Nuking nuclear power

Nuclear power. Atomic energy. These words undoubtedly carry a potent weight in the modern world, with their very syntax in possession of a burning activity. Considering the devastating 9.0 magnitude earthquake and the calamitous tsunami which utterly decimated much of the eastern coast of Japan last week. Mother Nature can sometimes display indifferent and absolutely monstrous forms of destructive power--so much so--that in the wake of natural disasters, our own forms of power can sometimes seem dwarfed in comparison.

But during the days following the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, a potentially more lethal and nefarious disaster is unfolding, only adding to the horror in Japan.

Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear reactors have been experiencing all of the classic symptoms of a meltdown due to damage caused to the emergency water pumps needed to cool the spent fuel rods in the reactor. Emergency measures have been frantically taken; but trying to restore the systems that were online before last Friday's disasters has proven impossible. Injecting corrosive seawater into the reactors' vessels and cores also failed, causing even more damage and uncertainty to the already fraught apparatuses.

In light of these ongoing crises, Americans need to make a sober assessment of our own use of nuclear power as a means of providing energy to our society. We need to decide for ourselves and for the generations to follow if the benefits of nuclear power outweigh the risks associated with the means of production.

According to a recent New York Times article published March 12, 2011 ("Danger Posed by Radioactivity in Japan Hard to Assess"), the presented dangers of a meltdown are caused by the massive amounts of radioactive material that spill out of the damaged reactors. Radioactive byproducts like nitrogen 16, tritium, iodine-131 and cesium-137 are all potentially hazardous to human health, with the last especially deadly, as it has an average half-life of 30 years. This means that two centuries would have to pass for the total amount of cesium-137 to diminish to 1 percent.

According to the same article, "Cesium-137 mixes easily with water and is chemically similar to potassium.  It thus mimics how potassium gets metabolized in the body and can enter through many foods, including milk. After entering, cesium gets widely distributed, its concentrations said to be higher in muscle tissues and lower in bones."

With potential risks such as these, which are only a few out of a long list of dangers, it's deadly important that we face reality. Though nuclear energy is often described as an effective method for producing energy in a "peaceful" way, the consequences following a meltdown are incredibly far-reaching, as well as also far outweighing any of the purported benefits of nuclear production being "efficient." Chernobyl should have been enough of an ominous warning to cause our leaders to steer our energy needs away from atomic schemes.

However the events in Japan play out, we can exploit this tragic situation to our own benefit. At the moment, we are in possession of reactors very similar to the ones we're seeing meltdown in Japan. There is really no question about whether they are safe or not. They may be advertised and advocated as such, but there is simply no way to assert with any confidence now that they can withstand the destructive forces of Mother Nature.

What makes matters worse is that nature never strikes predictably. We may be able to build safeguards that can withstand normal earthquakes, but when a 9.0 occurs, we find ourselves conspicuously unprepared for such potent devastation.

No doubt doing away with nuclear power is a tall order.  To dismantle the current plants we've already invested millions into is probably just impractical by any standards. But what about demanding that safeguards be improved upon, to the extent that the nation can rest assured that the long term health of the land and public will not be threatened by disasters caused by Mother Nature and human error?

Events such as these only serve to build an airtight case for the pursuit of renewable forms of clean energy. After all, what would you rather invest in, a form of power that uses the Earth's resources in a peaceful, efficient manner? Or artificial, man-made methods, involved in the fission of the universe's most powerful forces, with all of the potential risks mentioned, and then some?

We must not allow a shock to jolt us to action. We're living above and beyond our environmental means, and have been doing so for a very long time. Let's fix things now, before they permanently spiral out of control.