March 20th, 2011
07:23 PM ET

Fareed's Take: Hold judgment on nuclear power

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

We are all watching Japan's nuclear fallout with ever-increasing alarm.

The Japanese government and all countries that are helping out in that country are trying to focus first and foremost on containing this crisis, protecting workers, and limiting exposure. That’s correct. The next step will be learning lessons from these events for the future of nuclear power.

When we get to that stage, I think it's very important to consider all the facts, put this terrible event in context, and let reason rather than emotion play the larger part in our judgment.

It's difficult not to get spooked by terms like "meltdown," "radiation clouds," and "radioactive leakage." But let's remember that nuclear reactors have operated peacefully, quietly, and safely for decades in countries from Japan to France to the United States.

Over the last five decades, there has been just one nuclear accident that caused any deaths at all - at Chernobyl, and that was a poorly designed reactor, unlike any of the ones in the United States or Japan. It had almost no safety codes or procedures.

The accident at 3 Mile Island in the United States did not actually kill anyone. There was no significant radiation leakage because in the US – as in Japan – all reactors have steel or concrete containers to prevent such leakage. That's why there were no illness resulting from radiation after the 3 Mile island accident.

And the new plants that have been built in the last decade are safer – the OECD says 1,600 times safer than the old ones. And the 3rd generation reactors being planned now, which will be built later, are safer even than those.

Now, all energy sources have their risks when being extracted.

Oil and coal have far worse safety records than even decades-old nuclear plants. The BP oil spill, for example, was triggered by an explosion that instantly killed 11 workers and then poured 4 millions barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

In a thoughtful article in Slate, Will Saletan does the math and finds that if you add up all the deaths caused by oil explosions and the like, the rate of death per unit of energy extracted is 18 times worse for oil than it is for nuclear energy. With hundreds of people dying in mining accidents, coal is also much more likely to kill people working on it or around it than nuclear. And none of this counts the millions of people who get diseases and die a premature death thanks to pollution.

I know there is something about nuclear power that worries us. But it's important not to make huge public policy decisions based on perception rather than reality.

When a plane crashes and hundreds of people die, we immediately panic and worry about flying. But we tend to forget that almost 50,000 Americans die every year in accidents on highways, making the act of getting into your car by far the most dangerous thing that an American will do every day.

We need all the sources of energy we can find. No one source is going to satisfy the world's energy needs. Every one has some costs and some benefits. Nuclear energy can be scaled and it is clean.

We need to design the safest possible plants with the maximum number of back-up procedures. So far, that is the lesson we should draw from this tragedy in Japan.

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Topics: Fareed's Take • GPS Show • Nuclear

soundoff (359 Responses)
  1. Pete

    I haven't heard anyone ask what the impact of the radiation fall-out will be on the oceans around the reactors, and the impact on fish, which we will all eat?

    March 22, 2011 at 11:09 am | Reply
    • trickey

      Worst case:
      Minute marine life very close to Fukushima Daichi may succumb. Some will pass up to the food chain. Some whales may bio accumulate significant contamination. Stop eating whales from the ocean near north Japan for a few years, just to be completely safe. Is that too hard? I am not a marine life expert, so get a second opinion if you are seriously worried.

      By the way, are you okay with eating the fish from the Gulf?

      March 23, 2011 at 6:15 am | Reply
  2. Fastbreak

    Quote: ""Over the last five decades, there has been just one nuclear accident that caused any deaths at all – at Chernobyl,...""

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_civilian_nuclear_accidents

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_nuclear_and_radiation_accidents_by_death_toll

    There seems to be a "slight" discrepancy between the statement by FZ and the factsheets in Wikipedia.
    I'll let everyone jump to his or her own conclusions :)

    March 22, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Reply
    • Bafflepitch

      Fastbreak,

      I am surprised at all the deaths from radiotherapy!

      March 23, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Reply
  3. Evan

    Rooftop solar does make sense. Ours produces between 60 and 70% of the electricity used in the home. Yes, it was expensive to install, but on energy savings alone, and assuming no price increase, the break even point on the out-of-pocket costs is around seven years. Granted, the out-of-pocket costs are the result of substantial subsidies in the form of a federal tax credit and a state rebate. But, as with anything else, as economies of scale kick in and as more efficient panels can be made, costs will go down (incidentally, labor costs to install were more than half of the total expenses, and here in northern Illinois, putting just about any construction worker to work is sorely needed).

    Nuclear has its place, but it is not the panacea its proponents want it to be. The risks are really immense. The waste product issue is unanswered. The costs per kwh generated are by far the most expensive of any of the three major forms of generation. Those costs are only going up when the "occassional" disaster is factored into the equation.

    If a fraction of what the country is willing to spend on nuclear was devoted toward developing solar and wind, both of those technologies would quickly develop, and be able to substantially contribute to an overall power grid that works towards being green, and towards getting away from fossil fuel dependancy – a dependancy, in the case of oil, that should include at least some of the expenses of our wars when calculating what it really costs.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:24 am | Reply
  4. gatorgator

    Well, probably Japan has the safest standard for many including nuclear plants in the world, but this accident happened even though unbelievably huge earthquakes and tsunami caused this event.

    Probably Japan's plat was the safest, but 3/11 tragedy proved that natural disaster could be far beyond human technology. This happened in not poor or undevelopped countries but Japan!!

    If the same happen to the US, the situation could be worse.

    I do not think we should stop building new nuclear plants because we need and they are relatively clean.

    However, we should know true knowledges without getting confused by the medias which tell us only the worst case of Fukushima. We should learn from Fukushima, and we should make even safer plant.

    March 24, 2011 at 6:47 pm | Reply
  5. Human conscience

    I have read every single post in this thread and have been contemplating the nuclear matter for some time, consuming all information and opinions available. I am not an expert, but a concerned citizen.

    I have two simple questions for proponents of nuclear power:

    1) Is it possible, at all, that another disaster such as Chernobyl could happen in any operating nuclear plants, or in future plants yet to be designed and built?

    2) If such an event were to occur, are we willing to leave the result as heritage to our descendants, for any justification we should see fit to provide?

    I think the answer to the first question is "yes", and the answer to the second question is "no". Therefore, all cost-benefits aside, I cannot in good conscience approve, support, or quietly abide nuclear power generation.

    Many other arguments, on both sides, are compelling – when taken in part. But holistically, I believe the two questions I have offered are entirely sufficient to quell any dissent on the matter, in that a given person will answer yes+yes, no+no, yes+no, or no+yes, and no further discussion is required about the facts – at this point we have gotten to the heart of the matter and identified the fundamental difference between the "pro" and "con" camps.

    If it is true that "nothing is better", than "nothing" it is to be, indeed...

    March 24, 2011 at 11:10 pm | Reply
    • Human conscience

      ... but fortunately, that's not really true. Right?

      Even the worst risks from alternative sources, when given the same test, answer "yes" and "yes" – that is, I would leave my descendants with the worst oil disaster imaginable (for example) for the justifications we will offer them. Along the spectrum of preferability, there is a "yes" somewhere for all the other sources except nuclear.

      Here're my own calculations:

      According to Wikipedia, humans use approximately 150,000 TWh of energy (not just electricity) every year.

      At 250 days of sun for 8 hours a day, a "1-watt solar panel" generates 2KWh of electricity per year.

      Divide these two figures (demand by production) and you get a required supply of 75 trillion 1-watt panels.

      Real panels come in larger denominations, such as industrial KW panels. So we would need 75 billion such real-world panels.

      You can buy – no bulk discount or economy of scale – a solar panel at $1.76 per watt. Double this cost for all overhead.

      Total expenditure: less than $250 trillion, for 100% of the world's energy needs, not just electricity. If they last for 25 years (minimum lifetime of a solar plant at >80% of rated capacity) then the cost is $10 trillion per year.

      That is equivalent to 13% of annual GWP ($10 trillion out of $75 trillion); we currently spend 10-14% of GDP on energy depending on who you ask.

      I think this sounds like a fine plan to me.

      March 24, 2011 at 11:12 pm | Reply
  6. Jason

    http://www.theoildrum.com/node/7706

    You're right, Fareed, let's hold off on the judgment for now.

    March 25, 2011 at 11:35 am | Reply
  7. David Orr

    Fareed's "Take" on nuclear power sounds like it came straight from the Nuclear Energy Institute. Talking points! Corporate PR blather that is designed to prevent a serious discussion about nuclear power in the U.S. And that's precisely what the industry wants - no discussion. Just tell us that since no one has been killed (directly) by one of the (many) nuclear plant accidents over the past 40 years that it's safe. Oops! Sorry. This is not about how many people have died (or will die) so much as it is about the industry's ability to safely operate an aging fleet of plants that include nearly 3 dozen similar to Fukushima's. I have lost a huge amount of respect for Fareed Zakaria (and for CNN) for running a commercial for the nuclear industry, masquerading as informed commentary from an independent journalist.

    April 3, 2011 at 6:34 pm | Reply
  8. Brent E

    Wow Fareed, very SELECTIVE information here. Suspiciously so. I usually agree and respect your opinions and insights. But after this blatant commercial for the Nuclear Energy Institute, you have soiled yourself.

    How about how many innocent victims result from radioactive leaks? Do your research and see what horror STILL EXISTS in Russia to this day. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_disaster

    Nuclear energy is NEITHER CLEAN OR SAFE. That is the truth. There's no other way to spin it.

    April 6, 2011 at 11:47 pm | Reply
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