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Gernot Wagner Headshot

Too Few Nuclear Accidents

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I live in New York City, or in other words, I live within 40 miles of the Indian Point nuclear plant. Let's just say that having a 50-year-old reactor that close to 20 million people may not be the most rational siting decision.

You don't need to look to Fukushima, Chernobyl or Three Mile Island to realize that accidents happen. Planes crash. Oil rigs explode. Why wouldn't nukes fail every now and then?

The hope, of course, is that these accidents happen at a small enough scale not to cause havoc but instead to do what accidents usually do: teach engineers and regulators valuable lessons, and also teach the public that there are trade-offs. Coal kills many more people every day.

That may well be the most important lesson of them all: you can't always get what you want.

We don't expect most technologies to be perfect. Even iPads crash. But nuclear operators have helped create the expectation that their plants could indeed be run with perfect reliability -- not 99.99 percent, but 100 percent, always.

All it takes is one mistake. Three Mile Island didn't even have to kill anyone and still managed to stop the U.S. nuclear industry in its tracks. The latest accident in Fukushima seems to have no such effect, at least not in the United States. (Germany raced to stop nukes once and for all.)

Is Japan too far to rouse public ire halfway around the world? Or have we crossed a threshold of sorts, where nuclear accidents have turned into something closer to plane crashes? Dramatic, but in the end, it's just one of the risks of charging your phone at night.

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