Are The Benefits of Nuclear Power Worth the Risks?

Events in Japan have focused many people’s attentions on the risks of nuclear power. While the nuclear accident there hasn’t had the direct human cost of the earthquake and tsunami that started the entire mess, it’s still of great concern for its potential. It’s natural to fear what you can’t see, and many people don’t find enough reassurance in being told that they are not at risk from the radiation that has been released.

The interesting part to me is that so far coal power is far more dangerous to human lives and long term health than nuclear power, at least according to some calculations. Coal powered plants release more radioactivity than a well maintained nuclear power plant. They release more pollutants. Coal mining is a risky business. Yet many people are more comfortable with coal power plants than nuclear power plants.

The trouble is that it’s really difficult to calculate the exact impact on human health (or to the surrounding environment) when it comes to nuclear accidents. Most of the damage won’t be seen for years, and you can’t really tell which damage is caused by it in the long run. This is why estimates vary so widely.

A big part of the problem in my view is also that of long term storage of nuclear waste. Most current nuclear waste will have to be carefully stored for thousands of years. Even if we go to thorium reactors, the waste is hazardous for about 500 years. I’m not so fond of betting on anyone keeping track of any sort of waste that long, never mind keeping it secure. I wonder how the cost of nuclear power really balances out when you consider the long term storage issues.

So Why Support Nuclear Power?

With all that said, I’m not completely against nuclear power, and it’s for one simple reason. Plants are going to be built, I have no doubt about that. I’d rather push for safer plants if they’re going to be built, and keep pushing for other energy sources that don’t have such long term issues.

Truth be told, I’d far rather see us find ways to rely primarily on wind, solar and geothermal energy than on coal or nuclear. But with the opposition that exists to these, plus all the naysayers, it’s going to be a battle to get there. The way things are, there’s going to be a step between relying on coal and going to more renewable energy sources, and I strongly suspect that will be nuclear power. I’d like us to use the safest possible version of such power in that case.

Is nuclear power worth the risk? I certainly hope so, because I have no doubt that the risk will continue to be taken. Let’s hope safety continues to improve.