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Narcissistic Americans scare-monger about nuclear power at home

We all watch as the disaster in Japan continues to unfold. The loss of life and destruction caused by the earthquake and tsunami are terrible, while the stories of the Japanese people coping are both heartbreaking and impressive. Now there is the threat of a substantial release of radiation, with each day bringing news of one breakdown after another.

In the US, the discussion seems to be all about this nuclear aspect - at the expense of recognizing the loss of life to date, and the horrible conditions the Japanese are facing right now. The American reaction today stands in contrast to the response to Haiti and other disasters, where there was a great desire to help out through charitable donations or other means. What's worse is that it all the talk is about nuclear power in the US,not in Japan. Can't narcissistic Americans, for a moment at least, recognize that it's not all about them?    

Many here are saying the US needs to review its use of nuclear power. Some politicians have suggested a pause in the spread of nuclear power plants in the US. Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut says we should "put the brakes" on new plant construction, while Representative Ed Markey of Massachusetts seeks a moratorium on new reactors in "seismically active areas". Learning from the Japan events make sense - it is what industry always does in order to progress - but we should reject any indefinite cessations, since there has been nothing yet disclosed from Japan (or elsewhere) that suggests that nuclear power plants in the US are unsafe. 

Give credit to the White House (I don't say that often), which so far seems to be getting its response right. Obama's chief scientific officer, Stephen Chu, told  a House subcommittee hearing today,"The administration believes we must rely on a diverse set of energy sources, including renewables like wind and solar, natural gas, clean coal and nuclear power." He added: "The administration is committed to learning from Japan's experience as we work to continue to strengthen America's nuclear industry."

But already a number of pundits have declared their verdict: end nuclear energy in the US now. Anne Applebaum, in Slate, hopes the Japan disaster "stops the nuclear renaissance dead in its tracks". Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post says nuclear power must be halted because it can never be made entirely safe:

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.

Robinson's argument is classic precautionary principle: find that the risk can never be zero, and use that to argue for quashing all risk-taking. Moreover, rather than try to assess the real chances of downside - perhaps by looking at earlier accidents like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, or other forecasting techniques - we are supposed to just obsess over the "worst-case scenario", which is "so dreadful as to be unthinkable". Which is Robinson's way of saying, stop using your brain, just shudder at the horror.

This point about zero risk also struck me today listening to Dr. Allan Ludman, chair of the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Queens College, City University of New York, on WNYC radio this morning. When asked about the odds of an earthquake in New York City (which has a nuclear power plant nearby), Dr. Ludman pointed out that New York is in the middle of the North American tectonic plate (rather than on the boundary between plates where most sizeable earthquakes occur), and the small faults that do exist under the city "have not moved as far as we can tell for, 60, 70, 100 million years." Well, not even once in a 100 million years sounds like pretty good odds, right? Apparently not: "Anyone who says there is no chance is foolish," says Dr. Ludman. 

One of the worst cases of fear-mongering I heard was also on WNYC today, on "The Takeaway" program. In one segment, host John Hockenberry cross-examined his guest, Michael Corradini, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of engineering physics, and an expert on nuclear power and nuclear safety (you can listen at the bottom of this post). Hockenberry's first question was, "How can I maintain a rational level of vigilance if I live near a nuclear power plant?" Corradini answers: "I don't see why anyone would be concerned in the United States with the plants. They're well designed and well operated. So I wouldn't find any concern at all." That's not what Hockenberry wanted to hear, and so he and his co-host, Celeste Headlee, persisted with reasons to be fearful. At one point, Hockenberry says, "we're not trying to engage in an hysterical wildfire of worry" - but that's exactly what they were doing. Headlee thinks she's got the professor by pointing out that the US suffers from natural disasters too, like Hurricane Katrina. But Corradini makes a great point in response:

Katrina was a hurricane force of magnitude five, if I understand the ratings, and the six or eight power plants in the vicinity of New Orleans shut down safely and maintained cooling and then restarted up to provide electricity to regions so that’s a very good example in the United States that there was not a problem.

Hockenberry then gets fed up, and tells the calm, just-the-facts Corradini that he is engaging in a "contentious sort of dialogue": "It makes people nervous when they're talking to experts and hearing a lot of 'hey, there's no problem' but then we're seeing things on fire in Japan." No, what makes people nervous are hysterical radio hosts. 

As they say, a tragedy can bring out the best and worst in people. It seems that Japan's tragedy is bringing out the worst in the scare-mongering onlookers in the US. Next they'll say, that's enough about me - Japan, what do you think about American nuclear power plants?

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