A nuclear catastrophe is potentially unfolding in Japan after the country's eastern seaboard was devastated by its biggest earthquake on record. A tsunami with waves of up to thirty feet high swept away entire villages and damaged major industries, including oil refineries and at least two nuclear power plants.
Two explosions occurred at a nuclear facility in Fukushima Prefecture over the weekend. At least one of its reactors may have experienced a partial meltdown after its coolant pumps failed. In the aftermath of the quake, engineers attempted to cool down the reactor using sea water.
Nearly two hundred thousand people in the vicinity of the plant were being evacuated out of precaution. Eighteen people were believed to have suffered radiation poisoning.
While the emergency in Japan almost immediately triggered another discussion about the pros and cons of nuclear energy, it may be worth remembering that Japan has fifty-three nuclear power plants. After the United States and France, it has the most nuclear plants in the world which provide more than a third of Japan's energy needs.
Because Japan has so very few natural resources, it is highly dependent on the import of fossil fuels. Nuclear energy has been a strategic priority for Japan since the 1970s in an attempt to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil and natural gas.
While Japan has had accidents with nuclear power in the past, it has some of the world's most skilled engineers and scientists in the field and quite possibly the most modern nuclear energy industry in the world. It has also learned to live with earthquakes and among the world's most rigorous of building codes which probably saved countless of lives in the most recent disaster.
Since the 1950s there have only been two major accidents with nuclear power---the partial core meltdown of a reactor of the Three Mile Island station near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1979 and the Chernobyl incident of 1986. Both events led to more stringent safety requirements for existing and new plants. The situation in Fukushima will probably produce additional insights and lessons for future nuclear power plant construction.
While accidents with nuclear power are potentially catastrophic, other energy sources are much more fatal.
Nearly nine hundred people died in coal mining since 1980 in the United States alone. Even wind turbines have caused more deaths than the nuclear power industry. The very opponents of nuclear energy often allege that entire wars are fought over oil. No country has ever invaded another to seize its nuclear power plants.
Nuclear power is much safer and much cleaner than traditional sources of electricity. It is reliable and efficient unlike wind and solar. A nation as France is almost entirely energy independent because of it.
The opposition to nuclear power is not based on science. It is not based on facts. The people who fear nuclear power do not understand how it works and cannot comprehend that man is able to master its technology. But he is---and he should.