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Irrational Fears

We should think sensibly about nuclear energy’s risks.

climate scientists have consistently demonstrated how important it will be to drastically reduce human-­generated carbon emissions. Yet almost no progress has been made. Hydroelectric power is reliable and cheap, but there aren’t enough suitable sites to satisfy our energy demands. Wind and solar energy don’t provide consistent output, and battery technology would have to improve significantly to solve that problem. Today, renewables are just an expensive supplement to an electricity system based on coal and natural gas.

Nathan Myhrvold
Nathan Myhrvold

There is one source of carbon-­emission-free energy that is cheap, reliable, and proven to work on a large scale: nuclear power (see “Nuclear Options”). It often gets a bad rap because of perceived safety problems. In reality, it has become a sort of litmus test for societal rationality. People have a hard time estimating some kinds of risks. For example, they fret about the safety of flying but show little concern for driving, despite statistics showing that cars kill vastly more people than planes do.

Similarly, incidents like Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima capture our attention but mislead us as to the risks. Statistics from the World Health Organization and other sources suggest that coal kills about 4,000 times as many people per unit of energy produced as nuclear power does. That counts only here-and-now effects such as air pollution and ignores long-term damage due to climate change.

A close look at Fukushima is instructive. The tsunami killed about 16,000 people; radiation from the reactor has killed none. In fact, the nuclear accident was entirely preventable. The plant has a 40-year-old design lacking modern safety features. Worse, it was designed to withstand only 5.7-meter tsunamis in a region known to endure waves of 20 meters or more. Numerous design decisions proved disastrous. For example, the backup generators for the plant’s safety systems were located near the sea, at the lowest point in the complex. Cooling ponds for spent nuclear fuel were located on the roof, making them vulnerable to leaks when the building was damaged.

The real lesson of Fukushima is that we should build modern nuclear plants and show some common sense about where they are located. Building out coal kills far more people, and continuing to emit carbon dioxide causes planetwide risks that dwarf those associated with radiation leaks. Even Japan is coming around to this point of view, after a sharp rise in both energy costs and carbon emissions. Mature societies must be driven by facts, not our irrational fears.

Nathan Myhrvold is a cofounder of Intellectual Ventures, whose subsidiary TerraPower is designing a novel nuclear reactor.