Fukushima and Nuclear Power: Playing with Fire

VIDEO: Andrea Canning goes inside a Michigan plant to learn about nuclear safety.

As we commemorate the first anniversary of the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the insatiable human hunger for energy has caused the world to confront an even more devastating event -- the Fukushima nuclear power plant failures. Both of these disasters have many elements in common, but the one clear commonality is human miscalculation of the overwhelming power of nature.

Both events demonstrate that there is no such thing as a zero-defect human endeavor. No matter how well we plan and prepare, the failure rate will never reach zero. Eventually, an unexpected event or a failure will occur, and in the case of a nuclear power plant, the ensuing breakdown can be catastrophic.

Nuclear power, like other human technologies, owes much of its advancement to trial and error. Engineers may try to predict the outcome of new applications of technology based on previous experience. Yet, even with today's sophisticated computers and predictive modeling, engineering calculations frequently fail to anticipate catastrophic events of record-breaking proportions. Viewed as a current news event, Fukushima is a tragedy. Viewed through the lens of time, it will be seen as a tragedy that provided information to advance nuclear power technology.

Later this year, we will celebrate the 108th anniversary of powered flight. The space shuttle fleet represents the current high-point of manned flight even though it will be retired this month. The first orbital shuttle mission took place in 1981, almost 80 years after the Wright Brothers first flight. Five years later an explosion destroyed the Challenger, and in 2003, the Columbia disintegrated on re-entry into the earth's atmosphere. Decades of aviation and space engineering could not prevent the loss of 40 percent of the space-capable shuttle fleet in catastrophic accidents that killed their entire crews.

Nuclear power has had a much better safety record than the space shuttles. Nuclear power plants can be found throughout the world and the total amount of radiation they can produce is huge. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, operation of the 443 currently active nuclear power reactors in 30 countries requires more than 68,000 tons of uranium. That amount of fissionable material represents both a current and long-term threat to humanity.

Since 1952 there have been only 33 reported accidents or incidents in 568 reactors that are now in operation or previously built and shut down. Only two of the 33 incidents were considered "major accidents". Percentage-wise, 6 percent of these nuclear reactors have had a serious incident or accident. If the number of safe days of operation were calculated against the total number of accidents, the margin of error for nuclear power plants would be infinitesimal.

In any other industry, nuclear power's safety record would be enviable. But nuclear power is not any other industry. Nuclear power represents a major new challenge to the inevitability of human failure. When a space shuttle fails, a handful of people die tragically, and the likelihood of bystander injury is very small. When a nuclear reactor fails, hundreds of people can suffer or die soon after the event, and thousands, or conceivably millions of bystanders can become sick or bear children with severe birth defects.

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