|from National Geographic|
There is no doubt that there are dangers to nuclear power. The two worst disasters on record are Three Mile Island and the infamous Chernobyl. While most people view these as some of the greatest disasters in the last century, they actually come nowhere close. At Three Mile Island, I could find no evidence of any deaths from either the initial meltdown or the subsequent radiation. In fact, radiation would have had to be thousands of times higher than the numbers reported for the people living in the area to have encounter any measurable health effects. Chernobyl is a slightly different story. With such a controversial issue, the number of people affected varies wildly depending on who you ask. The data I am giving here is from a 2005 report by the World Health Organization (WHO). I recommend you read the report, as the story has a lot of nuance. Still, they concluded that approximately 4000 people will likely die in total from Chernobyl and its after-effects. As of right now, the meltdown in Japan is somewhere in between these two.
So let's compare the worst nuclear power disasters to some other current events. Dam failures in the last fifty years have claimed tens, if not hundreds of thousands of lives. In the US alone, about fifty people died in coal mining accidents last year. In 2007 Scientific American reported the following, "In fact, the fly ash emitted by a power planta by-product from burning coal for electricity-carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy." While this is still not deadly levels of radiation, it is still worth noting. In addition to this, more than 150 people are killed each year from lightning, tornados, and hurricanes. Natural disasters can dwarf these numbers, with the tsunami in 2004 killing well over one hundred fifty thousand people.
I do not want to trivialize the importance of safety in dealing with nuclear power or the deaths of above. Still there is a reality that everything we do has risks. Nuclear power is no exception. Over the last few decades, it has been getting safer and safer. Three Mile Island is actually a testament that even when things do go wrong, we can control the damage to prevent any deaths. Like most things, nuclear power is not a magic bullet or a monster of pure evil. The reality lies somewhere in between.