The terrible natural disaster in Japan has been compounded by the dangers presented by radiation from the damaged nuclear power plant. As should come as no surprise, this has caused a world wide renewal of concern regarding nuclear power.
On one hand, the fear people have about nuclear power can be irrational and based on beliefs that are not entirely accurate. In part, these fears are grounded in atomic weapons. It is, after all, natural for people to associate the horrors of nuclear weapons with nuclear power plants, even though power plants do not work like nuclear bombs. In part, these fears are also grounded in fiction-radiation, mutation, and so on are put forth in science fiction and horror in ways that have branded them into the public mind. The fact that folks in the media tend to hype things and that the nuclear industry has done little to educate the public do not help matters.
While I do know a bit about nuclear power and radiation, I do have the same “gut fear” of radiation that most folks no doubt possess. As such, I am very sympathetic to people who are very scared of nuclear power and those who oppose it. However, I temper my fear with knowledge and hence I do consider nuclear power well worth considering. True, my ideal power source is nuclear fusion-but that is still the stuff of science fiction.
On the other hand, nuclear power plants can pose very real and very serious health and environmental risks. Accidents are always possible (though thankfully rare) and, of course, there is the concern that a natural disaster will (as happened in Japan) cripple or destroy a plant.
Because of these legitimate concerns, it is wise to be rather careful about nuclear power and the real risks that it presents. However, this assessment should be based on a rational consideration of the dangers and the benefits and should not be grounded in irrational or unfounded fears about nuclear power and radiation.
That said, it is obvious that we are in a phase in which politicians will be reacting to the events in Japan and people will be motivated by their fears. For example, people on the West coast of the US have been running to buy potassium iodide, despite the fact that there is (and almost certainly will not be) any radiation threat in the United States from Japan. As another example, some countries are shutting down reactors. While I am all for rational preparations and for due safety, we need to avoid being swept along by the events and fears of the moment.
Of course, it is almost certainly a waste of keystrokes to type that. After all, we tend to react rather than be proactive and are inevitably caught up in whatever is hitting the headlines this week. Then we generally forget until the next disaster, then we wonder why we did not do much (or anything) differently. But, I am sure we will learn our lesson this time.