There’s so much we don’t know yet about the situation in Japan. And there’s so much yet to happen — we don’t know how bad this is all going to get. For that and many other reasons, I don’t want to try to say anything definitive. But as we watch this very frightening situation unfold in Japan, I think it’s worth keeping a few thoughts in mind.We saw a catastrophic accident with fossil fuels in the Gulf last year. What seems more relevant to me is that the proper and planned use of fossil fuels — in other words, when everything goes just according to plan — is creating what appears to be catastrophic damage on a planetary scale. What’s more, setting aside global warming, there is a detailed scientific literature showing the number of deaths and chronic illnesses tied to the release of fossil fuel pollution into the air — lung diseases, asthma, cancer, etc. Again, when all goes just according to plan.
None of these are facts we don’t know. But even for those who are fairly versed in the details about global warming, it’s still sort of long-term and invisible and thus somehow less threatening. Whereas ‘radiation’, for all sorts of reasons, is just scary. It’s invisible and we know it can kill people quickly. Or create diseases like cancer that our medical sciences are still largely helpless to control.
If we imagine a hundred years into the future of fossil fuels and a hundred of nuclear power, at the end of a century, how much damage do we imagine each will have caused? I suspect that if it’s really an either/or, the nuclear route is likely much safer.
Again, I’m not wanting to say anything definitive. But even at these moments when we see the most frightening side of nuclear power, I think we should still draw back and look at the global — meant both literally and figuratively — costs of different fuels and consider the possibility that nuclear power is actually safer for our own health and that of the planet.