Jacob Heilbrunn

Japan's Nuclear Problem

The earthquake and nuclear crisis in Japan have been good for Col. Gadafi. By and large, they have overshadowed his murderous campaign to extirpate the rebels opposing his rule. The blunt fact is that Japan is more important than Libya. And one big problem that the Japanese crisis poses for the rest of the world, apart from the humanitarian toll, is the question of nuclear power.

The Wall Street Journal wades into the fray today to argue that fears of nuclear power are hyped. The safer we become, the more scared we get, argues the WSJ. No Chernobyl is about to occur. And so on.

But it won't be quite as easy as that to defend nuclear power, which unquestionably has become a major source of power, especially for France, Germany, and Japan. Can it be run safely? The reactors going blooey in the old Fukushima Daichi plant have to give anyone pause. Chernobyl is not the measure. What's occuring in Japan offers no grounds for complacency.

Putting power plants in earthquake zones like California is going to come under fresh review. And the boosters of nuclear power overlook the psychological terror that radiation (invisible) has on the average person. The pictures of four-year-olds lining up for radiation screening just aren't going to go over well. And the distribution of iodine pills in Japan, which the WSJ hails, is not likely to ease fears, either.

The problem with nuclear waste and radiation is that, for all intents and purposes, its permanent. The area around Chernobyl is a wasteland. The accident helped bring down the Soviet Union. It couldn't bring protect its own people, let alone create a socialist paradise.

The political shock in Japan and elsewhere is likely to be formidable. In Germany, chancellor Angela Merkel is pushing a plan to allow aging nuclear plants to operate for another twelve years. That's almost certain to be a nonstarter.

Nuclear power isn't going away. But the shift back toward it has experienced more than a road bump. It's hit a crash barrier.