In the 1979 movie "The China Syndrome," reporter Kimberly Wells (played by Jane Fonda) witnesses an accident at a nuclear power plant and then uncovers a plot to keep it a secret in order to protect the power company's billion-dollar investment. The film was a gift to the political left, which at the time opposed the pursuit of nuclear energy to reduce our addiction to foreign oil. In some liberal circles, that opposition remains strong.
The film, along with real-life accidents such as Three Mile Island (also in 1979), in which no one was killed, and Chernobyl (1986), which, according to the World Nuclear Association, "killed two Chernobyl plant workers on the night of the accident, and a further 28 people within a few weeks, as a result of acute radiation poisoning," account for much of our modern thinking about all things nuclear. Other films, like "Dr. Strangelove," "Fail-Safe" and "On the Beach" -- along with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which ended World War II and launched the Cold War with the Soviet Union in which "mutual assured destruction" (MAD) and civil defense drills became the norm -- make us nervous about what the unrestrained power of the atom can do.
The nuclear reactors at Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant were damaged by the tsunami, not the earthquake, and not by faulty construction or worker error, as was the case at Chernobyl and to a lesser extent Three Mile Island. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has significantly tightened standards since those incidents, but no regulation or safety precaution can offer a 100 percent guarantee against an accident or natural disaster.
Politicians tend to overreact to such things and stoke public fear. The otherwise cautious and principled German Chancellor Angela Merkel quickly announced plans to shut down seven of her country's nuclear power plants pending a safety review.
U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a proponent of nuclear energy, told members of a House subcommittee on Tuesday that, "The American people should have full confidence that the United States has rigorous safety regulations in place to ensure that our nuclear power is generated safely and responsibly." He faces off against nuclear energy opponents, including Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), who was recently quoted as saying, "We have to listen to what is happening in Japan and protect ourselves and our people." Run for the hills! Chicken Little lives!
The Houston Chronicle quoted Peter Cardillo, chief market economist for Avalon Partners, a brokerage house in New York: "It's a situation where you sell (your stocks now), and you ask questions later," thus indulging in self-fulfilling prophecy as Japanese and American markets dipped.
The Obama administration continues to stonewall when it comes to exploring for new sources of oil in or near American territory. (It has approved just two deepwater drilling sites since the BP oil spill in the Gulf, which, contrary to doomsday predictions, did not foul beaches for a decade or cripple the seafood industry, which seems to have recovered well in plenty of time for the summer vacation rush.) Too many politicians continue to oppose coal exploration, an American natural resource. Without advances in nuclear energy, the U.S. will continue to face not only the petroleum price equivalent of mood swings, but also deepen our dependency on foreign oil, a dependence that will ultimately lead to a host of domestic and international problems.
Cooler heads must prevail and conclusions avoided until a full assessment of the Japan disaster is known. Science cannot prevent earthquakes or tsunamis, but that does not keep people from wanting to live near the shore. Scientists and engineers have made great progress in addressing safety issues raised by Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, but again, nothing is foolproof or there would be no traffic accidents or airplane crashes. And we still drive and fly, don't we?
We need clean energy that can be developed on our own territory. Nuclear power, in conjunction with the discovery of more oil and the use of coal, natural gas, bio fuels, wind and solar power, offers the best option for the foreseeable future.