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Beware the fear of nuclear….FEAR!

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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It is frightening to watch what’s going on with Japan’s nuclear plant at Fukushima. It is also worrying to watch the fear racing around the world as a result of those events, fear that in some cases is far in excess of what’s going on, or even the worst case scenarios of what might happen.

The Japanese are facing the danger of a meltdown and release of dangerous amounts of radiation into the environment.

But the world is facing the risk of getting the risk of nuclear power wrong, and raising the overall risk to public and environmental health far more in the process. It is vitally important to keep our fears in perspective as we weigh all our energy choices in a world confronted both by climate change, and by several hundred thousand premature deaths from local particulate pollution from burning fossil fuels each year.

There is serious trouble at the Daiichi plant. Explosions, releases of low levels of radiation, failure of cooling systems, damage to the nuclear reactor. A meltdown of at least some of the highly radioactive fuel seems frighteningly probable. The word ‘catastrophe’ is showing up more and more in the news, and is a realistic possibility.

But the Japanese themselves have taught us, in the most awful way imaginable, what the actual health danger of radiation like this might be, and we need to keep the lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in mind as we assess how catastrophic events like this actually are.

We know from studying the survivors of those bombings, who were bathed in horrific doses of high level radiation – far worse than anything that could come from the Daiichi plant (or that came out of Chernobyl) – that ionizing radiation from nuclear energy is a carcinogen, but a relatively weak one. The roughly 100,000 survivors of the two atomic bomb blasts are known in Japan as hibakusha, and they are honored, and given special rights.

They have also been extensively studied, and 66 years later, by comparing them to cancer rates among Japanese not exposed to radiation, public health researchers estimate that only about 500 of the hibakusha died prematurely from cancer due to radiation exposure. Radiation-induced cancer killed roughly half of one percent of the exposed population. (This research is done by the Radiation Effects Research Institute, a Japanese organization supported by international public health agencies)

We also know that many of the children of hibakusha women pregnant at the time they were exposed suffered horrible birth defects. Studies of the atomic bomb survivors have also taught us, however, that there is apparently no generational genetic impact from radiation exposure. Kids born to parents who got pregnant after the exposure, were normal.

Based on studies of atomic bomb survivors, the World Health organization estimates the maximum lifetime death toll from cancer due to radiation exposure from Chernobyl, of roughly 800,000 people, will be about 4,000.

And what about environmental damage? A huge area around Chernobyl is off limits to humans for hundreds of years. But that’s to limit human exposure to ionizing radiation which, while dangerous, is less so than many of us presume. With people removed, wildlife in those areas is thriving

So why the nuke-o-noia? It is human nature that when we hear about a risk, we react quickly and instinctively, before we have all the facts, by interpreting the first facts we hear through what we already know. (The academics called this the ‘representativeness’ heuristic.)

Just look at what people are saying about events in Fukushima…comparing them to Three Mile Island, or Chernobyl. Anyone who has those frightening events in the back of their minds, or the atomic bombings of Japanese cities, applies the few bits of information about what’s going on in Fukushima against that background.

And something called Confirmation Bias – we listen to and believe the people and information that confirms what we already believe – means that anybody predisposed against nuclear power will magnify the scarier aspects of what’s going on. (There is a long and frightening list of heuristics and biases that contribute to the instinctive way we make judgments here.)

On top of that, psychologists have found that risks have certain ‘personality traits’, psychological characteristics that make some feel scarier than others. Nuclear power is scary because it is invisible and odorless, which means we can’t detect it and protect ourselves, and feeling like we lack control makes any risk scarier.

Nuclear radiation is human-made, which is scarier than natural risks, like radiation from the sun (which kills 8,000 Americans per year from skin cancer). And radiation can cause cancer, a particularly painful way to go, and anything that involves more pain and suffering understandably causes more concern.

So nuclear radiation, in addition to being actually physically hazardous, has some psychological characteristics that make it particularly frightening, and a frightening history, and as a result, the worst case scenarios get played up, and magnified in the scream-a-thon that 24/7 global communication creates around events like those in Japan. Fear of nuclear energy is reinforced, fear that unquestionably in the coming weeks and months will infect the ongoing debate over what kind of energy future we should have.

Nuclear energy certainly has its risks, but are they as great as those from burning coal and oil, given what’s happening to the climate of the earth? Are nuclear emissions, including releases from accidents, as bad as the particulate pollution from fossil fuels? Not close. Remember the low radiation-induced cancer death toll among the hibakusha, or the WHO estimate of 4,000 lifetime cancer deaths from radiation for Chernobyl. Fossil fuel particulates kill several hundred thousand people around the world per year. (Estimates for this risk are all over the place, but Dr. Joel Schwartz of the Harvard School of Public Health, a pioneer in the study of air pollution risks, estimates the number could be as high as 250,000 in the United States alone, annually. Estimates for the annual US death toll from fossil fuel particulate pollution, on the low end, are 20-30,000.)

Catastrophe? Yes, we should worry about what’s going on in Japan, and about the risks of nuclear energy. But the more we exaggerate those risks, the more overall harm we could be doing to ourselves, by letting our fears drive energy policy that heavily favors a much more dangerous fossil fuel-based power supply.

As powerful a tool as our risk perception system is for keeping us safe in general, sometimes that instinctive/emotional system can get risk wrong, in dangerous ways. We need to watch events in Japan, and watch what we say and how we feel about those events, if we want to make the healthiest possible choices about how to keep ourselves safe.


About the Author: David Ropeik is an Instructor at the Harvard Extension School and author of "How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts".

Statement of potential conflict of interest: I covered nuclear issues as a environmental reporter in Boston for 22 years, then wrote a book, RISK A Practical Guide for Deciding What’s Really Safe and What’s Really Dangerous in the world Around You which includes a chapter on nuclear radiation, (paid for by the publisher, Houghton Mifflin). It floored me to learn what science knows about the carcinogenicity of ionizing radiation. In my teaching and consulting career I have worked for the IAEA to help them prepare communications materials for emergencies, and helping their member states do the same, and I have lectured to communications officers of nuclear companies and their trade association, on how to communicate to the public more honestly. The full list of my clients is on my website,


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 42 Comments

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  1. 1. heavyrunner 4:13 pm 03/12/2011

    Enough solar energy strikes the Earth’s surface every day to power the entire planet’s economy for 800 years. That’s every day. We just need to build the infrastructure to employ it.

    Nuclear is too expensive and too dangerous and leaves a curse of poisons that no one knows how to contain or detoxify.

    We need to use the remaining fossil fuel wisely to create the green energy economy that can carry us forward into a beautiful future. Nuclear energy should not be seen as a part of that whatsoever.

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  2. 2. mtdash 4:31 pm 03/12/2011

    While I do not doubt the accuracy of what you say in your commentary, I do think you are missing some important points. I believe the word "catastrophe" is wholly justified if one considers many of the social and psychological implications of this event. If the people in the 20-mile radius are not allowed to return to the affected area in the future then this is will likely be a life altering (i.e. catastrophic) event in their eyes. Loss of home (possible ancestral), employment and community bonds in relocation,especially if permanent, must have enormous implications. I believe the people of New Orleans would likely agree that the their lives were "catastrophically" altered, even if only from a sociological or psychological perspective. If the people of either disaster had lost even one loved one during the event than this would compound this loss exponentially and forever change their lives. I also doubt the true health affects of radiation exposure can ever really be known. As late as the early 1980s, my mother was assured that the radioactive iodine she was given for her hyperthyroidism would not have adverse affects on her fetus. My brother, who was born subsequently, spent most of his life enduring the effects of acute lymphoblastic leukemia until he passed away at the age of 9 years. While his suffering was intense, the effects on the whole family was indeed "catastrophic" including mental health issues for the whole family, including alcoholism, suicide attempts, etc. I hope the effects of nuclear contamination is ‘minimal’ although I highly doubt that will ultimately be the case if the worst-case scenario comes to pass.

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  3. 3. JNSTK 4:41 pm 03/12/2011

    This is an interesting post. Might the author please disclose any and all past and present consulting arrangements with nuclear power-related enterprises including businesses, trade associations, lobbying organizations?

    Thank you.

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  4. 4. peterd 4:42 pm 03/12/2011

    RELAX! It’s just another meltdown.

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  5. 5. emeryjre 4:55 pm 03/12/2011

    Thank you for your support of Nuclear Power. At this point I am sure you will never receive any acknowledgementof your facts as the press continues to feed the fear frenzy. I am afraid that your facts will never overcome the fear that is pervasive, but thank you for trying. I support your positions and agree entirely your statements.

    You might mention how many people die from mining coal. I do not have the number at my disposal, but the last time I saw the statistic, it was a sizeable number of deaths on an annual basis.

    John Emery

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  6. 6. datagirl62 4:56 pm 03/12/2011

    Most of my childhood was spent in a town that was surrounded by petrochemical plants. I knew men who died (or were crippled for life) in horrific industrial accidents. We accepted the risks because modern society is built on hydrocarbons.

    Any large scale operation carries with it the potential for harm. We must weigh dangers of nuclear energy against the frightening scenarios for peak oil.

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  7. 7. ConcernedCitizen 4:59 pm 03/12/2011

    Thanks for this. To the first poster. Nuclear costs less than every other technology available. The Three Mile Island event was a non-incident, as attested by the EPA after continuous monitoring. Over 60 years, Chernobyl has been the only major event and that was due to poor construction – not a bad track record for the technology.

    Solar power and wind cost 3-4x the amount of nuclear and coal technologies. It will be a long time before we can replace conventional technologies without increasing our costs at the expense of our own lives, which also raises the number of poor. Studies have shown that people who live in big cities have something like 50% higher risk of contracting lung cancer from the particulate matter. I don’t doubt that the risks from coal are understated and the risks of nuclear power are overstated.

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  8. 8. RodAdams 5:09 pm 03/12/2011

    David – excellent, calming perspective on the minimal health effects of low levels of radiation.

    You can find a detailed perspective on the possible consequences of the worst case scenario at

    The bottom line is that the maximum consequences will be similar to TMI – possibly a broken plant, but no injuries to any member of the public. (There was one man killed in a crane related accident at one Japanese nuclear plant already. There were also four others who were injured, possibly from the same kinds of injuries that have affected tens of thousands of people exposed to the 5th worst earthquake in recorded history.)

    To answer the inevitable question from JNSTK, here is a list of my associations with the nuclear energy industry:

    Graduated from Navy Nuclear Power School in October 1982
    Served for 12 years as a nuclear qualified officer, including a 40 month assignment as Engineer Officer of a submarine.
    Founded Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. in 1993.
    Began publishing Atomic Insights in 1995
    Member of the American Nuclear Society, the North American Young Generations in Nuclear, and Women in Nuclear (Note: I do not qualify as either young or as a woman, but both organizations have open enrollment policies.)
    Retired from active duty in the Navy in September 2010 and took an engineering job with a company that is designing small modular reactors.

    Now, for those who oppose nuclear energy, please provide similar information about your associations with all competitive energy sources including coal, oil, natural gas, wind, solar and geothermal. Each one of those has a fiscal interest in slowing the development and market penetration of nuclear energy.

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights

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  9. 9. flycaster 5:27 pm 03/12/2011

    Confirmation Bias is largely behind the current crisis alarmism surrounding climate change (aka global warming). It has transformed from theory to religion, with assistance by the socialist news media. If you have drank that Kool Aid, then you have to admit that environmental groups are at least partly to blame for high levels of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Why? Because after TMI in 1979, their successful scare tactic and political bullying campaigns essentially stopped nuclear power development, resulting in a near doubling of the coal burn across the country.

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  10. 10. jvsciguy 5:35 pm 03/12/2011

    While nuclear energy does come with many reasons to move forwards carefully it can be deployed with less risk and damage than can fossil fuels.

    In the end replacing fossil plants with nuclear in a careful way can reduce human and environmental damage although we should put as much effort into using solar sources as fast as we possible can. Unfortunately this will not be fast enough to slow the growth in CO2 levels that we are currently seeing.

    Done correctly, believe, nuclear can help.

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  11. 11. David Ropeik 5:55 pm 03/12/2011

    Thank you all for your comments. Replies to some of them below
    2. mtdash. I agree the use of the word catastrophe is appropriate for the people near the plant who face real potential risk and whose lives have been disrupted. The immediate stress alone is a serious threat for them, more serious in fact than the radiation risk. Psychosocial were the biggest health effex of Chernobyl. Sorry about your brother. Radiation is definitely teratogenic, as the hibakusha taught us.

    3. jnstk. Fair question. I covered nuclear issues as a environmental reporter in Boston for 22 years, then wrote a book, “RISK A Practical Guide for Deciding What’s Really Safe and What’s Really Dangerous in the world Around You” which includes a chapter on nuclear radiation, (paid for by the publisher, Houghton Mifflin). It floored me to learn what science knows about the carcinogenicity of ionizing radiation. In my teaching and consulting career I have worked for the IAEA to help them prepare communications materials for emergencies, and helping their member states do the same, and I have lectured to communications officers of nuclear companies and their trade association, on how to communicate to the public more honestly. The full list of my clients is on my website,

    5. emeryjre. I don’t support nuclear power explicitly, just a careful thoughtful consideration of the pros and cons of ALL energy sources, all of which, including nukes, have tradeoffs.

    10 jamesdavis. I bemoan the loss of any life as well but if losing one life is too much…we better go back to living in caves. Pretty much everything that powers our modern world has some risk. We need to be thoughtful about tradeoffs.

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  12. 12. jvsciguy 6:54 pm 03/12/2011

    Bonzo – stop that!

    It is not helpful when people insult other people in a discussion forum.

    There is ample room for intelligent dissent. Just being insulting does not help your cause.

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  13. 13. scientific earthling 7:50 pm 03/12/2011

    This event is another nail in the coffin of nuclear energy. Most of us live in democracies, the lowest common denominator rules. Fear rules supreme when hundreds of thousands suffer the slow deaths associated with low level radiation poisoning. Yes coal kills too.

    Population is the underlying problem no one wants to accept.

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  14. 14. jvsciguy 8:10 pm 03/12/2011

    Not necessarily a nail.

    Yes. Overpopulation is a problem but it doesn’t mean we have to give up.

    The point ot the article, I believe, is that risk analysis would likely indicate that nuclear power is less risky than many current technologies in the short term. In the long term it is probably not the best choice.

    We eed to manage all of this very carefully. There is not ‘absolute’ answer to the current predicament.

    The major point of teh article is that we shouldn’t use this sitiation as a defacto issue against nuclear power. We should however pay close attention in the coming days. TRhe Japanese are some of the best at dealing with nuclear power issues and have years (40+) of experience. How they deal with this, with help, will help us to better understand the potentail dangers of nuclear expansion.

    We need to wait this out then carefully assess the lesson. This is the true conservative scientific approach. (and that is from me..the Marxist-Socialist ECO-terrorist humanist-I give-a-sh*t person)

    Excuse the little joke but I really think that ECO and COnservative issues really are in sync here. Teddy Roosevelt was both a ecologist and a conservative. (small ‘c’)

    The debate can certainly use articles that are measured like this one whether everyone fully agrees or not. We all have much to learn.Right now we still have no outcome at the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex.

    Note that the explosion was hydrogen and not nuclear. A meltdown has not been determined so we need to continue to watch.

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  15. 15. Minister 8:19 pm 03/12/2011

    No one has the right to impose the risks of NUKE power on present and future generations of life on Earth.
    When NUKE promoters post their empty promises of NUKE safety, their hubris is astonishing, and of course extremely self serving.

    NUKES cannot obtain private financing without Federal loan guarantees because NUKES are not cost competitive. NUKES cannot get full liability insurance because the potential property damage a NUKE can cause is astronomical, and the potential genetic harm is beyond calculation. NUKE liability must be unjustly capped by corrupt governments for the NUKE industry to exist at all.

    Solar power is competitive right now with the huge costs of new NUKE plants, and solar power will soon be less expensive than coal. New solar technologies emerging from MIT, Stanford, and other research labs dramatically improve solar power efficiency while lowering costs.

    Solar energy cannot be monopolized or embargoed. Solar energy is democratically distributed. Those in Japan with roof top solar energy systems still have power and hot water, even as centralized line power is shut off indefinitely for millions and the NUKE plant explosion rains radioactive dust and steam.

    Hundreds of square kilometers have been evacuated near the NUKE plants. Many Japanese people will not rest easy again living in the shadow of potential NUKE plant explosions.

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  16. 16. flycaster 8:27 pm 03/12/2011

    Commenter JamesDavis has his facts twisted. First, renewable energy can never provide the massive amounts of continuous, baseload power required by industrial nations. And second, to call the United States stupid and greedy is ludicrous. The U.S. is the most creative and generous country on the face of the planet. The majority of modern invetions and technology have originated in the United States, and we are always the first on the scene, even to our enemies, to provide a helping hand. There is no viable argument in fact to either of these statements.

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  17. 17. RodAdams 8:29 pm 03/12/2011

    @JamesDavis – You are apparently unaware of the fact that the deadliest energy related disaster in human history came about as the result of a hydroelectric dam failure. The Banqiao Dam flood (1975) had an estimated death toll of 90,000-230,000 people.

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  18. 18. jvsciguy 8:50 pm 03/12/2011

    A lot of good info.

    Most of the dissent is, to some degree, true.

    Nuclear power has not proven to be inexpensive until you include the reduced damage to the environment. Once we do that it becomes a much less risky choice.

    Stop arguing the extremes an address the direct cost/benefit issues. This is the only way to produce a solution.

    The COnservatives never want to agree that technology has acost when it come to coal and oil. The cost/benefit of nuclear when environmental impact is included is the only way to justify nuclear. Cost per KWH cannot do this using the classic formulas.

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  19. 19. kanisae 1:50 am 03/13/2011

    To all who continually talk of Solar panels, remember, every design so far requires rare earth elements and toxic processes. Even if we agreed to go all solar, we do not have enough of the rare materials to make the panels.

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  20. 20. crimue 6:29 am 03/13/2011

    It’s not a risk, it’s an event.
    And it ain’t over when it’s over.

    Neither has the Fukushima event run its course, nor will Fukushima stop being problematic after current developments have come to a halt, nor will nuclear power stop being an issue soon after the world’s last power plant has been shut down.
    Nuclear power’s timescale alone, the need to safeguard nuclear waste for thousands of years should disqualify the use of nuclear power as irresponsible human hubris.
    Combined with the ready availability of alternatives, and the fiendishly imprecise nature of risk and cost assessment in this field, nuclear power is a prime example of the dangers of human high-handedness.

    And not only the timescale involved differentiates it from other industries, but also the societal risks derived from the potential for weaponization, leading to incomparable costs for societal control (anti-terrorism measures, "anti-terrorism" measures, riot control, emergency planning …) and ensuing chilling effects (e.g. over-policing, suppression of adverse public opinion). These kinds of costs and effects do not accompany any other industry in even remotely comparable measure.

    And regarding costs: depending on whom you ask, and on what is included (e.g., do you include the cost for insurance implicitly covered by the government, or the cost for additional security measures and forces, or the public funding that went into research – and do you also include a percentage of related military research…), and on how costs are calculated (how do you calculate the cost of the monitoring and management of nuclear waste for thousands of years, including the occasional spill/disaster?), the results vary immensely.
    Even in the (as of 3-12-11) singular Chernobyl incident, the damages are assessed to such a breathtakingly wide variety of results, again depending on which scientists you ask, that the flavour of truth that you pick as your own seems more a matter of industrial religion than factuality.
    So, finally, given the fuzzy nature and lethal potential of this beast, and heeding the fact that by far most of the science involved was funded by the industry and interested governments (and most of the basics written before an alternative-energy industry existed), the only sane conclusion can be to focus our energy on the more fathomable and controllable non-/low-CO2 sources available.

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  21. 21. JamesDavis 7:37 am 03/13/2011

    I stand by my comment and agree with #17′s comment. It takes $10 billion to start a nuclear power plant and another $40 billion and 10 years to complete it, plus billions more to staff it and keep it running and repaired. That doesn’t include the roller coaster price foreign countries are going to charge you for the radioactive soil and rocks to make the rods to power it up and keep it going. You can also add millions, if not billions in a short period of time, to transport the radioactive waste to a safe place and keep your fingers crossed that you don’t ever have an earthquake in that area. Nuclear is too expensive and too dangerous to use as a source of power.

    The source of power that you all seem to be shying away from and afraid to mention is Geothermal. Cost to complete building – about 10 million. The most any of you pro-nuclear people can say about it is, "It can cause earthquakes, and where are you going to get all that water to put into the ground?" The geothermal power plant in California, claimed to be the largest in the world, has been pumping out clean free electricity for 50 years and it has not caused even one earthquake and it has a footprint of 1.5%. Compare that of nuclear of 100% footprint with the extraction and storage of radioactive waste and anyone can see that Geothermal is the best and the smart person’s, humane person’s, cheapest, clean/never ending source of power. With the current geothermal technology, you can create electricity with just 90 degrees of heat and if a terrorist bombs a geothermal plant, the worst case would be a nasty hot water burn.

    How are you ever going to reap a return on nuclear without raising peoples power bills beyond their payday for the next 300 years?

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  22. 22. jonljacobi 1:47 pm 03/13/2011

    Excellent treatise.

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  23. 23. KittyAntonikWakfer 3:14 pm 03/13/2011

    Rod Adams replied very clearly and properly, and especially because he is not being anonymous as so many of the fear monger commenters here.

    *Nothing* is without risk! If one truly studies power production/delivery s/he will find that the risks associated with currently designed/built (and even those of 40 years old such as many in Japan & elsewhere) nuclear power are not greater than all risks that accompany all the other methods capable of sustaining (and growing) a modern society. What is not revealed by many in the anti-nuclear power groups is that a modern society is just what they do *not* want – at least for others.

    Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company), the operating company of the Fukushima Daiichi and Fukushima Daini Nuclear Power Stations (those of major concern currently) has been doing a commendable job of keeping the public informed – and in English too!

    From BBC Newsonline:
    1304: A reminder that Japan’s nuclear safety agency rates the incident at level 4 on a scale of 1-7. The accident at Three Mile Island was 5, Chernobyl was 7.

    So it would help greatly if those people who are fearful informed themselves *before* crying, "the sky is falling" and also remember that they put themselves and others in danger every time they drive their cars, and in many other daily activities. Risk is part of life. If you want to reduce it to near zero (it’s never actually there) – stay in bed. But then you won’t live very long either…. and that kind of "life" is hardly worth living IMO.

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  24. 24. grebenkov 8:07 pm 03/13/2011

    I fear the nuclear energy, yes. Hard to not fear, when the nearest nuclear plant is just 30 kilometers away from you, when Chernobyl nuclear waste 25 years ago landed all over your head. But…

    Power plants burning coal, oil and gas are so much worse. Long live nuclear!

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  25. 25. horos22 10:09 pm 03/13/2011

    ok, heavyrunner, I’ll bite.

    Why nuclear power?

    1. our networks have been designed over the course of a century to be top/down, consumer/producer driven. Turning that upside down would be horrifically expensive.
    2. sun, and wind are INTERMITTENT. They need BACKUP. Right now, the total number of batteries in existence could contain only 10 minutes of electricity, given current electricity use. Hence natural gas and coal would be needed for dispatch.
    3. the best places for solar are away from human habitation, which means tons of service roads, truckrolls, etc. to maintain the damn things.
    4. sun and wind have a low energy density. This means that a boatload of nasty chemicals need to be used to make them, and the large footprint contributes to their environmental unfriendliness.
    5. sun and wind cannot produce significant amounts of process heat. 250 degrees C is about it, wheras industrial processes like Haber-Bosch (for fertilizers), Fischer-Troepsch (for oil), Steel refining, aluminum smelting, etc. all require MUCH higher temperatures.

    THESE are the reasons why the solar utopia (so beloved of politicians) ultimately fails in all instances it is tried. (I mean really. Look at spain..) Do you really expect solar to do aluminum smelting, or to drive huge electric arc furnaces that require huge voltages for extended periods?

    I mean really, please get a clue!

    I mean seriously. Do you see a solar

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  26. 26. stuclear 10:13 pm 03/13/2011

    "Confirmation Bias" works both ways. People, like you, predisposed toward promoting nuclear power tend to minimize the unique hazards in the nuclear fuel cycle and to treat dissenters with patronizing contempt. You think it’s cute when you dismiss fear as, "nuke-o-noia"; I find it offensive, destructive of real dialogue.

    I’d be more disposed to think you are reliable had you compared the consequences of over-reaction with those of under-reaction.

    But then, even your own numbers don’t add up. When comparing deaths from Chernobyl with deaths from fossil fuel particulate emissions, you attempt to minimize the horror of a 0.5% death rate at Chernobly (4,000 deaths in a population of 800,000 exposed) by comparing it to a flat number of total deaths from fossil fuels. Even at your highest, most alarmist estimate of 250,000 deaths in the USA, given our population of 300 million, you get a death rate of about 0.0008%! Indeed, those rates are, "not close." Obviously, you are not a scientist.

    What’s worse, the terms of the comparison are loaded. Nuclear industry boosters love to emphasize the fact that nuclear reactors don’t emit particulates in normal operation. Knives don’t emit particulates either, but that doesn’t make them harmless. (The academics call this "misdirection.") On the other hand, fossil fuel power supplies don’t have any hazards that will last for tens of thousands of years after they’ve outlived their usefulness.

    I agree that, "it is vitally important to keep our fears in perspective," but boosters, nuke-o-maniacs, are at least as likely to distort that perspective. What’s really funny is how your ilk pre-emptively decry fearful over-reaction, while what I’m seeing is just the opposite: I find more "anti-fear" talk in the media, with people like you acting as if you were a beleaguered, sober-minded minority rather than representatives of powerful economic interests hoping for a nuclear renaissance.

    As the current disaster unfolds we are already witnessing how uniquely difficult nuclear power can be to manage. You can’t just turn off a reactor. I pray we don’t see a worst-case-scenario. I’m thankful that the Japanese authorities seem to realize that transparency is the only way to a balanced response.

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  27. 27. ChrisF 11:26 pm 03/13/2011

    Could you apologize for the nuclear industry a little harder? I don’t think they can hear you in the back.

    It’s a cheap trick — equating the sun’s rays with nuclear radiation. One is a basic fact of life, the other a completely unnecessary risk invented to cover up for people’s inability to get serious about energy use. No thanks to opinions such as this.

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  28. 28. scientific earthling 12:06 am 03/14/2011

    So what did we learn from 3 mile island and Chernobyl?

    In 2006 when they tried to have a thank you party for all the volunteers who helped entomb the reactor in concrete, none had survived! Scientists had done their exposure analysis and had concluded that every volunteer could safely spend 20 minutes on site. This 20 is becoming a recurring number, the event was 20 years after the meltdown. Sorry! sorry! sorry! I know it is unacceptable to call the event a meltdown, lets call it an incident.

    Yes lets wait this out, we can come to good conclusions in or about the 19th of May 4598.

    Did you know hydrogen implodes not explodes when it rapidly reacts with oxygen to form water? Why because the water condenses almost instantly after the initial expansion (expansion causes cooling), and the contraction is much greater than the early expansion of hot gasses. Why don’t we see this in the hydrogen explosion?

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  29. 29. Lishka 4:21 pm 03/14/2011

    The potential risks of nuclear power are not worth any benefits. If more was invested in tidal and wind power we would not need this horribly dangerous source of power. And I don’t care about statistics of explosions and all of that, Murphy’s law should be adhered to with this issue and the consequences.

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  30. 30. danface 10:01 pm 03/14/2011

    Not to nitpick, but this statement is not true:

    " …and they are honored, and given special rights"

    "Hibakusha and their children were (and still are) victims of severe discrimination due to lack of knowledge about the consequences of radiation sickness, which people believed to be hereditary or even contagious.[12]"

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  31. 31. sofistek 11:55 pm 03/14/2011

    Remember, heavyrunner, that the solar energy that strikes the earth is not for the exclusive use of humans. The infrastructure to "employ" solar energy has already been built; it’s called Earth and it utilises 100% of the solar energy that hits it and is not reflected or otherwise radiated back to space. It powers all life and all energy systems on this planet.

    Nuclear safety requires everything to go right and for societies to remain stable until decommissioning is completed, at the end of a nuclear reactor’s useful life. That’s a big ask. And as nuclear capacity is increased, the statistical chances of a major problem increases. We should not go further down the nuclear road and should, indeed, start to decommission existing plants while we still can.

    David Ropeik is right, though, burning fossil fuels is even more dangerous and that should also be phased out. We need simpler, less resource intensive lifestyles if the human experiment is to continue on this planet – the only planet known to be able to support human life.

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  32. 32. ennui 1:26 am 03/15/2011

    We can use Gravity Control, the force used by the Flying Saucer. I discovered, patented it and offered it to Nasa. It was rejected as it would make the Rocket Industry obsolete. So now I can offer it to the world to generate massive amounts of power, anywhere.
    A one thousand ton weight can be lifted 1000 feet with only a few hundred watts using the technology.
    When it comes down, it can generate many thousands of kilowatts. Much more economical than nuclear, wind, water or solar power. It will work day and night.
    Oil can be used for transportation and gas for industry.
    All electrical requirements for homes and industry can be met at low price. Completely safe at all times.
    Look at > One Terminal Capacitor Joseph Hiddink <

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  33. 33. entombed32 8:45 pm 03/15/2011

    Thank you Dave. As mentioned earlier, I’m sure the mainstream media will gain more ground than your factual article, unfortunately lending the naysayers the panicked fervor they so crave. Those who disagree need to read Dave’s piece again and take an honest look at the statistical facts that compare energy creation death tolls (from natural resource harvesting, such as coal mining, to finished product), production costs, efficiency, etc…and see that nuclear power comes out ahead.

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  34. 34. entombed32 8:48 pm 03/15/2011

    Sounds like an education problem.

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  35. 35. bongobimbo 10:24 pm 03/15/2011

    My oh my, here’s an article by another smarty-pants pundit! I wonder how he feels now that the containment procedures have failed? Isn’t it amazing how the realpolitik Talking Heads always support the military industrial complex and the 1% monopolists and oligarchs who own practically everything?–while assuming that WE are nothing but faceless pawns? I turned 75 yesterday. I’ve been upper-middle class, extremely poor, lived in a 3-story Tudor home and–not by choice–in a fishing shack without electricity or plumbing. I’ve earned my way as a naval officer, third grade & college teacher, folk singer, percussionist, artist, director of three choirs in my beloved Unitarian church, author of books in Medieval dissent and alternate energy, magazine editor, published poet, published illustrator and political button-designer/maker. I’m a still-devoted human rights & antiwar activist, lifelong feminist, niece of a suffragist, niece (on the other side) of a UMW coal miner who died of cancer as did his daughter and grandson, proud daughter of a LaFollette Progressive, have been a rural and urban communard and the first U.S. woman to test an early version of the space suit used by NASA. I’ve had more interesting careers and encounters than most persons, earned academic honors and known dozens of people who deserved to be important–and were. But aside from my joy in being a mother and grandmother, I will shout that the years I devoted to fighting fossil fuel AND nuclear reactor pollution, teaming with my physicist husband and as V-P of an alternate energy consulting firm, were the most rewarding of my life, with the greatest benefit to humanity. Of course Ronald Reagan and his cronies Rumsfeld, Cheney & Rove utterly destroyed what might have been America’s path toward genuine energy independence and social justice, but they are very good at destroying the things we need. Yes, solar panels can fracture, wind towers can fall down, but whatever damage they do is local. Solar and wind DO NOT originate gamma radiation, top secret fracking chemicals, or thousand-mile-wide fish kills all over the place. Grow up, Mr. Ropeik. We, our children and our grandchildren deserve a better world than the one we now live in, dependent on polluting energy sources which generate endless wars and are always controlled by a few rich greedos and their puppet politicians, outrageously costly to both pocketbooks and living things, and too often painfully FATAL.

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  36. 36. grundoon 4:51 am 03/16/2011

    I’m not sure where all you financial experts get your information about nuclear power not being economical but I spent 21 years working at nuclear plant that had four times as many employees as the company’s two equal-sized coal plants (in megawatt capacity) and were paid, on average, 30% more for equal work. In addition, each of the two reactors had to be completely shut down for 20-40 days every 18 months for refueling and scheduled maintenance, and guess what—-we made the company a zillion dollars every year! So, even with four times the employees, and a greater cost per employee, we could still consistantly make money for our employer. Why the extra employees? Radiation Protection, Training, Security, Quality Control, Outage Planning, Nuclear Engineering, Materials Control, Emergency Planning, Procedure writing, etc., etc. You can’t top nuclear plant security procedures. Every reactor operator is federally licensed and trains every fifth week. No one works at a plant–not even for a day–without 4-5 days of standard orientation training. These a just a few of the extra costs that are required to keep the public safe despite which profits are still made. There were some older, small plants that couldn’t generate enough income to justify some of these costs but they were all shut down in the 90′s.

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  37. 37. JDahiya 10:31 am 03/16/2011

    scientific earthling, you said: "Did you know hydrogen implodes not explodes when it rapidly reacts with oxygen to form water? Why because the water condenses almost instantly after the initial expansion (expansion causes cooling), and the contraction is much greater than the early expansion of hot gasses. Why don’t we see this in the hydrogen explosion?"

    Really? I once read that the flame front for hydrogen was supersonic. It was the fastest flame front of all known combustible substances in the table. Now, that was several years ago, and I don’t have the table any more, but surely hydrogen burns explosively? Burning hydrogen is exothermic @ 286 kJ/mol. When condensing from vapour, the water would additionally *release* almost 41 kJ/mol.

    So, why would it implode? If it really does implode, then hydrogen in cars would be safe, so why don’t we have hydrogen cars and why are we worried about them catching fire and … uh, exploding?

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  38. 38. Trojan_Horus 10:56 am 03/16/2011

    The debate about future energy policy is not simply between fossil and nuclear.

    The quantity of fall out from Chernobyl was significantly worse than the two atomic bombs exploded on Japan.

    Never-the-less I agree the sky is not necessarily falling – even in a worst-case scenario. And yes there is a debate to be had about the size and scale of the damage done and who decides energy policies and on what basis these decisions get taken.

    The case for Wind Turbines as they get more and more powerful become increasingly compelling. Neutral scientists with no axe to grind can easily calculate that a mere 6000 state of art wind turbines per State in the US each capable of generating up to 5MW per hour could replace the entire nuclear program. Further the nuclear subsidy for 2011 alone, would be enough to entirely fund it.

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  39. 39. WWINSTON 11:33 am 03/16/2011

    A startling fact has emerged in this nuclear accident in Japan.
    The fact is that all nuclear plants in the world contains a basic error in design, which is just using ONLY ONE hydraulic cooling circuit.
    The most modern plants use the so-called external circuit of cooling, which is an improvement over the old mills. But this is only ONE external circuit, and in case of failure would cause the same phenomenon of Fukushima.
    The principle is basic in engineering: if you have one, in fact you have none.
    The aeronautical engineering widely used this principle, using two engines on airplanes, instead of just one. In nuclear plants the principle was not used.
    Addition of two independent cooling hidraulic CIRCUIT, it would be needed: two or more electric generators for reserve, independent, to moves them. And two separate fuel tanks to ensure supply. All confined in a room, waterproof and armored.

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  40. 40. sonneteer 12:08 pm 03/16/2011

    Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain…
    Yes fossil fuel is killing people, so that’s a reason to choose nuclear energy? As mom used to say, two wrongs don’t make a right. And many of us know that the chemical connection to cancers is being downplayed by our government and industries. We have many in office now who want to do away with the EPA and other regulatory agencies. I think fear is a healthy, reasonable response to the situation in Japan. Fear exists to protect us, something our government is no longer doing. And if you’d lost a child or friend to cancer from one of these disasters, you might not be measuring the risks with such detachment. One death is too many.

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  41. 41. electric38 5:11 pm 03/16/2011

    Nuclear power is, by it’s nature, a monopolized resource. Solar on rooftops is owned by residents and small businesses. Why build something (nuclear reactor, utility solar or wind farm etc.) that will control pricing of electrical power, when millions of people can own the power source. The voltage drop and transmission losses disappear when the power source is local. There is a great resistance from the 1% financial powers that be, to resist the average American owning their own source of electrical power. Why should we need to turn to a physicist to have to interpret the level of danger of the power source? The Japanese people are struggling whether to trust the news they are getting about the levels of radiation, because of the possibility that the political/wealth infrastructure may lie to maintain their monopolistic control. Watch what happens over the long term. I doubt whether any of the re-built cities will want to rely on nuclear power.

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  42. 42. MarianneWildart 9:23 am 06/12/2013

    Sellafield stopped producing electricity in 2003. Sellafield has its own dedicated fossil fuel,plant to ensure security of supply to site…it uses more fossil fuel than any other single user in Cumbria and will need to use fossil fuel indefinately. Fresh water usage is equally profligate. Only Sellafield uses more water than any other user in Cumbria…4 million gallons a day to cool the wastes. This is a kind of madness that is so big it is genius and nuclear cheerleaders want more of the same in the name of climate change …how bizarre.

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