Nukes vs. Coal

A couple of days ago George Monbiot wrote that the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant had changed his mind about nuclear energy:

A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation….Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.

There really is something to this. Then again, it’s still early days, and today we got the news that drinking water in Tokyo is unsafe for infants:

Officials warned residents not to eat the vegetables produced in several prefectures near the badly damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility and recommended that infants not ingest tap water in Tokyo. Tokyo officials said they would distribute three 550-milliliter bottles of water to every household in the capital where an infant was living — some 80,000 households in all.

It’s true, as Seth Godin dramatizes in the illustration on the right, that oil and coal kill a whole lot more people than nuclear ever has. At the same time, radiation in our drinking water is just a helluva lot scarier than particulates in our air or periodic cave-ins at coal mines. That may be unfair, but I’m not sure what to do about it. If the situation in Japan doesn’t get any worse, Godin’s chart will remain accurate. But more than likely, nuke plants still won’t be able to get financing.

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