Saturday, July 3, 2010


An interesting thought occurred to me late last night. Thanks to the "smoke and mirrors" nature of ionizing radiation (as well as the newer threat of terrorism), many people fear nuclear power. It is a taboo subject in the US since the 70's, with no new plants built since. But to make my point, I'd like to do a little comparison.

The Three Mile Island incident of 1979 severely hindered nuclear power in the United States, though - rather notably - no one died as a result of the accident. A partial core meltdown accidentally released some radioactivity into the surrounding areas, but, as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's report explains,
Detailed studies of the radiological consequences of the accident have been conducted by the NRC, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now Health and Human Services), the Department of Energy, and the State of Pa.. Several independent studies have also been conducted. Estimates are that the average dose to about 2 million people in the area was only about 1 millirem. To put this into context, exposure from a chest x‑ray is about 6 millirem. Compared to the natural radioactive background dose of about 100‑125 millirem per year for the area [this is more like 300mrem per year for people living in places like Colorado], the collective dose to the community from the accident was very small. The maximum dose to a person at the site boundary would have been less than 100 millirem.
In addition, the effect of such a nuclear "accident" on the surrounding ecosystem was minimal; as the report states,
In the months following the accident, although questions were raised about possible adverse effects from radiation on human, animal, and plant life in the TMI area, none could be directly correlated to the accident. Thousands of environmental samples of air, water, milk, vegetation, soil, and foodstuffs were collected by various groups monitoring the area. Very low levels of radionuclides could be attributed to releases from the accident. However, comprehensive investigations and assessments by several well‑respected organizations have concluded that in spite of serious damage to the reactor, most of the radiation was contained and that the actual release had negligible effects on the physical health of individuals or the environment.
Even the once highly-contaminated Rocky Flats (a Superfund site) is now, 15 years after the start of clean-up, a wildlife refuge.

Now, let's consider the BP oil spill in the Gulf.

According to the various estimates, the spill (now likely far worse than the Exxon Valdez accident) is leaking about 2.5 million gallons of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening 400 species of wildlife (30 species of birds), some of which are endangered, and thousands of miles of coastline (including 8 National Parks). 11 people died in the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig, 17 more were injured (in fact, chemical explosions have historically and statistically caused more deaths than accidents at nuclear plants: the Chernobyl disaster, by far the worst at a nuclear plant in history, resulted in "fewer than 50" direct deaths according to a joint IAEA/WHO report, whereas the chemical leak at Union Carbide plant in Bhopal resulted in somewhere between 2000 and 15,000 immediate deaths). Cleanup of oil-soaked ecosystems can take years, even decades (in 2007, nearly 20 years after the Exxon Valdez ran aground, an estimated 26,000 gallons of oil still remain mixed into the sandy beaches of Prince William Sound). The economic damage to the area near the Deepwater Horizon spill could end up in the billions of dollars. And while rural families still live successfully within a crow's flight of the defunct Chernobyl plant, a friend of mine in Baton Rouge can smell oil from her house. A Scientific American article on the BP spill concluded that "when an oil spill occurs, there are no good outcomes."

My point is this: we need to fear that which is more dangerous. Our dependence on energy is a given, but we have the power to alter where and how that energy is generated. We can choose nuclear power, wind power, solar power, geothermal power, hydroelectric power. We can choose to cut our ties with oil. And the devastation due to the BP oil spill - especially in comparison to the minimal damage from nuclear accidents, wind turbines, etc - should be the catalyst that we need to make it happen.

1 comment:

  1. An update on the current efforts to stop the spill can be found here.


Think carefully before you post. I reserve the right to moderate any comments posted to my blog.