NEW YORK – When parts of Japan were devastated recently by an earthquake and subsequent tsunami, news of the human toll was quickly overshadowed by global fears of radioactive fallout from the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant. The concern was understandable: radiation is very frightening. I grew up in Denmark at a time when fear of nuclear power was pervasive.
But our latest nuclear fears have broader implications, especially for energy supply and our desire to shift away from reliance on fossil fuels. It is difficult to step back at the time of a natural disaster to gain a broader perspective; even attempting to do so can feel crass. But there are some facts that we should not overlook.
During the round-the-clock coverage of the nuclear drama, the specter of Chernobyl has been raised repeatedly. It is worth noting that the worst nuclear disaster in history directly caused only 31 fatalities. The World Health Organization estimates that 4,000 deaths could be linked to the disaster over 70 years, whereas the OECD projects a range of 9,000-33,000 deaths during this period.
That is substantial. But consider that, according to the OECD, every year nearly one million people die from fine-particle outdoor air pollution. Yet this massive death toll provokes no discernible fear in the developed world, and receives virtually no news coverage.