by David Safier
It's a statistical certainty that statistically improbable events will happen. If there are 30 people in a room, two people will probably share the same birthday. If there's a one in a million chance of an event happening to someone in the U.S. [Note: I should have specified, happening on any given day], it will probably happen about 308 times a day. I met someone I went to kindergarten with while waiting to make a phone call in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, and I ran into a rather infamous ex-student-president of a high school near where I lived while taking a ferry to a Greek Island in the middle of the Aegean. What are the odds?
Which brings me to the subject of two nuclear power plants hit by the Japanese earthquake. Their cooling systems had breakdowns. The backup generators for their cooling systems experienced critical failures. At the very least, small amounts of radiation are likely to leak. Local residents have been evacuated.
What are the odds of a huge earthquake crippling the cooling system of a well constructed, "safe" nuclear plant, let alone two plants in the same earthquake? Ridiculously small, I imagine. And yet, it happened.
Let's hope this, like Three Mile Island and unlike Chernobyl, turns out to be more of a cautionary tale than a full blown catastrophic nuclear accident. And let's also hope people heed the cautionary tale.
Remember when you hear nuclear power proponents talk about how improbable an accident is, we're not talking about a few buildings collapsing, as terrible as that can be. We're talking about the release of radiation which can sicken and kill people over a wide geographical area in the short term and have frightening and lingering effects in the long term.
Don't let anyone tell you nuclear power plants are absolutely safe, or that a nuclear waste dump in Arizona will be a wonderful gift to our children, as Al Melvin claims ("An endless stream of money for education!" he proclaims. And a pile of radioactive waste with thousands of years of toxicity, which he doesn't mention.) We need to be aware of the risks and balance them against the benefits.
I wonder what it's going to cost to fix those two plants in Japan, or if they can't be fixed, what the cost will be of entombing them in concrete. How will those unexpected expenses balance out against the costs of generating an equivalent about of energy from solar, wind and thermal power, I wonder.