Here's an article describing six ways in which Fukushima is not Chernobyl. That's not a lot of good news, but it's a little. The heroic efforts of the workers who are still on the job trying to defuse the crisis in spite of extremely dangerous conditions is also good news. I hope they succeed in managing the situation, because if it goes bad, it could still go really bad in ways that are different from Chernobyl. Nuclear meltdown is a problem, no matter what. And the amount of radiation leaking from the plant is already enough to kill human beings.
The whole mess should remind us that nuclear energy is too dangerous to rely on.
Fossil fuels are limited, and dangerous in their own way--coal is contributing mightily to climate change, and oil is getting harder to find, leading to disasters like the BP spill in the Gulf. Better options are increased efficiency, conservation, solar, wind, and natural gas. And better still is the option we don't know yet because it has not yet been invented. It will be--we're good at that, and there's all sorts of research going on.
I'm not the Mariotte who is an expert on nuclear power--that would be brother Michael, Executive Director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, which is keeping tabs on the developments in Japan and reporting them on its website and Twitter feed. But here's my encapsulated understanding of the nuke situation in the US at the moment. And it's not rosy.
Most of our nuclear plants are aged beasts. There hasn't been a new one built here for decades, and the ones that were built were intended to function for a certain time period, not indefinitely. In most cases, that time has come. Now they're asking for more time, trying to be re-licensed--in some cases, to function at even greater capacity, despite the fact that they've already served their appropriate number of years. Radiation leaks from even fully functional plants, and plants that are old and damaged (radiation embrittles metal; there's lots of metal in the containment chambers we're all counting on). So the nuclear energy companies essentially want us to pretend that their plants can function better now, 40 years after they were built, than they were then. A disturbing number of them are on active faults (for instance, the San Onofre plant in San Diego County--the plant I'm most familiar with--is surrounded by six faults, including the San Andreas fault. 7.4 million people live with in 50 miles of San Onofre. California's El Diablo plant is close to four faults. And lest you think that earthquakes only happen on the coasts, there was a major one in southeastern Arizona, close to where I live, a little more than a century ago, and the biggest series of earthquakes occurred in New Madrid, Missouri, in 1811-12. So yes, earthquakes can happen all over the country.
The truth is, they don't want to build new plants. They want to make ever more money off the old ones. They don't mind if the taxpayers build them new plants--and insure them against any claims that might result from an accident--but there's not an energy company in the country that wants to self-capitalize and self-insure a nuclear plant today.
Small government fans? You've got to oppose nuclear power, because the only way it works economically is for the government to almost completely subsidize it. The free market system doesn't work where nukes are concerned--they're too expensive to build and too inherently unsafe to operate.
Then there's the radioactive waste we still haven't figured out how to deal with. That's a problem that doesn't go away for hundreds of thousands of years. And there's terrorism--how much damage could be done by flying a plane into a nuke plant or a waste containment facility (or a waste transport train)?
Maybe none of these things will ever happen. But a few weeks ago, no one would have expected anything like a 9.0 quake followed by a massive tsunami to happen in Japan, either.
We need clean, reliable energy, and we have to be better about conserving what we've got. We don't need ticking time bombs scattered throughout the country. And we certainly don't need to throw tax dollars away building plants for private industry to run into the ground.