This isn't Chernobyl.
...but not entirely because it isn't a burning reactor, though it also isn't Chernobyl because of that. This isn't Chernobyl because the wind swept the fallout plume straight out over the planet's widest ocean, which diluted the fallout so thoroughly by the time it reached North American shores that even the New Scientist didn't try to pretend it was anything other than barely detectable with the most sensitive instruments available. I don't pretend it is remotely desirable to contaminate even the planet's largest ocean with radioactive debris; on the other hand, I also don't imagine the problem to be more than the large-scale, though low-mortality, industrial accident that it is.
It's also not Chernobyl because evaporation of water is not going to produce radioactive steam: water contains fallout but, absent direct neutron activation which is not happening here, does not become fallout. Since the radioactive particles in the water, mostly isotopes of cesium and iodine, are heavier than the water molecules themselves, the water won't carry the fallout with it as it evaporates. (Evaporative purification also lies at the heart of most processes used in the desalination of seawater. Also, I'm not any kind of chemist, but I'm pretty sure a chemist wouldn't slap me for describing it the way I just have.)
I don't believe Mr. Page is arguing that it's "perfectly safe" or that people in the vicinity of the Fukushima plant should behave exactly as they ordinarily would; any large-scale industrial accident is likely to contaminate the surrounding countryside, and Fukushima is no different. As far as I can tell, Mr. Page has been arguing around two major points: first, that this accident has at no point approached the scale of the Chernobyl disaster; and, second, that as with every nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster, this is a large-scale industrial accident which, for no good or sensible reason whatsoever and to great human and economic cost, is being treated as though it portends the very wrath of God.
That may sound like a sarcastic and cynical exaggeration, but it is nothing of the sort; as Mr. Page and many others have, over the last month, been at great and lengthy pains to illustrate, when an oil rig blows up and dumps enough oil into the water to all but slaughter an entire sea, it's old hat to anyone not directly affected before the headlines have even had time to die down. But when it comes to a nuclear incident -- *every* nuclear incident, no matter the details -- the gloves come off, the forebrains are shut down, and people behave exactly as did Middle Ages peasants when confronted with the terrible specter of Satan walking up and down in the land.
Compared to that, what's a brand-new dead and toxic sea? Compared to that, what's a mere ten thousand or so people killed and as many over again left unaccounted for in a completely forgettable natural disaster on an utterly disinteresting scale equalled by only a very few such totally banal events in recorded human history?
But there's a bigger problem. One way or another, whether the peak oil theorists turn out right or the AGW folks get their way, we're almost certainly going to be burning less oil fifty years from now than we are right now, and the decline will continue as time grinds on -- and natural gas is finite, too, even if there is a fair bit more of it left to dig up. (And even if the oil'll never run out and global warming isn't and ice cream rains from the skies, it's still not like exhaust fumes are *good* for anybody.)
We obviously can't wait fifty years to start bringing new generation capacity online, whichever mix of technologies we turn out to use. Wind and solar might be to a point in fifty years where they can sustain a significant amount of baseload power generation, or they might not; I'm not knowledgeable enough even to pretend I have a guess one way or another. But I do know they aren't there right now and aren't going to be ten or twenty years from now, either.
Right now, solar and wind put together don't even supply three percent of the world's actual energy consumption, and they still haven't gotten over the problems of the sun going down every night and the wind going this way and that: wind and solar are *interruptible*, which is a pretty big problem (especially for forests, and also for cities) when it means you can't run your space heater at the coldest time of the night, and a very big problem when it means a hospital can't run the extremely power-hungry equipment it uses to keep people not dead, and a goddamned enormous problem when it starts telling on our capacity to keep people fed.
So, because wind and solar are interruptible and because there are many processes, some immediately or eventually critical to human life, which aren't, we can't implement those technologies without putting a separate, conventional technology in place to supply power when the clean'n'green plants are forced offline by utterly ordinary environmental conditions. (Or, at any rate, we can't do that unless we *want* a lot of people to die pretty damn quick, and a lot more to die a lot sooner than they otherwise would.)
Right now, natural gas is often used to backstop wind and solar, because natural gas can be made to work much more reliably; on the other hand, if we're talking about a future in which carbon emissions are radically curtailed -- and, one way or another, it seems that we are -- then we can't assume natural gas or any other petrochemical fuel will be available or acceptable as a backstop technology. That leaves dams, needing rare (and mostly already populated) favorable geography, and tending to kill far more people than any reactor when they fail; geothermal, needing favorable geography and just not up to much in terms of raw output; wave power, which I'm still convinced is nothing more than some engineer's perverse joke that got far too far out of hand; and nuclear, which is reliable and renewable and can be made to be quite clean -- but only, I'm convinced, once we start coming up with governments with brains and backbone enough to say, and make stick, that some things are too damned important and too damned dangerous to be used for making money on.
Because that, I remain firmly convinced, is the root of the problem. A company like TEPCO isn't doing nuclear; they're doing money, and nuclear is just a tool with which they've chosen to do it. If that tool isn't fit for purpose, it'll be ground down until it does the job -- which, again, lest we forget, as with any for-profit corporation, is money. That's why they fucked it up, both in Japan and at TMI. (Windscale and Chernobyl do not figure into this particular evaluation; graphite piles without meaningful secondary containment -- even a mope like me can say those people did not start to know what the fuck they were doing.) If we can replace the private nuclear industry we have now with people who are just doing nuclear, who are very good at nuclear and absolutely unshakeable on the point of maximum possible safety, and who don't have to worry about money at all, we almost certainly won't have these problems.
Of course I didn't come up with all that myself; unless I'm very much mistaken, it is another point lately made in these Pages, with the suggestion that the people required be drawn from the engineering departments of the various nuclear navies, and employed by a tax-funded agency with absolute, unquestioned, and *sovereign* responsibility over every reactor and every significant mass of active material in a jurisdiction coterminous with the boundaries of the nation in which it's organized. (In the US, this might be a third civilian uniformed service, but one I think without precedent in the breadth of its authority and responsibility -- if done right, at least.)
Not that I'm well equipped to evaluate such a proposal on the merits, of course; I'm basically nobody, but I'm a reasonably clever nobody, and in light of the problems with zero-emissions generation technology, it sounded like a damn good idea to me.
I don't want to seem unsympathetic about the harm the Chernobyl disaster did your family and many others. I don't know, of course, but I like to hope I'd say the same thing if I lived downwind from a nuclear plant, or if I lived downwind of Fukushima. (Though admittedly I'd have to be living on an anchored ship or a stationary houseboat or something.)
And I agree that a dose of reality is required. Here's hoping my attempt at same has been helpful.