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Activists wearing masks protest against nuclear energy in Manila on March 15. (TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
Activists wearing masks protest against nuclear energy in Manila on March 15. (TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)

Margaret Wente

If not nuclear, then what? Add to ...

Japan's nuclear nightmare has created a tsunami of a backlash. Panicky Americans who fear that poisoned winds might blow across the ocean are scrambling for "radiation pills." In Germany, as protesters took to the streets, the government announced that every reactor built before 1980 would be shut down for a safety review. Switzerland has put its nuclear program on hold, and even the French are having qualms. In the U.S., Barack Obama's ambitious nuclear expansion program is under pressure from politicians who want him to slam on the brakes. (He has frequently cited Japan as a model for nuclear development.)

Nuclear power has always been a scary proposition. The chance of something going wrong is low, but when it does, it can be awful. Nuclear advocates like to point out that next to coal or gas, nuclear power is about as safe as it gets. But words like "meltdown" and "contamination" don't exactly inspire confidence. And nuclear technology is so complex that no mere mortal can understand how it works. Even experts disagree about how safe nuclear reactors are, or ought to be.

"The Japanese weren't expecting a magnitude 9.0 earthquake or a 33-foot tsunami, and they are the most experienced earthquake watchers in the world," says Norm Rubin, director of research at Energy Probe. "We are neophytes at this." (Disclosure: I sit on the advisory board, and am a nuclear agnostic.)

Environmental groups are split on nuclear. Some environmentalists - including Mr. Obama - are enthusiasts because it's green, and could help to contain global warming. Others, like Greenpeace, hate it, and are crowing that they told us so. But they shouldn't be so thrilled. As Japan and Germany revert to fossil fuels, CO2 emissions are bound to soar. The answer, in their view, is to replace all our current power sources with renewables. Fat chance. By one estimate, we'd have to build four million super-sized wind turbines, 90,000 giant solar farms and 1.7 billion rooftop solar systems.

The trouble is that risks are inherent in all complex technologies. The Swissair disaster of 1998 was caused by a chain of mishaps that were triggered by faulty wiring. The Challenger shuttle disaster of 1986 was caused by a faulty O-ring. And even though last summer's BP disaster can be chalked up to human error, more deep-water blowouts are probably inevitable. Highly complex systems are bound to attract entire flocks of black swans.

There's another risk to nuclear: cost blowouts. Nuclear power plants are insanely expensive, and it's the taxpayers who get hosed. After Three Mile Island, it took 30 years to break ground on the next generation of U.S. reactors - not only because of safety fears, but also because costs for the first generation of plants spiralled out of control. The new reactors under construction are propped up with enormous public subsidies. In Ontario, the estimated cost of new reactors - $26-billion - has given the government sticker shock. "The question of whether nuclear can compete is still an open question," says Mr. Rubin. "Every new safety requirement adds to the cost."

Personally, I'm not all that worried about the reactors in my own Ontario backyard (except for the sticker shock). Our local geologic fault line isn't very big, and we don't have tsunamis. The reactors that really ought to make us nervous are probably the ones located in places where construction standards, regulatory protocols and engineering expertise may be a little shaky. Take China, which is building more plants than the rest of the world combined. It plans to quadruple its nuclear capacity in a decade. As Evan Osnos, The New Yorker's China correspondent, writes, the pace is so fast that two years ago, the country's nuclear safety chief publicly warned that China would encounter safety and environmental hazards unless it insisted on good construction.

As it happens, anyone familiar with Chinese construction standards - to say nothing of its culture of corruption - has good reason to be wary. China's former head of nuclear construction, Kang Rixin, was recently sentenced to life in prison for taking bribes and abusing his position. It's safe to predict that another nuclear accident is inevitable. It's just a matter of where, and when.

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