Some recent news stories have claimed that the amount of Cesium-137 released by the Fukushima disaster in Japan has been half what was released at Chernobyl. Some news sources have suggested that this is an encouraging figure, but it looks pretty terrible to me.
The Chernobyl disaster involved a reactor design that was deeply and fundamentally flawed, followed by a series of mistakes from a secretive government that cared little for the health and welfare of its citizens. By contrast, Japan’s government is supposed to be good, along with their building standards, oversight, and emergency preparedness.
If a nuclear disaster in Japan can be half as bad as Chernobyl, it suggests to me that perhaps nuclear energy is just too fundamentally dangerous to be made safe in the real world – a world in which companies and governments will always try to cover up their mistakes, and in which they will hesitate to spend billions of dollars to improve the odds of a nuclear plant getting through a disaster without contaminating the area around it and putting the human population in peril.
It is certainly possible that scaling back plans for new nuclear reactors will make it harder to deal with climate change. At the same time, we should recognize that the economic costs of nuclear are very high and largely hidden, even when everything is going well. Perhaps we can recognize the dangers of nuclear, and respond by redoubling our efforts to deploy safe and renewable forms of energy, while working to reduce the level of absolute energy usage globally.