Nuclear power, the US, and Japan

Question: How might the disaster in Japan kill thousands of Americans? Answer: If anti-nuclear knee-jerk reactionaries are successful in using the Japanese tsunami as political leverage to scare Americans from investing in more nuclear power.

How so? Because every year 30,000 Americans die from causes related to coal power production. Thirty thousand. That’s more dead Americans every year than in the entire Revolutionary War. It’s five times as many dead Americans as the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars combined. It’s almost twice the 18,000 estimated Japanese dead from the tsunami disaster.

The longer we use coal instead of nuclear for the majority of our power generation in this country, the more Americans will die.

While we’re on the subject, let’s also talk about how dangerous the nuclear situation in Japan actually is. The chart below is a snippet from a much larger one comparing radiation doses received for a variety of events. Note that the additional radiation doses received by Japanese citizens in villages near the breaking-down nuclear plant average less than a normal day’s dose (which is to say, they’re getting less than twice the normal daily dose that you get simply by living on the surface of the Earth). They’re less than you get from a dental x-ray, and much less than you get by flying on a jet from New York to Los Angeles.

It’s true that a relatively small number of workers at the plant are getting much higher doses, but the danger to the mass population is quite low. Meanwhile, thousands of people around the world continue to die every day as a result of coal power production. Far more than will ever die as a result of nuclear radiation from any of these Japanese plants. The 30,000 American deaths per year attributed to coal average to more than 80 per day, which is nothing compared to the average of almost 1,400 per day from China’s half-million annual coal deaths.

I don’t mean to imply that we should treat nuclear power lightly. Of course the only reason it’s so safe is that tremendous safety measures are involved. We should absolutely learn from the disaster in Japan to improve safety however possible. But one thing we cannot afford to do is allow knee-jerk reactionaries to stop America from expanding our nuclear production capacity. The human toll of such narrow thinking would simply be too great.

click to enlarge
Radiation doses from a variety of sources.
Image from

By | 2011-03-21T15:14:08+00:00 March 21, 2011|Categories: Healthy Communities, Sustainability, Technology|5 Comments


  1. samjapan March 21, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    Although I generally appreciate when this blog focuses on broader topics than what directly relates to Denver, I question whether this post was right way to begin a debate on nuclear power. I know that your contention that nuclear power opponents as “knee-jerk reactionaries” is intended within an American context, it is difficult to separate a debate on nuclear power at this time from the crisis in Japan and the very legitimate Japanese fears of nuclear power that stem from their unique and tragic nuclear history. For those of us who have friends and family that have been lost or affected in this disaster, your dismissive argument seems a little too blunt. Last Tuesday it appeared that my small country might become permanently irradiated. Sure, Fukushima hasn’t melted down, but it could have and I highly doubt you’d be speaking this way if it did. Dismissing concerns about nuclear power because we dodged a bullet this time isn’t prudent and seems somewhat out of the purview of this blog. Furthermore, there are many safety concerns with nuclear power in this country as well, such as the reactors located on seismic faults in California within a 50-mile range of 7 million people. What do you do with the waste? Terrorist attack? These things need to be debated, and there are no easy answers.

    I’m a guarded proponent of nuclear power, but let’s not take this issue lightly or dismiss opponents.

  2. steve harley March 21, 2011 at 10:24 pm

    the fact that coal kills is something more people should be talking about, but this post goes downhill from there

    you make it sound like it’s either/or — either nuclear or coal with no other alternatives; that and an ad-hominem (“knee-jerk”) are not a good start to your argument

    the easiest way to burn less coal is to simply _waste_ less energy; we can start that today, rather than waiting five or ten years before the next US nuclear plant is built, not to mention whether nuclear even pays for itself, nor all other alternatives

    and the current radiation dose near Fukushima is a staw man; the fact that radiation has escaped may scare people, but it’s far from the biggest threat compared to other things we already knew, or have just learned about nuclear power: we know that we have no place to put the waste, we know accidents can happen that we aren’t sure how to control, we know that nuclear fuel and plants are attractive to terrorist

    and we know that radiation isn’t just a _dose_ — if it comes from certain isotopes, such as plutonium, it is much more likely to cause deaths

  3. MM March 22, 2011 at 10:36 am

    As someone with a long standing objection to nuclear power for reasons including, but not limited to safety (i.e. waste disposal), I resent being termed an “anti-nuclear knee-jerk reactionar[y].” Your article is based on a shortsighted, false premise that I wouldn’t expect from a blog focused on progressive urbanism: if we do not build more nuclear, we must use coal. Such thinking neglects truly renewable energy sources, particularly urban and suburban solar generation.

    Although the focus of this blog as a whole is good, and a diversity of viewpoints appropriate, by using rhetoric such as this you stand to lose readership.

  4. BruceQ March 24, 2011 at 8:24 am

    I agree with all of the above comments, and I would add: You seem to have gotten your “data” from an Intenet cartoon, and a 20-something geology student from Bucharest.

    I have grown to expect much better from DenverInfill.

  5. Bryan Wilson March 29, 2011 at 9:21 am

    The truth of the fact is humans can do anything they put their mind and resources to. We can continue to debate whether coal or nuclear is better, or we could invest all our time and resources in to something much better than both combined. Don’t tell me its not possible. We all know it is. Its just time we put human life and evolution above profits and capitalism. This blog I would hope is a little more forward thinking than this post. We’ll give you a pass this time….

Comments are closed.