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Don't be too hasty to reject nuclear power

By Ronald K. Chesser, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ronald Chesser: Japan accident nearly coincided with 25th anniversary of Chernobyl
  • He says the damage from that accident is still evident
  • Japan's crisis will strengthen foes of nuclear power, he says
  • Chesser: Nuclear power lessens climate change that can kill many thousands

Editor's note: Ronald K. Chesser is director of the Center for Environmental Radiation Studies at Texas Tech University and has long researched the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. For a different view, read "Nuclear power is on trial"

Lubbock, Texas (CNN) -- The recent events at one of Japan's nuclear energy complexes will renew the debate on the safety of nuclear power plants for generating our energy needs.

The fact that this nuclear incident occurred just 46 days prior to the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident on April 26, 1986, creates a near perfect-storm threatening the future of nuclear power.

Chernobyl caused 31 fatalities from acute radiation sickness and will ultimately yield an estimated 4,000-6,000 deaths from excess cancers caused by radiation exposure. Moreover, almost 4,000 square kilometers of land is now uninhabited, with 120 abandoned villages and two major cities left to decay.

After almost 20 years of working in Chernobyl's Exclusion Zone, the feelings of despair still surface as I drive through the vacant villages where 135,000 people lost their homes.

Opinion: How vulnerable are U.S. plants?

The earthquakes and tsunami that struck Japan led to that nation's first declared nuclear emergency. The devastation was unimaginable and has brought the world to the brink of another large-scale release of radiation.

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The unfolding disaster at the Fukushima Nuclear Complex adds fuel to the fires of detractors of atomic power. For many, the debate is strongly lopsided given the past reality of Chernobyl, perceptions of Three Mile Island, and the potential at Fukushima. But we shouldn't be too hasty.

The arguments must be cast in the context of the options available and the likely realities of discrete decisions. The world is at a tipping point on meeting the energy needs of modern societies and the personal needs of 6.4 billion people.

The past 150 years of indiscriminate consumption of fossil fuels has brought unalterable changes to our planet. Melting polar ice and variant climate patterns may have more threats in store for humanity than could result from dozens of nuclear meltdowns.

Inundated coastlines, fallow croplands and atmospheric instability could pose dangers unsurpassed in modern history. Alternative energy sources are in their infancy and will require many decades to replace the potential contribution made by fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

Producing massive electrical energy to be distributed to the population is inherently dangerous, regardless of its source. Critics might argue that forms of power other than nuclear wouldn't render a region uninhabitable in the advent of an accident.

Yet, it is almost certain that millions will be displaced as coastlines sink below the rising ocean levels. Contingencies and safeguards cannot be guaranteed, especially against the extreme power of natural disasters. The destructive potential of nature will always outpace ability of mankind to prevent its damage. Recent disasters in Japan, New Orleans, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India killed hundreds of thousands of people living in coastal zones; many magnitudes more than will die from ionizing radiation.

Yet we rebuild, defy the risks and accept the consequences as the necessity of an expanding population.

Similarly, we must realize that energy production is not an option, but is the root of all our human activities. We must be wise in our deliberations on the means to fulfill our future energy needs, for the stakes are high.

There are three basic principles that govern the limits and utility of energy. The first two laws of thermodynamics tell us that when it comes to energy production, we cannot win, and we cannot break even.

We will always battle the transformation of energy from one form to another, and have it dissipated by forces beyond our control. But the third law is most daunting, for it states that the first two laws must proceed until all that remains is inaccessible. In other words, if we are to survive, we have no choice but continue to play the game.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ronald K. Chesser.

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