WSJ.com REVIEW & OUTLOOK MARCH 14, 2011
Modern life requires learning from disasters, not fleeing all risk.
After a once-in-300-years earthquake, the Japanese have been keeping cool amid the chaos, organizing an enormous relief and rescue operation, and generally earning the world's admiration. We wish we could say the same for the reaction in the U.S., where the troubles at Japan's nuclear reactors have produced an overreaction about the risks of modern life and technology.
Part of the problem is the lack of media proportion about the disaster itself. The quake and tsunami have killed hundreds, and probably thousands, with tens of billions of dollars in damage. The energy released by the quake off Sendei is equivalent to about 336 megatons of TNT, or 100 more megatons than last year's quake in Chile and thousands of times the yield of the nuclear explosion at Hiroshima. The scale of the tragedy is epic.
Yet the bulk of U.S. media coverage has focused on a nuclear accident whose damage has so far been limited and contained to the plant sites. In simple human terms, the natural destruction of Earth and sea have far surpassed any errors committed by man.
Given the incomplete news reports, it is impossible to say how much worse the nuclear damage will be. Unlike the Soviets at Chernobyl, the Japanese have been taking sensible precautions like evacuating people near the plants and handing out iodine pills even if they may never be needed. These precautions increase public worry, but better to take them even if they prove to be unnecessary.
We will have plenty of time to dissect events at the reactors and the safety lessons going forward. William Tucker provides some useful context nearby, and one crucial point is that the containment walls seem to have held. These walls are designed to withstand quakes and explosions, and it is good news if they have done so. The crisis seems to have been triggered by the failure of diesel generators that provided electricity to cool the reactors once they were shut down. Mr. Tucker explains that this weakness has been corrected in new nuclear plant designs.
We have no special brief for nuclear power over any other energy source. Our view is that it should compete with other sources on a market basis, without subsidies or government loan guarantees. Every energy source has risks and economic externalities, whether they are noise and bird kills (wind), huge land requirements (solar), rig explosions and tanker spills (oil), or mining accidents (coal).
But more than other energy sources, nuclear plants have had their costs increased by artificial political obstacles and delay. The U.S. hasn't built a new nuclear plant since 1979, after the Three Mile Island meltdown, even as older nuclear plants continue to provide 20% of the nation's electricity.
The Tennessee Valley Authority is a couple of years away from completing a reactor at Watts Bar after years of effort. Proposals for 20 new reactors to be built over the next 15 to 20 years are in various stages of review in the multiyear approval process at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, with two each in Georgia and South Carolina at the front of the line. But the much-ballyhooed "nuclear renaissance" is a long way off, and it will be longer after events in Japan.
Our larger point is less about nuclear power than how we react as a society to inevitable disasters, both natural and man-made. Because a plane crashes, we don't stop flying. Because an oil rig explodes in the Gulf, we don't (or at least we shouldn't) stop drilling for oil. And because the Challenger space shuttle blew up, we didn't stop shuttle flights—though we do seem to have lost much of our national will for further manned space exploration. We should learn from the Japanese nuclear crisis, not let it feed a political panic over nuclear power in general.
The paradox of material and technological progress is that we seem to become more risk-averse the safer it makes us. The more comfortable we become, the less eager we are to take the risks that are the only route to future progress. The irony is that one reason Japan has survived this catastrophic event as well as it has is its great material development and wealth.
Modern civilization is in the daily business of measuring and mitigating risk, but its advance requires that we continue to take risk. It would compound Japan's tragedy if the lesson America learns is that we should pursue the illusory and counterproductive goal of eliminating all risk.