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Why Shouldn’t We Jump to Nuclear Conclusions?

The true scope of the devastation in Japan caused by Friday’s earthquake and tsunami are still unknown. While the official death toll is in the thousands, the police chief of the Miyagi Prefecture said Sunday there is “no question” that at least 10,000 people have died in just his region alone. Japan has mobilized 100,000 troops for rescue missions, and at least three U.S. Navy ships of the USS Ronald Reagan strike group are assisting in relief efforts. Yet, despite the gravity of the situation, some on the left in this country are already politicizing the disaster to score points against the nuclear power industry.

Representative Edward Markey (D–MA) released a statement Saturday comparing the current situation in Japan to Chernobyl and called on the Obama Administration to impose a moratorium on all new nuclear reactors. What is happening in Japan right now is nothing like Chernobyl, and imposing a moratorium on the nuclear industry would be as big a policy blunder as the Obama Administration’s offshore drilling moratorium after the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

The cable news networks and newspapers are filled with frightening headlines like “Radioactive Releases in Japan Could Last Months” that will aid Markey’s anti-nuclear crusade. But here are some cold hard facts to keep in mind as news continues to come in from Japan:

  • The Chernobyl disaster was caused by an inherent design problem and communist operator error that is not present at any of the nuclear plants in Japan.
  • There were no health impacts from any of the radiation exposure at Three Mile Island.
  • The Nuclear Regulatory Commission does not need to regulate more in response to this. It already regulates enough.
  • The plant in trouble in Japan is over 40 years old. Today’s designs are far more advanced.
  • With 104 reactors providing 20% of America’s electricity, nuclear energy is a critical and important part of America’s energy portfolio. While the U.S. must garner lessons learned from the Japanese nuclear experience, the crisis does not justify a moratorium on new nuclear development.
  • No one has ever been injured, much less killed, as a result of commercial nuclear power in the U.S.

The danger that Japanese engineers are currently grappling with should not be minimized: what is happening right now with Japan’s reactors could lead to a meltdown and significant release of radiation. You could also get hit by a car on your way to work today. But that is not what is likely to occur. What is likely to occur is that Japanese officials will continue to operate professionally and oversee the order cooling of these plants.

Events unfolding in Japan ought to have no impact on the current U.S. reactor fleet or future plans to expand that fleet. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission does not need to regulate more in response to this. We need to remember that nuke plants are privately owned and that their owners have every incentive to maintain safe operations. The government’s role should simply be to set and enforce fair, efficient, and effective safety and environmental standards and allow private industry to meet them. Anti-nuke crusaders like Markey make this balance impossible. If the risk of nuclear power is too great, investors will put their money somewhere else.

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