Nuclear Power’s Volatile Reputation: Repercussions of the Fukushima Accident

First there was Three Mile Island, then Chernobyl, now Fukushima.

After more than 20 years without a major nuclear accident, just as many people began to trust nuclear power again, an unforeseeable earthquake and its consequences reignite  fears about nuclear power. Statistically, nuclear energy is relatively safe, sustainable and low-cost, but the most recent nuclear crisis has once again damaged the industry, potentially setting us back in terms of efficient energy production.

To keep up with energy demands, India has decided to build 20 nuclear plants, but after the crisis at Fukushima, the government’s plans now face dissent from a segment of the Indian population.

Courtesy of The Boston Globe

Led by Greenpeace, about 100 protesters from Jaitapur, India marched on Indian Parliament today in a reaction to the devastation in Japan. Protesters demanded that the government end its plans to build a nuclear plant in Jaitapur and delivered a petition to the prime minister’s office with 73,000 names.

Concerns over the safety of nuclear power plants have sparked demonstrations for decades.

After the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, Jane Fonda and Ralph Nader spoke at a demonstration in New York City in front of an audience of 200,000. In addition, the rock ‘n’ roll community took to the stage in protest. The Doobie Brothers; Bonnie Raitt; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; James Taylor, Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band all performed at Madison Square Garden at the corresponding “No Nukes” concert.

Nuclear power took another major blow to its reputation after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 when a sudden power surge caused a series of explosions, sending radioactive smoke fallout over a large geographical area. The event ultimately caused about 56 deaths, thousands of cancer cases and serious concerns about the safety of nuclear power to resurface.

Nuclear power is actually relatively safe, but the fear that takes over in the wake of any kind of accident drowns out most of the facts. The World Nuclear Association (WNA) issued a document in response to the Fukushima accident which assures, “apart from Chernobyl, no nuclear workers or members of the public have ever died as a result of exposure to radiation due to a commercial nuclear reactor incident.”

Courtesy of World Nuclear News

The U.S. nuclear industry is already scrambling to save the reputation of nuclear power. Marvin Fertel, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, asserts that all 104 US nuclear plants are checking safety precautions and the ability to withstand severe conditions. Plants are specifically designed to minimize radiation release even during an accident. He states that even after this disaster, the people of Japan will need to continue using a clean, reliable energy source such as nuclear power.

Courtesy of World Nuclear Association

We cannot maintain our way of life without this supposedly risky power source or other alternative energy sources. In the U.S., for example, nuclear power supplies 19% of the electrical energy. In France, that number jumps to 80%. Overall, nuclear power supplies about 13-14% of the world’s electrical energy.

Although nuclear energy is be under fire yet again, few forms of energy are without potential risks (oil rig deaths totaled 598 between 2002 and 2007, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).

The inescapable reality, however, is that before we turn our back on any form of energy, we have to identify how we would replace that energy. And in the wake of the spreading revolutions in Egypt, Libya and other oil-rich nations, that question has suddenly become more difficult to answer.

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