A problem of nuclear proportions

This week the world is watching Japan. All eyes are on the country's troubled nuclear power plant as explosions continue to release radioactive material after a massive earthquake damaged the plant's backup cooling system.

We keep seeing pictures of people being tested for radiation exposure in northeastern Japan and hearing stories about workers risking their lives to try to prevent a meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant.

Scientists say there is little chance of radiation reaching U.S. shores. Ashland inventor Kent Noonan is monitoring radiation levels here and said in an e-mail message Wednesday that there hasn't been a spike.

"I'm logging data 24/7 and watching it," said Noonan, who works for International Medcom, which sells radiation meters. "So far there has been no increase."

I'm not terribly concerned about being radiated in Ashland, but I am worried for the Japanese people.

"How horrible it is that the only country ever to be the victim of a nuclear attack is experiencing this, now," an environmental journalist in Portland, and one of my former editors, wrote on Facebook this week.

Japan's reliance on nuclear power "has much to do with geography," he wrote. "Japan doesn't have much in the way of fossil fuel resources and has depended on foreign sources of oil and, to a somewhat lesser extent, coal. ... During the 1970s Arab oil embargo the country's economy took a nosedive. Nuclear power became a lot more attractive then."

One thing this nuclear crisis — the world's worst since the Chernobyl accident in 1986 — has shown us is that when we consider building nuclear power plants, we need to consider the worst that could happen.

Remember Murphy's law? If something can go wrong, it will.

Scientists like to joke about Murphy's law, but that's because so often it seems accurate.

I studied chemistry in college and constantly ran into Murphy's law. If there was a chance an experiment could explode, implode or evaporate — sooner or later, to someone in the class, it would. We got to know Mr. Murphy and his law quite well.

That's why I think we have to be prepared for the worst — especially at our nuclear power plants, because anything that can go wrong there can go very, very wrong.

When I think about nuclear energy, I'm reminded of Albert Einstein, whose theories helped develop the concept.

"The discovery of nuclear chain reactions need not bring about the destruction of mankind any more than did the discovery of matches," he said. "We only must do everything in our power to safeguard against its abuse."

But, now, as we have learned, we must also safeguard against natural disasters, such as earthquakes. These things are almost impossible to predict with certainty, which means we must act as though they are always a possibility.

The situation in Japan this week has caused many people to ask: Should we even be trying to harness nuclear power?

It's a relatively inexpensive fuel source that doesn't release carbon emissions. But is it too risky? Are there more safeguards we should consider?

These are questions everyone must answer on their own.

But I'm pretty sure I know what Mr. Murphy would say.

Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-708-1158 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.

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