Saturday, March 26, 2011

Turning Point: The Nuclear Factor

Once again, science fact has caught up with science fiction.  And, not in a good way.

The escalating human tragedy of a tsunami in Japan has triggered the potential for a man-made disaster whose full effects may not be felt for years.  Possibly even generations.  The threat of radiation escaping damaged nuclear reactors.  As of the most recent reports, a reactor containment vessel was cracked by the disaster, and radiation continues to escape, even as the Japanese government struggles to keep the situation contained.

Some contend the reports have been exaggerated by the U.S. government and minimized by the Japanese government.  In either case, this is not the first time a country has been threatened by nuclear accidents.  Three-Mile Island was our wake-up call for acknowledging the dangers of nuclear power.  That incident thankfully ended with no appreciable harm to human life.  Chernobyl, the Russian incident, was a million times worse; the worst nuclear disaster since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The two afore-mentioned incidents were the result of design flaws or human error.  And, while nuclear programs have been run effectively in France and elsewhere, the current disaster in Japan starkly reminds us that, no matter how well designed or efficiently run a nuclear reactor may be, there is no accounting for the whims of nature.  The Japanese disaster has prompted a rapid and desperate re-examination of nuclear safety.  But, perhaps the larger question more people should be asking is whether nuclear power plays a practical role in our future energy needs.

How to guard against radiation leaks.  How to dispose of nuclear waste.  How to protect nuclear plants from terrorist attack.  How to control the proliferation of weapons-grade fissionable material.  No longer science fiction, these are problems we will always have to face until we rid ourselves of nuclear power.  In a time when carbon pollution and global warming are becoming pressing concerns, some are tempted to embrace nuclear power as the energy alternative of the future.  But, we may be leaping at too easy, and potentially dangerous a solution.  Safe, clean energy alternatives such as wind, hydro and solar power should be explored and developed, before we rush headlong into a nuclear age that could threaten the health and security of our world and leave future generations to inherit problems they never created.