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.