“Going Nuclear” 

As recent events in Japan make clear, nothing has the potential to sicken or kill as many people as nuclear radiation.

We interrupt this column to bring you the following bulletin: Along with the terms "jumbo shrimp," "legal brief," and "military intelligence" as noteworthy oxymorons, we can now, once and for all, add the term "safe nukes" in reference to nuclear power plants. Once again, the world is witnessing the dangers these powder kegs pose with the threatened meltdown of several of them in Japan following the recent earthquake and tsunami that struck there.

We've always known that living anywhere in the vicinity of a factory that generates electricity essentially by means of a controlled chemical reaction of the kind that killed upward of 300,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was, at best, an iffy proposition, a fact that's been brought home to the roughly 200,000 people who have had to be evacuated from the vicinity of the Japanese nuclear power plants.

Of course, living in the vicinity of any plant that handles or manufactures toxic substances isn't likely to increase your longevity. Just ask the folks who lived in Bhopal, India, or near Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York. Oh sure, nuclear power plants are full of structural and technological fail-safes that are supposed to prevent meltdowns and the release of radioactivity that follows them, but what comfort is that now to the residents of the Fukushima Prefecture in Japan or was it to residents of the towns adjacent to Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 or Chernobyl in the U.S.S.R. in 1986.

"Supposed to" is never much comfort in the aftermath of a tragedy. Just ask shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico how much comfort it is to them now that BP's deep water oil well was "supposed to" be engineered to prevent the kind of spill that will likely affect their livelihoods for the next 20 years. Or ask the thousands of folks who lost their life savings at the hands of Bernie Madoff how much comfort it was to them that his Ponzi scheme was "supposed to" be discovered by regulators.

Energy, and its generation, is a troublesome business, no matter what the source of the juice civilization relies on to power its cars, factories, and homes. The main sources of energy in this country are oil and coal, both of which are fraught with perilous side effects, whether geopolitical, environmental, or both. Accidents happen in and around oil wells and their transmission and storage facilities, as they do in and around coal mines. And let's not forget that wars are instigated over petroleum or that climate change is accelerated by burning coal.

But there's something qualitatively different about nuclear energy. Maybe it's because nothing else — no accident, screw-up, terrorist plot, or military misadventure — has the potential to sicken or kill as many people as nuclear radiation does. It's no accident, then, that the term "nuclear option" has come to mean what it has when used as a bargaining chip, whether in the context of the school systems in Shelby County, Tennessee, or the passage of controversial legislation in Washington, D.C., or Madison, Wisconsin.

No one uses the term "petroleum option" or "bituminous option" to convey the same sense of brinkmanship that the threat of unleashing atomic radiation, literally or figuratively, does. And nothing has the potential to wreak havoc like substances that can linger for decades, as many radioactive substances do. The effects of Chernobyl, for example, are still being felt 25 years later. And the Fukushima incident doesn't even deal with the other dangers raised by atomic energy, like the disposal of spent nuclear fuel.

So, the question becomes: Are the benefits of nuclear-power generation worth the risk? If the example of the Fukushima plants serves any useful purpose, it will be to cause a rigorous re-inspection of the nuclear power plants that exist in the U.S. (and maybe even to rethink bringing new ones, like the Clinch River plant in East Tennessee, online) and strengthen the existing safeguards. Secondarily, the crisis in Japan may make solar, wind, geothermal, and other non-nuclear sources of energy seem a lot more attractive, maybe enough so that "safe energy" won't become a contradiction in terms.

Marty Aussenberg is a Memphis attorney who writes the "Gadfly" column for

memphisflyer.com, where a version of this story first appeared.

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