Time for a talk about nukes

Published 10:35 pm Monday, March 14, 2011

It seems that the crisis in Japan gets more apocalyptic every day. As if the fifth strongest earthquake in recorded history weren’t disaster enough, a tsunami rushed in on its heels Friday morning, leveling entire towns and carrying their residents out to sea. But things could be getting much worse there, as residents, officials and the military can do little but watch the nuclear reactors in the affected region begin to melt down.

Despite the early appraisals — full of confidence as they were — the situation at the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex has spiraled seemingly out of control in the days following the great wave that swamped the area and knocked out power to critical cooling systems on Friday morning. As of Monday, three huge explosions had rocked the nuclear energy plant, and there were conflicting reports about the reactors’ fuel rods being exposed and beginning to melt, a situation that could be a precursor to a catastrophic release of radiation.

Officials continue to work to avoid either a full meltdown or a radiation release, and people around the world continue to pray that they are successful in doing so.

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But many around the world also are beginning to reconsider whether they want to support nuclear energy or not in light of the disaster in Japan. And while it might not be entirely fair to compare nuclear reactors in Japan with those in Virginia, where there is little likelihood of either a major earthquake or a catastrophic tsunami, the fact remains that mankind cannot prepare itself for every potential natural disaster. There are one-in-a-billion combinations of circumstances that could result in a situation in Virginia every bit as cataclysmic as the one in Japan right now.

“Unlikely,” or even “extremely unlikely,” are not the same things as “impossible.” So an open and honest conversation must take place here about what level of risk Virginians — and, in fact, Americans in general — are willing to accept for inexpensive energy. And that conversation must consider a number of other related topics, as well. The unstable situation in the Middle East, the need for extensive energy here in the U.S., the potential for alternative energy supplies and the availability of oil, coal and natural gas right here at home must also be part of the discussion.

There has been no easy answer to America’s energy needs for many years, and the developing nuclear disaster in Japan will make it even harder to solve the problem. But the situation there should cause Americans to stop and think about what’s important and what they’re willing to put at stake in return for energy independence.