Where Is the Risk?
As far as accidents or attacks on nuclear plants in the U.S., most people in the eastern half of the U.S. are in a danger zone of exposure to radioactive iodine. Several other states, including Texas, California and Washington state, are also at risk. See a map of…
It’s impractical and unnecessary for individuals to fear a nuclear power plant disaster in the United States. Chernobyl has been the only sizable event in the last 50-60 years that nuclear energy has been popular. Three-Mile Island is the second most popularly-known nuclear power plant accident after that, in which exactly zero people died and not one case of cancer or disease has been linked to that incident.
Most problems at nuclear facilities in the last several decades that have lead to any injuries at all resulted in only a handful of deaths. A look at this chart showing history of nuclear accidents shows a literal handful of accidental deaths related to nuclear energy accidents with exception to Chernobyl (although the number of deaths/cancers/diseases caused by Chernobyl far exceeds the number on that chart, but at least two dozen studies have reached very different estimates on the results of that event).
Excluding Chernobyl, the number of deaths as a result of nuclear energy summed together is less than that of the typical coal mining accident. For that matter, the number of deaths as a result of air pollution due to coal energy is estimated to be anywhere between 13,000 and 24,000 every year in just the United States.
The possibility of another Chernobyl is extremely unlikely; the way that facility was constructed was no where near the quality to which nuclear reactors are constructed today. The cause of that accident was directly related to a number of operator errors due to a lack of understanding on how nuclear reactions work, and was then compounded by the Ukraine government taking 36 hours to before ordering the evacuation. Following that, they then proceeded to hide the disaster from the neighboring countries until a nuclear power plant in Sweden detected radioactive particles in the atmosphere. Then after the situation was stabilized, 800,000 people were forced as part of their mandated military service to the USSR to help clean up the contaminated region around Pripyat. While it’s impossible to find even sort of accurate numbers on this because of how the USSR ran this operation and because citizens involved with the clean up came from a variety of different countries that divided apart from the USSR in 1991, it’s suspected that most of the deaths, cancers, and diseases caused by the radiation were the result of the citizens that the government had sent to perform the liquidation and clean-up of Pripyat.
Twenty-five years later, the way that a problem in a nuclear plant is handled is no where near what how it was when Chernobyl happened, so I find it silly how news channels and media outlets ask “Could Chernobyl happen again?” If you read up on Chernobyl and the causes behind it, you’ll find that it’s an accident only in the sense that the plant operators did not fully understand the eventual consequences of their actions, but it certainly could have been prevented.
In Japan, after both a tsunami and an earthquake struck the 40-year-old Fukushima Dai-Ichi reactor in the same day and has suffered numerous aftershocks in the days to follow, the situation is still under control.
When I say “under control,” I mean that there has been plenty of time for evacuations to be called and at least for the meanwhile, Japan has yet to be removed from the face of the planet despite all too many man-made and natural disasters over the last century. The situation could continue to worsen, but for now the best engineers in the world are responding to that crisis and the general public remains out of harm’s way.
I don’t mean to grossly oversimplify a complicated matter, but I’ll go ahead anyway and do it; nuclear energy is scary because everyone presumes that the only the only way for an accident to end is with an entire hemisphere of the globe suffering from nuclear winter. In practice though, we’ve seen the worst-case scenario and can readily identify a myriad of different things that shouldn’t have happened — almost all of which were due to the way the Soviet Union operated the plant and reacted to the situation.
As we look to the crisis at the Fukushima I site, we should notice that thus far the only people endangered have been people within the power plant. 37 injuries have been reported and an additional 2 people went missing after an explosion. No fatalities have yet to be reported (although the two people missing can be presumed dead), and no reports have been made of anyone with radiation sickness. In the grand scheme of it all, things at the Fukushima reactors are going well. At the present time, the total cost of this incident will be enormous as the entire plant will have to be decommissioned and response efforts certainly haven’t been cheap, but for the effects on people, roughly the same number were injured and a dozen more were killed in that bus accident earlier this week.
Let’s not worry about this nuclear power plant turning into another Chernobyl, because fundamental differences in the plant design and operation make that impossible. Instead, let’s remember that Japan was the victim of an earthquake and a tsunami one week ago that killed 7,000 people by the rising official count, while another 10,000 remain missing and 400,000 remain homeless.
For the average individual to even worry about a terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant is unnecessary; there isn’t a terrorist organization in the world that can do more damage to a nuclear plant than a tsunami and an earthquake hitting an old power plant on the same day, and as we’ve learned from the Fukushima I power plant, all that has yielded is an accident not any larger than that of a recent bus accident.