Even if you count all the deaths plausibly related to Chernobyl—9,000 to 33,000 over a 70-year period—that number is dwarfed by the death rate from burning fossil fuels. The OECD's 2008 Environmental Outlook calculates that fine-particle outdoor air pollution caused nearly 1 million premature deaths in the year 2000, and 30 percent of this was energy-related. You'd need 500 Chernobyls to match that level of annual carnage. But outside Chernobyl, we've had zero fatal nuclear power accidents.
That doesn't mean we can ignore what has happened in Japan. Precisely because nuclear accidents are so rare, we have to study them intensely. Each one tells us what to fix in the next generation of power plants. The most obvious mistake in Japan was parking the diesel generators in an area low enough to be flooded by a quake-driven tsunami. The batteries that backed up the generators weren't adequate, either. They lasted only eight hours, and power outage fallback plans at U.S. reactors are even shorter. Moreover, this is the second time an advanced nuclear facility has had to vent radioactive vapor (Three Mile Island was the first). Maybe it's time to require filtration systems that scrub the vapor before it's released.
Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut says we should "put the brakes" on nuclear power plant construction until we figure out what went wrong in Japan. Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts wants a moratorium on new reactors in "seismically active areas" while we study the problem. That's fine. But let's not block construction indefinitely while we go on mindlessly pumping oil. Because nuclear energy, for all its risks, is safer.
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