Monday, March 21, 2011

On Nuclear Disasters (or "The Sky is Falling")

A quick quiz.
How many people were killed as a result of the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown? How many people got serious radiation poisoning? How many people got light doses of radiation poisoning? How much radiation carpeted the countryside?
Answers to the above: none, none, none, and none.
The nuclear problem in Japan is a different story, sort of. It's still ongoing, of course, so it's hard to tell what is going to happen, but as of this date the answers to the quiz would be the same. That's kind of lost in all the hysteria about nuclear energy. Here's a nuke that got a double whammy, earthquake and tsunami, and has still released only very small amounts of radiation, amounts small enough that they are detectable but not life-threatening. Now, no one wants to eat sushi that glows in the dark, but "radiation" is a word that carries such ominous overtones that we forget it's really an everyday part of life, and that we are irradiated constantly by a variety of things.
If you look at the news coverage, though, you'd assume that all of the seacoast of Japan was bathed in the kind of greenish glow you see in sci-fi films, and that the damage from the earthquake and the tsunami is merely an afterthought to the nuclear disaster that has overtaken us all.
The truth is that more than 18,000 people have died and that so far nuclear radiation has had nothing to do with those deaths.
In the end, I think that the nuclear plant problems will reveal heroic efforts, grim possibilities, some short term problems, but will ultimately be a footnote to the larger horror that is the devastation of the earthquake and the flooding.