As of now, the death toll from Japan's nuclear emergency stands at zero. This contrasts to the thousands of people who perished in the earthquake and the tsunami, and yet it is the nuclear emergency and the threat of disaster that have captivated most of our attention. National Public Radio, in the United States, interviewed. Robert DuPont, who teaches clinical psychiatry at Georgetown Medical School and specializes in the study and treatment of fear, including the fear of nuclear energy. He told NPR's Renee Montagne that the American reaction to the nuclear threats has been way out of proportion:
Dr. ROBERT DUPONT: There are people in California taking potassium iodide to prevent cancers from the radiation coming out of this plant. What is that? I think the answer is in biology. Fear dominates our attention. Whatever the tsunami was, whatever the earthquake was, that's over. Sure, it could happen again, but the nuclear reactor? Who knows.
MONTAGNE: Now, what makes people's reaction to nuclear energy so different than other energy sources - for instance, drilling for oil or coal mining - when they also present tragically heavy risks of danger and loss of life in the industry?
Dr. DUPONT: They do, but it's familiar, and it doesn't have the connection to Hiroshima that we have with nuclear power. We're used to thinking about industrial accidents. What we're talking about when we talk about nuclear power is what could happen, what almost happened. Aside from the accident in Chernobyl, you really don't have the bodies piled up, and I cut my teeth on the issue of a Three Mile Island, which was very interesting because there was a sense that we might lose the East Coast of the United States. Fear is all about what the future is, and you can never reassure the person to say it couldn't happen. I do a lot of work with people, for example, to help them deal with a fear of flying. And although there have been many years when there have been no deaths from a commercial airline in the United States, you never know when you get on an airplane whether your plane is going to crash or not.
MONTAGNE: Can it also be because, in the case of the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power, it seems that they are not telling everything they know? So people, certainly in Japan, but also elsewhere in the world, automatically think about a worse-case scenario.
Dr. DUPONT: Yes, and I think that the biggest health problem associated with Three Mile Island in the commission's report about it was the fear, the anxiety, the mental stress that people have. I think that efforts to allay fears have the paradoxical effect of reinforcing the sense that, well, we're not hearing the whole story.
MONTAGNE: The nuclear power industry in this country saw a major setback after the Three Mile Island incident. Yet, in other countries after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, nuclear power was developed at full speed, from lesser developed countries like India to highly developed countries like France. Why didn't those populations share this sort of great fear of a nuclear holocaust that Americans seem to have in large numbers?
Dr. DUPONT: Well, one big difference is the question of whether there's a widespread sense that nuclear energy is necessary. And it's very interesting to see which countries have done this - France, for example. Japan is another country. And France is interesting because 75 percent of their electricity comes from nuclear power. And they make a big thing in France about people visiting nuclear power plants. I have been there and seen the nuclear power plants in France. And they are major attractions for students to come and visit. They are familiar to people. And this familiarity vaccinates the people, it immunizes them against fear. The United States could not be more different.
Germany’s decision to extend the licenses of the country’s 17 nuclear plants – and thus delay a long-planned calendar for a phase-out of nuclear-generated electricity -- reflects a wider and growing shift across Europe in favor of the nuclear option as a key component of countries’ energy mix.
Leading experts from both sides of the Atlantic discussed the re-emergence of nuclear power as a complementary asset in the drive to de-carbonize energy resources. In addition to evaluating current demand for nuclear power and the relative cost and capacity issues inherent in the industry's expansion, participants also addressed the challenge of nuclear safety and waste disposal, as well as the current financial and regulatory environments.
As the director-general of the World Nuclear Association, John Ritch has a bird’s eye overview of the trends and the issues associated with nuclear technology. Unsurprisingly, as an ally of the industry, he champions the nuclear option, calling it an indispensable asset for a world that wants more energy (lots more, in fact) in order to prosper and also wants it to be increasingly carbon free to fight climate change. While maintaining that other alternatives will play their roles, too, he insists that current debates about the future energy-mix often obscure an overriding trend: most leaders in the United States and in Europe are embracing nuclear power as a mainstay in their countries’ emerging energy strategies. Already, nuclear energy powers roughly one light bulb in five in the United States and one in three in Europe, and now new political commitments and financial investments are starting to flow into commercial nuclear power. As Ritch explains it, the new energy crisis is more complicated than previous energy shocks because this one involves so many interlocking questions: supply security versus dependence on imports; competitive costs of different fuels; and environmental stabilization and sustainability.
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