BEN BOVA: Worry about high water before nuclear power plants

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People are still pretty scared of nuclear power, but I think we have a lot more to fear from flooding than from radioactivity.

Flood waters burst through a dam in Idaho last month, forcing thousands of residents to flee their homes. In Eastern Europe, heavy rains caused flooding that killed at least eight people.

In Pakistan, monsoon floods have killed more than 1,500 people, washed out bridges and roads, knocked down telephone lines, destroyed crops and made upwards of 3 million people homeless. Flooding caused massive landslides in China that killed 1,117, according to the latest count.

And remember, according to the Bible a flood wiped out the whole human race, except for Noah and his family!

I don’t know what the insurance industry actuarial figures are, but I’ll bet that you stand a much bigger risk of being drowned in a flood than you do of being killed by a nuclear power plant accident.

The 1986 nuclear accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union) was an out-and-out disaster, of course, but even including that, nuclear power has been much safer than any other form of generating electricity. The accident at the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear plant in Pennsylvania in 1979 killed nobody. News reporters were getting almost surly after a few days when there were no dead bodies to focus on.

I was editing Omni magazine then. Shortly after TMI, we sent one of our editors to the Bahamas to cover a story. He arranged to spend the weekend. Unhappily, he fell asleep on the beach one afternoon; when he returned to New York he was so badly sunburned he looked like something out of a bad monster flick.

A victim of solar energy! If he’d fallen asleep on Three Mile Island he would have been much better off.

My point is that people are frightened of nuclear energy because it’s something relatively new in human experience. We’ve had experiences with floods since … well, at least since Noah’s time.

Coal-mine disasters don’t stop us from mining coal. Even the recent BP oil-well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico has led to nothing more severe than a temporary ban on deep-water drilling.

Natural gas is the cleanest of the fossil fuels, but it’s also the most likely to be involved in deadly accidents. I’ve kept a running file on accidents involving natural gas and propane. It’s stuffed with stories and headlines such as: house explodes near Pittsburgh; fire ignites blast in gas storage facility; gas-line fire forces hospital evacuation; man severely burned in propane explosion; train carrying propane explodes in upstate New York; gas blast hurts seven in dorm.

We’ve lived with the dangers of coal mines, oil-well blowouts and natural-gas explosions for generations.

But nuclear power? Scary, man. Radioactivity. You can’t see it, you can’t feel it. But we all know that even a low-level dose of radioactivity can have dire consequences years later: cancer, for example.

I suspect, too, that much of the general public’s fear of nuclear energy stems from a confusion between nuclear power plants that generate electricity and the nuclear bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, and brought World War II to an end.

The image of a nuclear bomb’s mushroom cloud has hung over the nuclear electricity generating industry, especially after the scare of Three Mile Island. So although nobody was killed or even injured in the TMI accident, nuclear energy nearly died in the United States. Even today, with this nation needing desperately to wean itself from fossil fuels in general and imported petroleum in particular, the nuclear industry has barely scraped itself off the ground.

If we treated the dangers of flooding the way we treat the dangers of nuclear power, there’d be no new hydroelectric dams built and pressure groups would be insisting that old dams be shut down. But we keep building hydroelectric dams. The Aswan Dam in Egypt has caused enormous environmental damage along the Nile River, but nobody’s picketing for that “cause.” The mammoth Three Gorges hydroelectric project in China’s Yangtze River has displaced some 1.3 million people, flooded archeological and cultural sites and increased the danger of landslides. Where’s Greenpeace when we need them?

Stop worrying about nuclear power. Keep a canoe handy.

Bova is the author of nearly 125 books, including “Able One,” a technothriller. Bova’s website address is www.benbova.com.

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