The US Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing on March 15, 2012 titled “Lessons from Fukushima One Year Later: NRC’s Implementation of Recommendations for Enhancing Nuclear Reactor Safety in the 21st Century.” The following video clip included some key points that bear repeating to all who wail and gnash their teeth about nuclear energy.
In the video, Senator Carper (D-DE), in his typical deadpan fashion, asks the commissioners to share what they know about the total number of radiation related deaths associated with the “nuclear disaster”. As Commissioners Magwood and Svinicki point out, the number is ZERO, though there were two people who were drowned during the tsunami and two more who died from heart attacks brought on by exertion during the recovery efforts.
Carper then asked about the death toll due to commercial nuclear energy production in the United States since its inception in 1957. Commissioner Ostendorff responded that no one has died as a result of a radiation accident at either a US commercial power plant or on board a US nuclear powered warship. Chairman Jaczko interrupted Senator Carper to claim that he did not think it was correct to minimize the effects of the accident, but Senator Carper cut him off – twice.
Senator Carper then pointed out that, as the chairman of the Clean Air Subcommittee of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, he had heard numerous testimonies in recent years about people whose lives were ended – not merely disrupted – by their exposure to dirty air from burning coal, oil and natural gas in utility power plants.
It is a comparison worth thinking about, especially for those people in the nuclear industry and on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who appear to believe that their primary task is trying to achieve an absolutely perfect record of zero releases of radioactive material. Even when a substantial accident happens, and when a lot of things do not go as planned, the multiple layers of defense that are possible at nuclear power stations protect the public from harm caused by radiation and radioactive materials.
As Senator Boxer and even Chairman Jaczko pointed out during the hearing, that does not mean that our engineered systems and our actual responses to accidents have protected people from all harm. Disrupting lives and forcing people to leave their homes is incredibly harmful.
This disconnect between radiation health consequences and overall accident consequences raises an important question.
Should nuclear energy be blamed for that disruption or should the real blame be placed on the irrationally imposed fear of radiation? Senator Boxer and Chairman Jaczko seem to believe that the only response is to tighten down harder on nuclear until we achieve that unreachable goal of perfect safety.
We have to remember that nuclear energy does not exist in isolation. It is a competitive source of reliable, virtually emission free energy, but there is no magical source of useful power that carries absolute safety. If society chooses to give up its access to nuclear energy, we will have to choose another reliable energy source. In places that are not endowed with large rivers that can be dammed up, our only available options are burning coal, natural gas, oil or wood.
Did the people near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear station really need to leave? What would their doses have been if they had remained in place? More importantly at this stage in the response effort, do they really need to remain displaced?
Is their overall health being protected or are they being put at an ever increasing risk of serious medical conditions brought on by stress and depression? Should the people who used to live near the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station continue to be displaced from their homes by government edit, impoverished due to inability to rebuild on their property, and forced into a lifelong status as powerless victims?
I have no doubts about my answers to the questions, but I would dearly love to hear the answers that might be provided by elected or appointed officials. I would also love to hear the answers provided by industry leaders – so far, all I see is the industry acting a bit like the people from nutty religious sects who lash their own bodies in a vain attempt at self purification.