A 9.0 earthquake--the fifth worst on record--has devastated many communities in Japan and compromised countless health and commercial enterprises. We are seeing alarming coverage of the danger of nuclear plant damage. Nonetheless, every time the reporters get below the surface of the story they find that--so far--the actual nuclear contamination is small and limited. For one thing, since the Chernobyl accident in the Ukraine in 1986, new nuclear plants (especially in Japan) have included elaborate containment and other safety provisions. Damage to nuclear power in Japan is likely to prove very expensive as a result of the quake and tsunami, but--relative to the rest of the quake and tsunami aftermath--not in lives lost.
Even in Chernobyl early predictions of thousands of deaths were soon discounted to 50, according the to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and most of those were from workers who went too close to the plant without adequate protection or, apparently, adequate knowledge.
So, yes, let us all agree that a 9.0 earthquake, even in a relatively well-prepared country like Japan, will yield many tragic stories and a horrendous cost.
However, if you think the Japan quake and tsunami spell warnings against nuclear power, ask yourself these questions: How much better would gas plants or oil plants or coal plants have fared? How about hydroelectric dams in a 9.0 quake? How about solar panels and windmills in a 9.0 quake and after a tsunami with 25 feet water surge?
The truth is, natural disasters are dangerous, even if one is prepared. The real lesson for America is to reconsider the building codes and emergency preparedness plans of our West Coast and other threatened areas. We are not in nearly as good shape on those scores as Japan was. But giving up on nuclear energy is not a sound conclusion to draw.