During Carol Browner’s March 3rd Convocation lecture, she discussed many of the alternative energy sources being considered for development as a means to kick the United States’ oil addiction. As Charles Badger noted in his editorial, some environmentalists in attendance were in disagreement with Browner’s policy-driven approach to environmental pragmatism. Particularly, Browner’s statements concerning nuclear energy and the role which nuclear power will play in diversifying United States’ energy sources made some uneasy. In 2010 Browner stated: “As the world moves to tackle climate change and diversify our national energy portfolio, nuclear energy will play a vital role.” However, the recent destabilization of the Fukushima I nuclear power plant after Japan’s earthquakes and tsunami certainly legitimate many of the safety concerns expressed by those present at Browner’s lecture.
The magnitude 9.0 earthquake that hit Japan on March 11, 2011, resulted in an emergency evacuation of the areas surrounding the vulnerable Fukushima I plant. The subsequent tsunami flooded the plant and caused hydrogen explosions due to the overheating of the reactors, even though some of the units were already shut for maintenance. The resulting radiation leakage was so massive that Japan’s science ministry stated that areas as far as 30-50 kilometers away from the plant showed dangerously high levels of radioactive cesium. The Guardian reported that “radiation of more than 7.5 million times the legal limit for seawater was found just off the earthquake-hit plant.” This unforeseen emission of harmful radioactive elements into the atmosphere and nearby oceans sheds a renewed and harsher light upon old concerns regarding the hazards of nuclear energy. The environmental repercussions are certainly of issues, but of most concern is the serious health risks posed by exposure to radioactive materials in communities both near and far from the site. Excessive exposure to radiation such as that released by Fukushima’s reactors can cause severe health hazards, including cancer and birth defects.
In recent years, nuclear power as a useful energy source has gained popularity among both liberals and conservatives. It is a cleaner way of extracting energy compared to fossil fuels or coal as it doesn’t release harmful waste products to the atmosphere. It also is a highly sustainable form of energy: despite its billion dollar cost each power plant lasts an average of 40 years. When talks of a greener country are on the table, it is not surprising that nuclear energy considered to be a viable source of energy. The Fukushima incident is a stark reminder that such nuclear energy plants are not immune to the effects of unplanned natural disasters. While the most stringent safety measures may be taken to plan for a host of potential dangers, the wrath of natural disasters poses a whole new set of risks. In the wake of Fukushima, the question of whether those risks are ones we are willing to take is not one to be taken lightly.