Now that the media have had their fun scaring us to the point of panic about the Japanese nuclear debacle, it’s time for a reality check.
Certainly the news there is horrific enough, even when you factor out the damage done at the Fukushima nuclear facility. A 9.0 earthquake, perhaps the worst to hit Japan in a thousand years, hoisted 15,000 cubic kilometers of ocean ten to twenty feet above normal sea level, and hurled it at the east coast of Japan, including the Fukushima facility. In a matter of hours that tsunami killed some 11,200 people–that’s almost four 9/11's. It’s amazing anything’s left standing, let alone a pair of forty-year old nuclear reactors.
At the risk of their lives, crews are battling to halt the spewing radiation and to cool down the reactors’ cores. Seventy years ago Japan’s finest sacrificed themselves in battle for their emperor. Today, they are sacrificing themselves for the sake of modern industrial civilization.
Because this tragedy has emboldened its foes. Green activists of various ilks hope it will doom the future of nuclear energy, just as the BP oil spill shut down offshore drilling for this country–at least for now.
Hence a second reality check. The meltdown at the Russian nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in 1986 killed 59 firemen and workers, and poisoned tens of thousands of people including giving 1800 cases of thyroid cancer to children. Thus far the Fukushima disaster has caused the death, directly or indirectly, of five people. If Chernobyl–a genuine man-made disaster--couldn’t convince countries to shut down their reactors, what happened in Japan shouldn’t either.
Nor should it leave any illusions about nuclear energy. Creating the modern nuclear reactor was one of the great engineering feats of the twentieth century–and one of the most expensive. Compared to oil, coal, and natural gas, it’s been a remarkably inefficient way to generate power on a bulk scale even when you factor out the risks. That’s not surprising, since nuclear power also requires massive amounts of government intervention, regulation, and oversight. It’s no coincidence that big government countries like France, Germany, Japan, and Russia, are also the biggest fans of nuclear power.
This leads to a final reality check. We talk a lot about our “dependence” on oil, especially foreign oil. What’s striking about today’s fossil fuel market is how independent it is, economically speaking, compared to its nuclear and green alternatives. Despite the efforts of the OPEC cartel, individual buyers and sellers still come together at an agreed price, whether at the gas pump or in the spot market. Private companies still explore and drill for oil, including companies like Halliburton which is witnessing a massive boom in oil drilling this year.
The number of new reserves of oil and gas being discovered continues to go up not down; the methods for extracting them get better and safer; and the supply continues to grow. If you were to take all the oil being produced right now and stack it up barrel by barrel, that tower of barrels would grow at the rate of 2000 miles per hour.
Oil’s not going away anytime soon. It’s still the fuel of freedom. And frankly I’d rather take my chances with a madman like Qaddafi or Ahmadinejad than a tsunami–or Al Gore, GE, and the next wave of crony capitalists pushing solar panels and wind farms.
Arthur Herman is a historian and author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist "Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age (Bantam, 2008)," His other books include the Mountbatten Prize–nominated "To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World (HarperCollins, 2005)," the New York Times bestseller "How the Scots Invented the Modern World (Three Rivers Press, 2001)," and many articles on foreign and military policy. He is an AEI visiting scholar.