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Commentary: After Japan, U.S. nuclear industry needs a re-think

This is not a good week to be the nuclear industry.

Multiple nuclear power plants have exploded and leaked radiation in Japan in a horror show that matches some Hollywood disaster movies. The visceral fear of radioactivity is such that the spectacle of burning reactor complexes has sometimes overshadowed the vastly greater devastation and loss of life wrought directly by Friday’s earthquake and tsunami.

Many Americans are now understandably nervous about this country’s 104 nuclear plants – including the Columbia Generating Station at Hanford, which is very similar in design to the stricken Japanese reactors.

The crisis is good reason to step back and look at the way America is re-licensing its oldest reactors, some of which have been operating for 40 years. It’s not a good reason to fly into a panic about nuclear energy in general.

Viewed objectively, nuclear plant radiation poses a far smaller public risk than the emissions of coal-burning power plants, which routinely cause hundreds of deaths from respiratory and other diseases.

Generating power on a large scale is inherently risky. The hazards of nuclear power are now on scary display, but coal, oil and natural gas are considerably more dangerous, given that nuclear plants produce no particulates, no greenhouse gases, no pipeline explosions and no Gulf oil spills.

There are safer options than any of the above, including hydro, solar and wind power. Hydro is largely tapped out, though, and solar and wind remain far from the scale and economies needed to deliver abundant electricity at relatively low cost.

Even if we could somehow switch over to renewable power sources overnight, their far higher costs would wreak economic havoc. The poor would inevitably suffer the most.

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