That ring of (nuclear) fire

The 9.0 earthquake, followed immediately by a tsunami, which struck Japan’s main island last week is a terrible disaster, but it was always within the realm of possibility. Like all nations situated on subduction faults along the Ring of Fire—including Chile, New Zealand and the United States—there’s constant danger of a major earthquake followed by a tsunami.

At press time, the nuclear power plants on the devastated Japanese coast have at least three reactors in near-meltdown condition, and it seems pretty obvious that putting such facilities in earthquake- and tsunami-prone zones is an extremely—well, um—dumb thing to do. But we’ve done it. There are nuclear power plants all over the West Coast on lateral fault lines, like the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station on the Cristianitos Fault in California, or vertical fault lines, like the Pacific Northwest’s Cascadia subduction zone. The same damage that was done to the nuclear plants in Fukushima Prefecture could happen here.

That’s the thing about nuclear power plants: The likelihood of a catastrophic accident is small, but if it happens, the consequences are huge.

The Japanese government made the decision years ago to rely on nuclear power plants because they lacked ready access to fossil fuels, and, yes, nuclear power is cleaner, sort of, if you don’t count the necessity of storing spent nuclear fuel rods and radioactive waste, a whole ’nother set of low-probability, high-consequence risks.

But all nuclear power plants carry this low-probability, high-consequence risk, and it’s a combination that makes it hard for humans to accurately assess risk. For example, air travel is a low-probability, high-consequence risk. It’s not likely that the plane you’re on will suffer catastrophic failure, but if it does (and your pilot isn’t named “Sully”), you’re in deep shit. That risk makes us all a little nervous when boarding a plane.

I really don’t know whether pursuing nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels is the right thing to do. After all, the dams on the West Coast are also low-probability, high-consequence risks. If Folsom Dam goes, I’m underwater in less than five minutes; the force of the water and the debris that will accompany it means being fat enough to float easily won’t help me.

Whatever your opinion about the best solution to our energy demands, it is worth considering those risks.

Compiled from Kel’s Hot Flash.