March 14th, 2011
06:09 PM ET

Letters to the President: #784 'What we don't know about nukes'

Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

Reporter's Note: Japan is scrambling as I write this to contain problems within several nuclear reactors.

Dear Mr. President,

You live your life, you think you’ve learned a few things, and then, lo and behold, some event comes along that suggests maybe you know nothing. That’s a bit how I am feeling amid all this reporting about Japan’s nuclear reactors.

Related: Blast, cooling system breakdown spread fears of nuclear radiation

I have done plenty of stories over the years about nuclear facilities, and I’ve read about their redundant safety systems - how they are designed to withstand every calamity ranging from a natural disaster to a terrorist attack. And I must say that it has all looked rather convincing.

If you approach the question of whether nuclear power is safe from a purely non-partisan, non-ideological point of view, I can see how you might conclude that it is a reasonable alternative (or addition) to all our other energy sources, once you calculate the risk/benefit ratio. But then something like the Japan quake and tsunami occurs and it feels as if all the calculations go out the window. As I understand it, there were at least three separate systems in place to prevent a meltdown, and all of them have either outright failed or been rendered less than fully effective by the combination of events there, and now it is not clear what is going to happen.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t imagine that I am educated enough to pronounce judgment on the safety of nuclear power as an overall concept; nor would I suggest that one event, no matter how dramatic, should inform our entire decision. What I am saying is that often, as much as we think we have a complete grasp of the pros and cons of any given issue, something appears that turns our assumptions upside down. And that seems to be what has happened with the nuclear reactors in Japan.

Anti-nuke folks will say this is evidence of why we can not allow such plants to exist. Pro-nuke people will argue (assuming there is not a catastrophic meltdown) that this is proof that, even in terrible circumstances, nuclear power is safe. I suppose coming events and time will tell us who is right. In the meantime, I keep thinking of that old Will Roger’s line I like to quote: It’s not what we don’t know that hurts us. It’s what we know…that ain’t so.

Hope all is well with you. I’m a little too busy to talk today, so if you want to call, make it tomorrow, ok?


Follow Tom on Twitter @tomforemancnn.

Find more of the Foreman Letters here.

soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. Jim

    What We DO Know About Nuclear Facilities-
    1. There is Dangerous Nuclear Waste that has to be disposed of.
    2. As We have seen recently in Japan-
    A Natural Disaster can trigger a NUCLEAR Disaster.
    If it is SO safe- Let the reactors Melt Down & see What Happens & Put The IDIOTS that say it is a Safe form of Energy right next to the Pants- That way when it does melt down it will help eliminate IDIOTS from the Gene pool.
    You Learned NOTHING From Hiroshima, Nagasaki, 3 Mile Island, Chernobyl.

    March 14, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
  2. albert

    Its not weather we can build them to survive
    the qustion is where they build them by the ocean don't think so...

    March 14, 2011 at 6:37 pm |