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'The Future of Nukes, and Japan'

Holman Jenkins in today's WSJ:

You can't beat for drama the struggle of Japanese operators to manage the emergency cool-down of nuclear reactors in the tsunami zone. For the things that matter most, though — life and safety — the nuclear battle has been a sideshow. Hundreds were feared dead when entire trains went missing. Whole villages were wiped out with the loss of thousands of inhabitants. So far one worker at one nuclear plant is known to have died in a hydrogen explosion and several others have exhibited symptoms of radiation poisoning.

As for environmental degradation, video testifies to the brown murk that the tsunami waters became when they crossed into land. An infinity of contaminants — sewage, fuels, lubricants, cleaning solvents — have been scattered across the Earth and into aquifers. Radiation releases, meanwhile, haven't been a serious threat to anyone but the plant's brave workers.

Just under a decade ago, when Americans were worried about the vulnerability of nuclear plants to deliberate terrorist destruction, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Nils Diaz gave a notable speech: "In general, I do not believe nuclear power is being portrayed in a balanced manner. . . . This is probably the fault of all of us who know better since there have been strong currents for not mentioning consequences [of nuclear accidents] out loud."

He proceeded to lay out the consequences of Chernobyl, a uniquely bad nuclear accident, in which a graphite core reactor burned in the open air for more than a week. Along with 59 firemen and workers who lost their lives, the failure to evacuate or take other precautionary steps led to 1,800 thyroid cancer cases among children, though fewer than a dozen deaths. "Leukemia has been expected to be among the early primary latent health effects seen among those exposed to significant amounts of radiation," Mr. Diaz continued, "yet excess cases of leukemia that can be attributed to Chernobyl have not been detected."

Do not pretty up what Mr. Diaz was saying. He was not offering risk-free energy. Now think about Japan. It suffered its worst earthquake in perhaps 1,100 years, followed by a direct-hit tsunami on two nuclear plants. Plenty of other industrial systems on which the Japanese rely — transportation, energy, water, food, medical, public safety — were overwhelmed and failed. A mostly contained meltdown of one or more reactors would not be the worst event of the month.

The rest here.

Greg Pollowitz

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'The Future of Nukes, and Japan'

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