Illusions of Safety

Stopping new nuclear plants will not make the world any safer.

The ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is apparently becoming only increasingly dangerous, with senior U.S. officials publicly warning Americans to stay at least fifty miles away from the facility—four times the distance recommended by Japanese authorities—and with those at the scene employing desperate measures including fire-fighting helicopters and riot-control water cannons in efforts to cool down reactors and spent fuel. 

The grim battle with failed and failing equipment at the plant and the fear of what still might happen have provoked predictable questions about the safety of nuclear power. These are legitimate questions in view of the potential consequences of a severe nuclear accident and there are no doubt important lessons to be learned from what has taken place. But the argument that if Japan cannot build a safe nuclear reactor no one can—advanced by the Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum, among others—is fundamentally flawed.

Safety is never absolute, whether in nuclear power plants, office buildings, automobiles, or any other product of human civilization. On the contrary, safety is normally balanced against cost, with the appropriate balance determined through the interaction of the engineers who design and build things with public officials who regulate them and (in free-market democracies like Japan and the United States) people who decide whether or not to spend additional money to buy a safer car or better health insurance or, alternatively, to pay higher electricity bills for a more robustly designed nuclear plant.

Applebaum, in fairness, acknowledges this. But she then rails against these calculations, at least in the case of nuclear energy, arguing that they do not reflect “the true costs of nuclear power” whether in waste disposal, accident cleanup, health care, or other areas. The problem with this argument is that while nuclear power may have some additional costs in these areas, officials and publics do not make the decision to pursue nuclear power or other energy sources in a vacuum. They choose nuclear power as one alternative among many and (with the exception of France and handful of others) generally as a modest component in a balanced portfolio of energy projects—in which all of the other sources of energy have their own “true” costs.

It is especially ironic for Applebaum to oppose nuclear power so vigorously in view of her other positions. For example, she has frequently expressed great concern at Russia’s efforts to use its gas exports to Germany and to Central Europe for political leverage. Yet if these countries—whose Soviet-constructed nuclear power stations are less safe than Japan’s—were to abandon nuclear power as Applebaum advocates, they would become far more dependent on Russian gas. Forty-six percent of Ukraine’s domestic electricity generation comes from nuclear power. If any of these governments sought to avoid both nuclear power and Russian gas imports, they would likely be driven on cost grounds toward coal, which would seriously undermine efforts to stop and reverse climate change. Applebaum acknowledges the climate problem but fails to address it.

Wind power, solar energy, and the like do not significantly change these energy dilemmas in Europe or anywhere else in the world. So the “true cost” of abandoning nuclear power includes a significant cost to the climate. And it is not simply a question of building additional nuclear generating capacity; the long pause in nuclear plant construction in the United States means that a major construction effort will be required simply to maintain the nuclear energy’s current share of America’s total electricity supply, around twenty percent.

More generally, while nuclear emergencies like Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and now Fukushima Daiichi are very dramatic, costly, and dangerous, they should be kept in perspective. Far more people have probably died in elevator accidents than nuclear accidents, yet elevators are considered completely safe and routine. One could argue that insufficiently safe elevators, or cars, or toasters can affect only a few people at a time—but as a practical matter there are far more of these items in use. Yet the impact of engineering decisions in manufacturing elevators or other common products is widely distributed in time and space, so there is little or no public outcry.

Many see public policy and regulation as dry topics that are less dramatic and also less violent than decisions of war and peace. In reality, however, these decisions—how safe is safe enough?—are some of the most ruthless in modern society, whether they apply to nuclear power plant designs or to requiring vaccinations that will unquestionably save millions from terrible diseases while equally unquestionably killing or injuring the fraction of a percent of people who have statistically predictable adverse reactions. While nothing can be one hundred percent safe, Japan, and the United States, can make nuclear power even safer than it already is—for a price. At some specific sites, existing and planned, this may be worth it. But stopping new nuclear plants will not make the world any safer, it will only shift the costs to other less visible areas.