110032289

As the radiation crisis in Japan continues, Room For Debate addresses the implications it might have for nuclear policy in the US. MIT's Michael W. Golay takes a realist approach:

[C]omprehensive protection against all seismically-associated nuclear risks would be very expensive, if even possible. Utilizing cost-benefit judgments, every nation with nuclear power has set the strongest earthquake that its nuclear plants must survive intact considerably below the level of the Japanese earthquake.

In considering the nuclear hazards of strong earthquakes, it’s useful to note the results of a study, which I led from 2001 to 2004, for Tokyo Electric Power Company.

The study addressed whether to devote resources to provide robust public protection from nuclear risks that could arise in the event of strong earthquakes or to focus such efforts and researches on the direct effects of the earthquake. We concluded that any earthquake strong enough to damage the reactor, and thus expose the public to harmful radiation, would be much more dangerous to the public in its direct effects, and that it would be more beneficial to devote efforts and resources to general preparedness.

In fact, the current radiation crisis was not caused by the quake itself:

Critics of nuclear energy have long questioned the viability of nuclear power in earthquake-prone regions like Japan. Reactors have been designed with such concerns in mind, but preliminary assessments of the Fukushima Daiichi accidents suggested that too little attention was paid to the threat of tsunami. It appeared that the reactors withstood the powerful earthquake, but the ocean waves damaged generators and backup systems, harming the ability to cool the reactors.

(Photo: A person, who is believed to be have been contaminated with radiation, is carried in a white bag by soldiers at a radiation treatment centre in Nihonmatsu city in Fukushima prefecture on March 13, 2011. Japan battled a feared meltdown of two reactors at a quake-hit nuclear plant Sunday, as the full horror of the disaster emerged on the ravaged northeast coast with thousands feared dead. A total of 22 people have been hospitalised after being exposed to radioactivity, although it was not immediately clear to what degree they were exposed and what condition they were in. By Yomiuri Shimbun/AFP/Getty Images)

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.