understand about Fukushima is why the motor generator sets didn’t have the same level of protection that the battery backup, control rooms etc appear to have had.  How come they were knocked out by the tsunami wave. AFAIK no one at Fukushima was killed by the wave, so they must had protection.

I can’t help thinking that if the engineers had had a better power supply then they might have been able to control the situation better.

Right now the 50 guys working at Fukushima are the bravest people on this planet - true heroes.  They should all get a Nobel Peace Prize, lets hope & pray that they won’t have to be awarded posthumously.

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By Maani, March 15, 2011 at 7:37 pm Link to this comment


Thank you so much for your perfectly reasoned and stated post!  Some of your points are worth elaborating upon.

First, few people here seem to know anything about geology.  Japan is NOT on a fault: Japan is situated almost directly on the subduction zone of two tectonic plates.  When the plate on which Japan sits “subduces” under the plate next to it, earthquakes occur.  Faults (most of which are called strike-slip faults) are a COMPLETELY different thing: the San Andreas is a classic strike-slip fault.  In those cases, the two “sides” of the fault can “slip” or “slide” past each other, causing earthquakes.  Ultimately, you are correct: there is NO place on the Japanese islands that would be safe to place a nuclear reactor vis-a-vis earthquakes.

Second, beautifully put re planes vs. nukes: if a large plane crashes, perhaps 400 will die, and it will usually not affect an area of more than a mile or two in each direction.  If a nuke has a “significant event” (which does not have to be a complete core meltdown), the release of radiation can affect hundreds, perhaps thousands of people within a given radius.  And I haven’t even addressed the issue of the devastation of a total core meltdown - or radioactive waste products.

Third, rico is not entirely correct about Chernobyl.  All nuclear power plants have the same materials in their cores; thus, a core is a core, and a meltdown is a meltdown.  The only difference at Chernobyl is that it was a graphite-cooled reactor rather than a water-cooled reactor.  In this regard, in addition to the radioactive plume that was created by the core meltdown, you had an ADDITIONAL toxic plume of burning graphite.  Thus, while Chernobyl was a unique situation, ANY core meltdown will have the same catastrophic effect, no matter what type of reactor it happens at.

Finally, unmentioned in the posts here is the spent nuclear fuel “cooling pools.”  Right now, there is evidence that at least one of these pools has lost its coolant, and that some of the fuel rods are burning.  One of the elements in these rods is plutonium.  [N.B. The fuel in these rods is called “mox fuel,” which is an combination of plutonium oxide and uranium oxide.]  Needless to say, if plutonium is released, it is far deadlier in far less concentrations than cesium or iodine.

While it is wrong for some media outlets to be hyping this accident for ratings, it would be just as irresponsible to downplay the very real dangers - dangers which are clearly getting worse, not better.


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By WriterOnTheStorm, March 15, 2011 at 6:43 pm Link to this comment

There’s no such thing as risk-free power. Period.

It’s fun to fantasize about getting enough energy for the billions of people on
the planet from the wind or from the sun. We’re just not there yet. In the
meantime our choices come down to fossil fuels, with certain but slow death to
the planet as a result. Or nuclear, cleaner, but with a chance for catastrophic

It’s important to note that over the long term, such catastrophic failure may or
may not cost more in human terms than the alternatives. Nobody knows, and
anyone who claims they do is giving you a sales pitch. But we are certain about
the poisonous effects of oil and coal, right?

In the meantime, the strange bedfellows of progressives and coal industry shills
use fear and the shock doctrine to push an anti-nuclear agenda. This
unfortunately puts the brakes on our making a commitment to research in
safer, cleaner, and cheaper technologies like Thorium as a nuclear fuel.

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By slowwriter, March 15, 2011 at 6:21 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

If nuclear power is so safe, why is there Price-Anderson?  Actuarial science seems
not to share in the enthusiasms of nuclear power advocates.

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By TDoff, March 15, 2011 at 5:25 pm Link to this comment

Right on, Eugene!

‘Course, there is No Such Thing as Risk-Free Life, either. So we’re all in the same boat, gotta take our chances.

‘Spose ‘god’ planned it that way?

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Lafayette's avatar

By Lafayette, March 15, 2011 at 3:50 pm Link to this comment

World Earthquake Map

This map helps understand the challenge of using Nuclear Energy. It is not Mission Impossible.

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By vote, March 15, 2011 at 3:13 pm Link to this comment

What would you say if people died from radiation while mining uranium? 
What about the many thousands who have died and will die mining coal? 
You set up a false utopia and try to push that naive dream as a general
belief.  It isn’t.  People like you who are irrationaly afraid need to calm down
and stop spreading your fears.  You are prrobably a bigger threat to
human life than the thing you are afraid of.  Look up the facts and use
objectivity for your benefit and the benefit of others, please.

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By Bacilo de Koch, March 15, 2011 at 3:08 pm Link to this comment

Nukes refers to nuclear weapons, which I doubt many sane people would want
more of.

Nuclear power for the generation of electricity has nothing to do with nuclear

Two separate issues.

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By TDoff, March 15, 2011 at 2:47 pm Link to this comment

The spread of radiation throughout Japan is providing an unexpected boon for the vast army of US poor folks and the unemployed. The price of Kobe beef is dropping so fast that gourmet Kobe beef-burgers, which have been going for $100 and up, will soon be available at Mickey D’s for 39 cents.

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By therese, March 15, 2011 at 1:54 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

No Nukes is Good Nukes.

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By Ed, March 15, 2011 at 1:43 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The past ten months have given a glimpse of what’s ahead for humans and their environment. Whether it’s a massive oil spill or accidental radioactive fallout or even the theoretical grey goo scenario, humans are going to continue to foul the environment until the resources run out. Last week Chris Hedges’ analogy to Easter Island was spot-on. The Khmer Rouge couldn’t force the clock backwards in Cambodia, the People’s Republic of China could not resist the capitalist model and the majority of humans will never relinquish the desire for new, shiny objects until they are literally starving.

It’s quite shocking that a single species can have such an impact on Earth’s environment but it has happened before - at least once - around three billion years ago.

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By Mike, March 15, 2011 at 1:27 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

All engineered systems operate only within their design conditions.  For example, massive floods occur occasionally because storm runoff design is based on the 25-year storm.  When the 50 or 100-year storm occurs, it is known and expected that the system won’t handle the volume and catastrophe can occur.  But the 25-year storm remains the design basis based on some type of cost/benefit analysis. 

Similary, nuclear faciliities designed for a 7.5 earthquake cannot be expected to hold up when a 9 earthquake hits.  Obviously, the consequences of not designing nuclear facilities to a stricter design standard can be more catastrophic than the flooding example.

If nuclear plants will be part of the future the lesson here should be more conservative (and expensive) design against earthquake events, including retrofitting of existing plants.

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By John, March 15, 2011 at 1:19 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

it wasn’t the earthquake that did in the plants in
japan it was the tidal wave. That’s what knocked out
the back up generators. Arm yourselves with facts not

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By Bacilo de Koch, March 15, 2011 at 12:59 pm Link to this comment

When you compare the environmental impact per MegaWatt produced, nuclear
power is by far, and I mean by orders of magnitude, cleaner and safer than
anything else we are doing.

Hydro power kills salmon.  Wind power takes huge swaths of land and litters
them with hideous turbines, and still produces near zilch in usable power. 
Likewise with solar.  And please don’t try to tell me that there is such a thing as
CLEAN coal.

The fact that a nuclear power plant can withstand a 9.0 earthquake safely, if
anything, should serve as a reinforcement of the concept.  And yes, I did say
withstand safely.  Despite the media’s best attempts at scaring you into
believing that those explosions are somehow a mushroom cloud, they are not. 
The safety design of the plants worked more or less as designed.  Sure, those
reactors will not work again because they were destroyed in the process, but
that is because this was an F’ing 9.0 earthquake.  See how your house fairs in
such a thing.

If you are a TRUE environmentalist, you will realize that nuclear power is exactly
what we need.  Those of you that want to litter the countryside with windmills
in the name of environmentalism are not only ignorant, but just following a
green trend to make yourselves feel better.

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By TDoff, March 15, 2011 at 12:36 pm Link to this comment

There is yet another bright side to this Japanese nuclear disaster. US energy needs are about to decline precipitously. Our use of coal and oil shale and imports of petroleum from the middle east will drop significantly, just as soon as the jet stream from Fukushima hits the west coast, and the United States begins it’s 300-year cycle of glowing in the dark.

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By MD, March 15, 2011 at 12:27 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“Japan made a mistake in placing its nuclear energy plants too close to seismic faults.” 
....I suppose they made the mistake of putting their entire country too close to a seismic fault.

“The chances of another Chernobyl are close to zero. NOT ZERO, but close.”
.... exactly, not zero and when, not if, there is a disaster, that land and water is contaminated for countless generations.

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By MD, March 15, 2011 at 12:20 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It’s simple. Bury the nuclear waste in some third world country, like Nevada. It will be hundreds of years before it starts to seriously contaminate the land and the water and the people.  If there is a meltdown, well, just move far enough away that you are able to block it out and then point to the fact that other reactors have yet to inflict horrific death and suffering.  By the time anyone fully realizes the stupidity, greed and lack of foresight required by humans in order to pursue nuclear energy, well, we will be long gone. So long suckers.

Heavyrunner is right “They are a moral crime against all future generations.”

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By aacme88, March 15, 2011 at 10:00 am Link to this comment

If this tragedy would finally put a stake in the heart of nuclear power, it would have a silver lining for sure.
Think about all the crisis, all the leaked radiation, the astonishing costs, and the out and out danger, that Japan is dealing with now over this power plant, as if they didn’t already have enough on their plate.
All this to boil water. Nuclear power doesn’t somehow go through the wires and light up your house, or magically through some hightech process called “fission” get turned into electricity to flow through the lines. This is a steam generator, hooked to the most complicated, dangerous, and expensive boiler ever devised.
Right. All that space age technology is there to boil water. That’s it.
There is a concept of design known as elegance. One of the precepts of design elegance is that the thing be designed in the simplest manner possible to neatly perform the task. If the task is to boil water, it would be hard to come up with a context in which nuclear fission is the simplest way to accomplish it. In fact, it would be hard to come up with a context in which nuclear fission isn’t the most complicated way to do it.

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By Jim Yell, March 15, 2011 at 9:54 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Once again no nothings tot the safety of a very un-safe technology. I see above someone mentioning “where are the deaths”, well there are poisons that kill immediately and there are poisons that kill slowly, sometimes over years.

Nuclear creates radioactive waste that can not be contained and is a more immediate threat than a breakdown in a reactor, but we can’t even afford one break down in a reactor as the radioactive waste created is deadly for hundreds, even thousands of years. The record shows that the storage facilites for these wastes are doing a very poor job of containment. As the technology is right now THERE IS NO SAFE NUCLEAR POWER. Perhaps an answer will be found in the future, but we are fools if we create huge amounts of radioactive waste with the inadequate containment we currently have, that we are currently able to build. NO NUKES.

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By rico, suave, March 15, 2011 at 9:48 am Link to this comment


California wants to build a big solar farm in the Mojave Desert. The Sierra Club has halted the project because ten, TEN, “endangered” Desert Tortoises live on the 4600 acres plotted for the project. The farm would have powered hundreds of thousands of homes.

What is the real agenda of progressive environmentalism? I think Big B got it right- a return to the 17th century, where everybody, except the king, is EQUAL. Miserable and poor, but equal.

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By rico, suave, March 15, 2011 at 9:39 am Link to this comment

Thanks Lafayette.

How many people have died as a result of the Japanese “nuclear disaster” so far?

How many people died as a result of the Three Mile Island “disaster”? Zero.

“It seems unlikely that the Fukushima crisis will turn into another Chernobyl, if only because… winds would blow any radioactive cloud out to sea.”

No, Gene. The crisis will not be like Chernobyl. Compared to Chernobyl, a Model-T, Fukushima, old as it is, is a Ferrari. Chernobyl was designed terribly and operated incompetently because it’s communist builders didn’t give a damn about the safety of workers in the workers’ paradise. (By the way, what was/is the equivalent Soviet/Russian version of the NRC, EPA, OSHA?)

No nuclear power plant running today is capable of detonating like a nuclear bomb. No nuclear accident, at least in the West will result in anything like the Bhopal chemical disaster in India. The chances of another Chernobyl are close to zero. NOT ZERO, but close.

This argument has been hashed out before. Every time there’s a nuclear power plant accident, the call goes out from the luddite left to ban the technology completely.

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By Linda, March 15, 2011 at 8:47 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Oh, Lafayette. It is hard for me to sit here just two hours from the potential
meltdown, in the possibly direct path of any radioactive cloud that may be
released, and read your comments.

1) “Japan made a mistake in placing its nuclear energy plants too close to
seismic faults.”

Japan IS a giant seismic fault. There are so many faults on these islands that
any nuclear plant was an accident waiting to happen. The fact that Japan is very
concerned with safety and has excellent engineering that has set up a variety of
safeguards to protect the plants and people simply postponed the inevitable,
because over the years, there have been other problems at other plants. Just
last year, I think it was, there was an accident at a plant on the Inland sea that
was also the result of an earthquake.

2) “When a 747 comes down with the loss of 200/300 lives, do journalists get
hot under the neck and start suggesting that commercial airliner flights are “too
risky”. Let’s all take the train?”

While horribly tragic, it is hard to compare a crashed 747 and a nuclear
meltdown. To put it simply, if a plane crashes 200 miles away from my house
here in Japan, my family and I are not affected. In about 2 hours, I will go to bed
wondering if when I wake up my whole world will be endangered. Please don’t
simplify a very complicated issue.

3) “It also constructed those plants to resist an earthquake of a level of half that
which occurred - because there was no historical record of an earthquake
beyond 4/5 on the Richter Scale.”

This is just factually inaccurate. While this earthquake was unprecedented in
Japan, the country and the coastal seabed (which is where many of the quakes
occur) regularly has earthquakes with magnitude greater than the 4 or 5 you
mention. It is insulting and dangerous that you would post this kind of

I think the thing that most angers me about your post is that people like you
accept the spin that proponents of dangerous technologies spout. Maybe there
was a time when nuclear energy was a viable alternative (I never believed it
was, but it was a fair argument and discussion to have), but the idea that
alternative energies can not replace them is ludicrous. It is only true now in
time because powerful interests have done everything they can to prevent
investment and research into those alternatives. But devoted people have kept
at it, and some day, when enough damage has been done and the powers that
be that would put people like me and my family and millions of other people in
danger so that they can earn a few more dollars can no longer spin their
dangerous words to a largely naive public, then maybe, we will have cleaner and
safer alternatives. I hope my children will be around to see that.

I hope you remain safe and secure wherever you are in the world, and that you
never have to go to bed at night wondering what your world is going to be like
when you wake up in the morning. Thanks to people like you, I don’t have that

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By Big B, March 15, 2011 at 8:33 am Link to this comment

heavyrunner brings up a very important and valid point, and that is we need to build our 21st century energy infrastucture (and all other infrastructure for that matter) while we still have usable petroleum at our disposal at a (relatively) low cost.
(well, the cost has already been paid, actually. It cost us our stable climate and our current way of life)But that’s water over the dam now, eh?

If we don’t hustle to build a new energy delivery infrastucture, we will de-evolve. Welcome back 17th century! We missed ye!

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By heavyrunner, March 15, 2011 at 7:08 am Link to this comment

Anyone who defends nuclear power reactors is uninformed and deluded. They are a moral crime against all future generations. The toxic products of nuclear fission are immutable and satanically deadly.

Enough solar energy strikes the surface of the Earth each day to power the entire planetary economy for 800 years (Gore 2010). We have enough fossil fuel remaining to build the necessary infrastructure to power a modern economy with renewable resources.

Let’s not contaminate the planet with nuclear poisons. Let’s build a clean and healthy future.

Nuke the GOP!

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By RHONDA, March 15, 2011 at 5:49 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Who said this earthquake is a “once in a lifetime” event?  Here in Alaska we had a 9.2 in 1964.  Although scientists say they cannot predict earthquakes, we have
heard we are overdue for another big one.  I have been reading US nuclear plants can withstand 7.5 earthquakes.

That doesn’t nearly cut it.  And that’s only one good reason to call the whole thing off….

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By Lafayette, March 15, 2011 at 4:52 am Link to this comment


ER: No Such Thing as Risk-Free Nuclear Power

There is no such thing as Risk-Free Anything.

When a 747 comes down with the loss of 200/300 lives, do journalists get hot under the neck and start suggesting that commercial airliner flights are “too risky”. Let’s all take the train?

Well, accept this fact: For the value given in terms of production of the amounts of energy necessary for economy, nuclear energy is a great value. It has its risks, yes. So does driving your car everyday - but who is prepared to walk or take a bike or the bus?

We live in a world full of risks. For instance, the fact that the US uses fossile-fuels makes it one of the worst CO2 emitters in the world. This translates indirectly (not directly like Chernobyl) into hundreds if not thousands of deaths over a decade.

Anyone boiling over as regards CO2 emissions? (The answer is yes, but not in America.) Why is there no railing against fossil-fuel energy plants in the US? Any answers out there amongst our PC-pundits?


We are barking up the wrong tree. Japan made a mistake in placing its nuclear energy plants too close to seismic faults. It also constructed those plants to resist an earthquake of a level of half that which occurred - because there was no historical record of an earthquake beyond 4/5 on the Richter Scale.

That does not mean we need not take the same risk with nuclear energy. We need to build them to withstand earthquakes according to their geographical emplacement.

Do you know how many earthquakes there are in the US every week? How about the last three days? Data from US Geographic Service (Magnitude on a scale of 7):
* 15 March
** Puerto Rico (2.5 & 3)
** Kodiak Island (2.7)
14 March
** Kodiak Island (2.9)
** Arkansas (2.6)
13 March
** Arkansas (2.5)
** Western Texas ((2.6)
** Southern Alaska (2.7)

Need I go on ... ?


We live with geographic hazards wherever we are. And yet mankind has, more or less, survived them. Not without loss of life or serious injury, but at least without the hysteria that prevails today in the media.

Let’s hope cooler heads prevail on the matter of ecological policy, including its benefits and dangers. We MUST get rid of fossil-fuel fired energy plants and we NEED nuclear energy to do so.

We can plant windmill electricity generators across the American landscape (every square inch of it) and it still will not be sufficient to meet our present and future energy needs. Which is not intended to mean that we should not build windmill farms. Of course we should.

It does mean that we have our collective heads so far up our collective backsides over the Economy that other equally as important national objectives don’t even get a nod.

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By Miko, March 15, 2011 at 4:40 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Idiotic.  Nuclear is more efficient and hence
requires fewer plants.  The risk from an individual
plant may be slightly higher, but the overall risk is
significantly smaller due to needing fewer plants. 
Also, nuclear is much better for the environment. 
The plural of “anecdote” is not “data” and one item
in the news is not the definitive reason to undertake
a huge policy initiative.

I sometimes get the feeling that Eugene Robinson is
addicted to disaster porn—that is, that he has a
list somewhere of all of the things that he doesn’t
like and eagerly awaits a disaster so that he can
dust off a sophomoric essay he wrote back in high
school and change a few words around to pretend that
it fits the situation at hand.

True, improbable does not mean impossible: not for
nuclear, not for anything.  It’d be great if we lived
in a world where there were no risks, but we don’t. 
So instead we have to accept the risks that are most
improbable.  And speaking for myself, I prefer the
risk of a nuclear meltdown to the risk of getting
cancer from the carcinogens that, for example, a coal
plant puts out.

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By Thomas Sabo Rings, March 15, 2011 at 3:39 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Nice article! I love it very much and i have share with my friends! Thanks!

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