In the news in 1979: A partial meltdown in rector 2 of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. Subsequent investigations estimated that the accident caused 2 people in 10 to have cancer from radiation exposure.
In the news in 1986: the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine (then the USSR) blows up, spilling radiation over thousands of square kilometers and causing numerous casualties from the explosion and subsequent radiation poisoning.
In the news in 1989: the Exxon Valdez tanker spills 250,000 barrels of oil off the coast of Alaska. At the time it was considered the largest oil spill in human history and the biggest man-made environmental disaster in history.
In the news in 2010: oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico where about 5,000 barrels of oil are leaking into the sea every day since an off-shore platform exploded at the end of April. The states of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana have declared a state of emergency.
Why is it that nuclear disasters in history have a worse reputation than oil spills? The two accidents involving nuclear power plants given above are the most notorious in history and are constantly cited as examples of why atomic energy is unsafe. Yet, everyone forgets to mention that since Chernobyl there has not been a major nuclear disaster in the world.
Yet, oil spills continue to happen. Tankers turn over and spill oil into the sea and off-shore platforms explode. The amount of damage caused to the environment because of these accidents is hard to calculate, but it is unimaginable. Recent reports from the latest catastrophe state that birds are being washed up on the Louisiana coast, covered in oil. So, why is the reputation of these two energy sources still miles apart?
First, nuclear disasters have devastating effects to both the human environment and the biosphere. This makes the effects easily perceivable because anyone can see the pain that patients suffering from radiation poisoning suffer. Human casualties are often perceived as much more devastating than animal deaths. After all, in today’s society people consume animals day and night, so it does not make much of a difference to most people.
Second, anyone who owns a car recognizes the need for oil in order to be able to drive and through this conduct their every-day business. Nuclear power is only useful for electricity production and it is one of many sources of this. Not many people are interested whether they are using electricity made from coal or uranium. Yet, they are conscious of whether they drive a petrol, diesel or lpg (liquefied petroleum gas) car.
What these two arguments go to show is why people do not really think about nuclear power unless a disaster happens. Yet, they think about oil every day and there is more of a balance between the negative and positive arguments. Nevertheless, there are two more facts to consider.
First, since the accidents on Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, nuclear power technology has been improved to ensure the safety of reactors. The 58 nuclear reactors in operation in France at the moment have not seen an accident. The USA currently has 104 atomic reactors in operation, and still the only catastrophe the population has heard of is the one mentioned above. Associating the 408 reactors in operation in the world with 2 disasters seems to be a false generalization.
Second, nuclear power is a green and sustainable source of energy. The same cannot be said about oil. Apart from oil spills which cause destruction to wildlife, pollute the seas and harm the biosphere, oil-based products pollute the air we breathe. In today’s globalized world, everyone has heard of global warming and the adverse effects on the world’s climate from burning fossil fuels. Many people have also heard of wars being fought over securing oil supplies from the regions of the world which hold an abundance of the resource. Yet, they comfortably forget about these facts when they drive their car to the supermarket 500 meters from their house.
One point to consider is whether the millions (and perhaps billions) of dollars which are going to be spent on cleaning up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (which would still leave the disastrous environmental effects on wildlife) and the trillions of dollars being spent every day in the Middle Eastern conflicts, could be spent on developing a secure energy source closer to home and without the adverse effects? It depends on the public: considering these environmental disasters, would you change your negative opinion of nuclear power and your positive opinion of oil to a more balanced viewpoint?