Tuesday, April 5, 2011

It's the tsunami, stupid

Political strategist James Carville, seeking to maintain focus in Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign, hung a sign in the campaign headquarters. The sign read: It's the economy, stupid.

Short and sweet -- and directly on point.

In the aftermath of last month's disasters in Japan, I feel the need (not that this blog has Jim Carville's influence!) to point out: It's the tsunami, stupid. Contrary to the conclusions one might draw from ongoing press coverage, the Fukushima reactors are not a major source of catastrophe in Japan. Not even close ...

As I write, the dead-and-missing tally stands at 28,000. The death toll from radiation leaks? Zero. (Two workers were found dead on the site, but are believed to have died of injuries sustained in the earthquake.)

It's easy to find alarmist stories about radiation leaks from the Fukushima plants -- Google away; take your pick -- but fewer that put the incident into any sort of perspective. The Wall Street Journal, to its credit, was quick, as in its piece "Japan Does Not Face Another Chernobyl," published just three days after the quake.

It took the Washington Post three weeks, but they eventual published a sober article contrasting the health risks of nuclear with other means of generating electricity. See: "Nuclear power is safest way to make electricity, according to study." A choice quote: "In the months after the world’s worst nuclear disaster, in Chernobyl in 1986, about 50 people died. In the next-biggest accident, at Three Mile Island in 1979, no one did."

The highly condensed version:
  • mining coal and drilling for petroleum are dangerous. In its coal-mining article, Wikipedia indicates ~30 deaths/year in the US -- and sometimes as high as 6,000/year in China. (They mine a LOT of coal in China.)
  • Burning coal leads to deaths among the public from pollution. Many more fatalities can be attributed to burning coal (e.g., deaths from asthma attacks and emphysema) than to radiation leaks.
Should nuclear plants be phased out because, in some hypothetical worst case, there could be worse problems? I'll answer, emphatically: No! It's the tsunami, stupid.  The dead and missing would have been dead and missing with or without nuclear plants in the area. It would be much more logical to say (though I'm not saying it) that the event's lesson is passenger trains should not travel along coasts. Several trains filled with passengers evidently washed out to sea.

Tech is the solution, not the problem. Without tech and the prosperity it enables, many more surely would have died. It takes tech and prosperity to build earthquake-resistant buildings, to deploy tsunami early-warning systems, to dispatch search-and-rescue teams from around the world, to mobilize aid contributions from around the globe, and to rebuild.

How much technology would we have without reliable sources of electricity? How much prosperity?

Not everyone has had a near-jerk "nukes are bad" reaction. Environmental activist George Monbiot reached the opposite lesson in his think piece, "Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power."

I hope his open mind is contagious. Because if the lesson of the Sendai quake is "no nukes" and the lesson of the BP oil-platform explosion is "no offshore drilling" and the lesson of the next disaster is "no XYZ" ... pretty soon we'll all be fuming in the dark.

1 comment:

Erik said...

This one seems to have you (understandably) upset. I like trying to keep things in perspective by trying to think of them objectively. While it might seem cold to think of a tragedy in terms of its death count or $ damage amount, it can be helpful when comparing two such tragedies together. The earthquake and the nuclear 'disaster' are a good example.

Speaking of tech being a good thing, I read that Japan's super-new expensive earthquake early warning system paid of huge dividends during this disaster.