First of all, the people of Japan have my heartfelt condolences and best wishes. Easy words to say (or write), but what do they mean? For me it means that in this modern world where easy access to information has shrunk us all into a massive village, more or less, a tragedy that happens on the other side of the world has meaning and relevance for all of us. We are, every one of us, in this thing together, despite our differences and conflicts.
Secondly, Paul Jaminet has an excellent post about radiation and iodine that I'd encourage everyone to read.
There's been a lot of hysteria and misinformation about the recent nuclear disasters in Japan some of it naiveté, some of it agenda-driven. The agenda-driven misinformation about nuclear power is unfortunate for everyone, as it is currently the safest and 'greenest' alternative to oil and gas available.
The nuclear disasters in Japan are just that, disasters, caused by a huge frickin' wave taking out the emergency power generators, hence screwing up the electronic backup cooling systems. They weren't accidents caused by primitive technology and operator error such as Chernobyl, any more than the three trains that were swept away, including one high speed train, were train accidents.
There exists a knee-jerk hatred of nuclear energy and it tends to run along right/left fault lines, ie liberals who don't understand it seem to hate it a lot more than conservatives who don't understand it. As a libertarian I consider these fault lines to be a chimera, but that's just me. I was somewhat heartened by the fact that Obama has defended nuclear energy. This might be the most gutsy thing he's said since being elected.
Here's one comparisom of deaths per terrawatt hour caused by different energy sources.
Energy Source Death Rate (deaths per TWh) Coal – world average 161
(26% of world energy, 50% of electricity)
Coal – China 278
Coal – USA 15
(36% of world energy)
Natural Gas 4
(21% of world energy)
Solar (rooftop) 0.44
(less than 0.1% of world energy)
(less than 1% of world energy)
(Europe death rate, 2.2% of world energy)
Hydro - world including Banqiao) 1.4
(about 2500 TWh/yr and 171,000 Banqiao dead)
(5.9% of world energy)
Now, one can piss and moan about the validity of these statistics, but the reality is that fossil fuels cause way more human and animal death and suffering than nuclear energy on a watt by watt basis. Oil spills are a recurring phenomena that famously cause pristine beaches to become sludgy animal charnel houses. There's also the less obvious damage caused by pollution, inhalation of carbon monoxide and particulates, etc. A person is more likely to die falling off their roof servicing a solar array than from nuclear radiation (all things being equal).
Remember all those fires caused by the Japanese earthquake, and the hundreds (or thousands) of people who tragically perished because of them? That wasn't fairy dust or unicorn dreams burning, it was fossil fuels.
Sure, there is still an ongoing situation with these 40-year-old nuclear reactors in Japan but the hysteria has siphoned off precious attention and resources from less glamorous things like people who are still possibly trapped and suffering and dying under rubble or simple things like adequate supplies of fresh water, antibiotics, and sanitation. Folks in far off lands obsessing about whether or not some Japanese radioactive cloud is going to travel 3000 miles and poison them really need to wake up and smell the carbon monoxide.
Now here's the requisite picture of Godzilla: