For a few weeks now we’ve been watching the people of Japan struggle through a massive disaster with three major components. First an earthquake hit the northern part of Japan near Sendai on March 11. The 9.0 magnitude earthquake was immediately followed by a tsunami that caused extensive loss of life and damage. The tsunami even sent waves as far as the west coast of the United States, killing one man on a California beach while he was taking photographs.
Then, to add to the challenges, the nuclear reactor facility at Fukushima sustained such damage from the tsunami that the cooling systems failed, leading to fires, explosions and nuclear material overheating with a release of radioactive contamination. The news coverage of this very current event has included a number of references to the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in our country. The Three Mile Island disaster occurred March 28, 1979, just over 32 years ago. This anniversary of our own nuclear emergency is a good time to reflect on recent events.
We need nuclear energy because we need sources of energy other than petroleum-based fuels that force reliance on nations that do not always have the same priorities regarding national security and human rights as us. Energy is very much a national security issue because the need for energy ties us economically to other nations. The economic tie then translates into security requirements because a strong economy is essential for our national welfare. Obtaining and protecting that energy source forces other nations’ problems to become our problems when the supply of energy is threatened. This threat then to our economic survival places demands on all of us for taxes to support the security requirements and takes money from all of us, individually and collectively, and sends that money then overseas to another nation’s citizens. The stranglehold that petroleum-based fuels have on us then makes energy independence critical if we are ever to achieve real flexibility regarding decisions on whether we should care about events that otherwise would be of little concern.
Nuclear power cannot break those ties, because there is no way to run a car today off nuclear power, but nuclear power has been a reliable means of producing electricity. Unless another source of energy is found, we cannot afford to walk away from nuclear energy and increase our demand on something like petroleum-based fuels for energy.
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While we cannot stop using nuclear energy, we must be aware of the risks in addition to the benefits. Since the disaster in Japan, we’ve been treated to expert after expert in various forms of media providing their opinions or assurances that Armageddon is upon us or that there is nothing to worry about. I don’t think the nuclear problem in Japan will destroy Japan and certainly not the world, but the human suffering is real and the problems should cause every nation that uses or hopes to use nuclear energy to pay attention to the outcome and review previous decisions and plans.
Clearly, protecting a facility from an earthquake had better be in the design if there is a remote chance an earthquake might occur. Since we’ve seen a 9.0 earthquake, that size event ought to be discussed at least. If a nuclear facility is near a coast where a tsunami could hit, then protection from that had better be in the plan as well. The information I have read indicates that the Japanese facility survived the earthquake but failed when the tsunami destroyed the primary and backup power systems. Therefore, the point of origin of the earthquake is clearly an important consideration. If the earthquake is centered in the ocean, it is obvious that a massive tsunami can occur.
Our nation was fortunate 32 years ago. When the Three Mile Island meltdown occurred, no one died. Thanks to the triple hit of an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor meltdown, thousands of Japanese citizens have died. As in all such situations of great danger, heroes have shown themselves to be among the people of Japan, from a British teacher calmly leading his students to safety eight minutes before the tsunami wave hit, to the technicians and first responders holding their ground at the nuclear plant trying to stave off disaster, when just by staying so close to the radiation source some of them probably have committed suicide.
The Japanese people should be in our prayers, because they face a tough situation. I believe they will recover even though the recovery may not be quick. They overcame the disaster of World War II to become an important ally and economic powerhouse. We need to help them where we can while also accepting that recovery will not occur overnight.