Atomic reactors are not particularly dangerous. They cannot cause a nuclear blast — this is a common misconception. They can leak radiation, but this has happened only a couple times, and except at Chernobyl, radiation leaks from power reactors have had only slight impact on public health.
The sort of radiation you would experience standing close to an exposed atomic reactor is deadly, which is why being a reactor-station worker is a perilous occupation. But the kind of radiation that extends more than a few hundred yards away is less dangerous than a medical X-ray.
Atomic power causes significantly less harm than fossil fuel. In 2010, 11 people were killed in the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling explosion while 29 people died in a coal mine in West Virginia. Nothing so bad has ever happened at an atomic power plant in the United States or European Union.
This morning, Reuters said the Fukushima situation is “the world’s most serious nuclear accident since the Chernobyl meltdown in Ukraine in 1986”. That statement surely is true, but think what it means — a quarter century of atomic power did no harm at all, and now the major problem in Japan may be resolved with only minor public harm. In the same 25 years, oil and coal use worldwide have killed many thousands of people while triggering global warming.
Antiquated reactors like Fukushima should be replaced with new nuclear designs. All 104 nuclear power reactors in use in the United States are 30 or more years old, based on obsolete engineering. They need to be demolished and replaced with improved designs. Modern reactors require fewer moving parts than reactors of the 1950s and 1960s, and employ a new idea, “passive” safety. Passive safety means failures are not emergencies — if the cooling pumps fail, as happened at Fukushima, the atomic reaction simply stops. Hit by the same earthquake, a modern reactor would not have gone haywire.
Yet political opposition to construction of new atomic power plants is preventing the spread of improved modern reactors. Yesterday, Germany and Switzerland said they would postpone plans to tear down obsolete reactors and replace them with modern designs. Attempts in the U.S. to obtain political permission to demolish obsolete reactors, in favor of new systems, are likely to be set back.
This is exactly the wrong conclusion. If the Japan accidents produce a new wave of opposition to new reactor construction, the result will be to lock into place a profusion of obsolete reactors with antiquated engineering. Japan should have replaced the Fukushima reactors with a modern station years ago. Will other nations refuse to act, and wait till the next obsolete reactor fails?
http://blogs.reuters.com/gregg-easterbr ... -disaster/