When it comes to the safety of nuclear power plants, I am biased. And I'll bet that if President Barack Obama had been with me on that trip to Chernobyl 24 years ago he wouldn't be as sanguine about the future of nuclear power as he was Tuesday in an interview with a Pittsburgh television station: "Obviously, all energy sources have their downside. I mean, we saw that with the Gulf spill last summer."
Sorry, Mr. President, but there is a dimension of fear properly associated with the word nuclear that is not matched by any oil spill.
Even 11 months after what has become known simply as "Chernobyl" I sensed a terror of the darkest unknown as I donned the requisite protective gear and checked Geiger counter readings before entering the surviving turbine room adjoining plant No. 4, where the explosion had occurred.
It was a terror reinforced by the uncertainty of the scientists who accompanied me as to the ultimate consequences for the health of the region's population, even after 135,000 people had been evacuated. As I wrote at the time, "particularly disturbing was the sight of a collective farm complete with all the requirements of living: white farm houses with blue trim, tractors and other farm implements, clothing hanging on a line and some children's playthings. All the requirements except people."
Back then, working for the Los Angeles Times, I had been covering the nuclear arms race, and my invitation to be the first American newspaper reporter to visit Chernobyl came from one of Mikhail Gorbachev's top science advisers, Yevgeny P. Velikhov, whom I had interviewed on arms control issues.
Velikhov had led the effort to contain the damage at Chernobyl, risking his health in the immediate days after the incident by flying low over the contaminated reactor site in a helicopter, as well as by scaling the sidewall of the damaged reactor to more accurately evaluate the situation.
His point in arranging my visit was to demonstrate the terrifying consequence of a "peaceful" nuclear explosion, let alone one resulting from a weapon designed to inflict mass destruction. It was an argument he advanced with the military in his own country about the folly of nuclear war-fighting scenarios: "After two weeks of discussion with the army corps, I asked how you wish to survive a nuclear war if you have no possibility to clean this small piece of nuclear garbage."
This was a sentiment echoed by Harvard physicist Richard Wilson, who also made that Chernobyl trip, and who pointed out that with nuclear weapons "one is dealing with a technology designed to explode that is also under the control of human beings."
An important lesson that should be reinforced by the ongoing disaster in Japan is to worry more about the elimination of those nuclear weapons designed to explode, and another is to be concerned about the prospect of sabotage of nuclear power plants. This last is a reason to rely less on nuclear power in a world made volatile not only by natural disasters but through the concerted efforts of those who can fly airplanes into targets of their choice. At the very least, the expense of properly maintaining the internal safety and external security of power plants should be considered in any cost-benefit analysis of their usefulness as an alternative source of energy.
I know there will be an attempt to sell us the argument that the odds of a catastrophic earthquake and a catastrophic tsunami occurring together in an area containing a nuclear power facility are incredibly low, that the Japanese plants in question were of inadequate design and, as in the case of Chernobyl, that "human error" was at fault. Despite the earlier accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, there was a strong tendency to present the Chernobyl disaster as a warning sign not about nuclear power in general but rather the particular failures of a rotting Soviet economy.
After the Japanese experience, such cavalier dismissal of the intrinsic problems of nuclear power is no longer plausible. Recall that it was Obama himself who in October 2009 celebrated Japan as the model for nuclear power expansion: "There is no reason why, technologically, we can't employ nuclear energy in a safe and effective way. Japan does it and France does it, and it doesn't have greenhouse gas emissions."
As journalist Kate Sheppard points out in Mother Jones online: "Nuclear power is part of the 'clean energy standard' that Obama outlined in the State of the Union speech in January. And in the 2011 budget the administration called for a three-fold increase in federal loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants, from the $18.5 billion that Congress has already approved to $54.5 billion. 'We are aggressively pursuing nuclear energy,' said Energy Secretary Steven Chu in February 2010 as he unveiled the budget." In Monday's White House press briefing, press secretary Jay Carney said that nuclear energy 'remains a part of the president's overall energy plan.'"
Trust me, this is not the way we want to go.