Learning Wrong Lessons from Nuclear Disaster in Japan

Smoke rises from Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex
in this still image from video footage March 14, 2011.
Photograph: Reuters Tv/Reuters

I fear that as a world, and particularly in this country, we are taking away the wrong lessons from the nuclear disasters happening in Japan as a result of the 5th worst earthquake in history and a tsunami.

Do not get me wrong, the devastation in Japan is real and horrible, but saying that because of the nuclear problems happening right now we should stop all development of nuclear energy in this country is short sighted and will lead to more dirty fossil fuel power plants.

Nuclear reactors have come a long way since 1979 when the ones in Japan were built and around when the last ones in the US were constructed. Since then, many passive and active safety systems have been integrated into their design that would not require the grid power or backup generators to function and still ensure that the fuel rods are cooled and radiation contained. I am not a nuclear engineer, so I will not try to explain the details of such safety systems, but I have had them explained by nuclear engineers and respect what I heard.

Think about the modern automobile and the safety systems that have been invented and implemented since 1979. Seat belts with shoulder straps are standard. Car seats are required for kids. I remember riding around in the back of our station wagon as a kid, even taking naps on long trips without a seatbelt. Think about air bags, they didn’t exist 30 years ago, let alone be standard and available to protect back seat passengers as well. Traction control and anti-lock brakes are two more and the list goes on and on of safety improvements from the last three decades of innovation.

Also, let us consider what might have happen had those been conventional power plants. If those had been coal plants, think of the resulting pollution from the toxic coal ash that would have been spread out by the tsunami. How about a ruptured natural gas pipelines that would be spewing methane into the atmosphere. Methane as a green house gas that is 20x more potent than CO2.

The BBC has a good Q&A about the Nuclear disaster in Japan.  The Register also has some great non-sensationalized analysis of the events surrounding the Fukushima Reactors.

What I think we should learn from the 8.9 Magnitude Earthquake only 231 miles from Tokyo is that proper building codes can make all the difference in the world between life and death.  Just consider that the much smaller 7.0 Magnitude Earthquake in Haiti leveled much of the country, where as cities remained intact through the quake in Japan. 

Most of the destruction was caused by the tsunami, not the earthquake.

I think we should use the success of the strict building codes minimizing the destruction from this major catastrophe to support strict energy efficiency in building codes going forward to minimize the devastation from the oncoming catastrophe of climate change.  Opponents will site higher initial building costs, but just think of the true costs, both financial and in human lives, had Japan opted for the cheaper building codes.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Japan as they recover from this catastrophe and our hopes are that we learn the right lessons from this trial and come out better for it in the long run.

Happy Greening!

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  1. Some real science and information about the events at the Fukushiima Reactors http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/03/14/fukushiima_analysis/

  2. I pray that Japan will be able to solve the nuclear crisis caused by the earthquake and tsunami.

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