Here's the thing: most human endeavors are going to be done wrong and engineered poorly at some point. If I run a slipshod coal-fired plant I can give cancer to a bunch of people and blow up a town, but I'm not going to threaten the food production of an entire country and possibly an ocean.
Warren Buffett has famously said (I paraphrase) that he only invests in companies that will do OK even if managed by complete idiots for ten years because most companies will be managed by idiots for extended periods of time.
Basically, you want to move to Theory, because that's where nuclear power plants are a great way to generate power.
Yes, the damage done by the coal plant is more diffuse. But it is not less than the damage done by Fukushima to the ocean and to eastern japan. Coal plants worldwide kill half a million people per year from direct effects, and a lot more from indirect ones.
Also, the nightmare scenario at nuke plants is commonly overstated. Fukushima did not, and cannot, threaten the entire food suppy of Japan. If all it's radioactive isotopes were evenly laid out on all of its fields, the concentrations would be small enough that eating the food would be bad for you, but no worse than breathing the air full of SO4 and NOx found in places where coal plants are run badly (like china).
With nuclear power, you have a low probability of a very catastrophic event with consequences that aren't local. In a very simplified scenario, 50 countries can carelessly operate a nuclear power plant each, and only one of them blows up. However, the wind carries the fallout to another country that never used nuclear power. The people who get cancer, whose soil is irradiated, never saw any benefit from nuclear power, and they never had a chance to stop the plant being built, because it was outside their jurisdiction.
So please, could we finally stop comparing Black Swan-type events with non-local consequences to managable, local risks?
Also, the average coal power plant produces more radioactive waste than a nuclear power plant.
The real problem: people fail statistics. People can easily observe a nuclear plant when it shows up on the news, and assign a disproportionately high risk to it. The ongoing damage of coal plants doesn't make the news, because it falls under "day-to-day operation" rather than "disaster".
Even if coal plants cause more damage to the world, failures are local and manageable. When your nuclear plant fails catastrophically, as they have at Chernobyl and now Fukushima, you can't point to "but this is a six-sigma event!" as an excuse. Given this risk, fission plants have been neither economically nor environmentally preferable enough to displace other ways of generating electricity.
I tried to find some kind of data on this and the estimate is that coal power kills ~13,200 people each year in the US as of 2010. That's about a third of the number of people killed each year in car accidents and a sixth or so of Diabetes deaths.
But a well-engineered coal plant perfectly run in the land of Theory (next to the well-run and well-engineered nuclear plants) sequesters its CO2 and its coal is mined by robots, right?
If nuclear is so safe, why is it impossible to get private insurance for nuclear power plants?
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economics_of_new_nuclear_power_... (nuclear plants only have a tiny proportion of their liabilities covered by private insurance, they require state guarantees or no-one would ever build one).
No-one knows how bad the downside may be so it's impossible to gauge the risk. If a coal power plant is hit by a tornado, an earthquake, a tsunami, and a wildfire all on the same day the maximum downside is no more coal power plant.
Nuclear plants kill a lot of people from direct/indirect effects too. Uranium doesn't grow on trees and jump into reactors by itself. It's funny how the pro-nuclear crowd likes to wave away (a) legacy plants, (b) geopolitical issues (e.g. uranium mined unsafely in third world countries), (c) proliferation, (d) spent fuel storage, (e) transportation, and so on and so forth, and then tally up lung cancer, people run over by dump trucks at mines, and so on for coal.
"Yes, the damage done by the coal plant is more diffuse. But it is not less than the damage done by Fukushima to the ocean and to eastern japan."
I simply don't know how much damage Fukushima has done and will do in the future. Do you? Wait until we find out what happens to the spent fuel at Fukushima and whether it successfully rolls the dice with aftershocks.
I'll share your assessment of the risks of plant damage -- in the case of coal, it's normal operations which are a risk, in the case of nuclear, it's abnormal operations which pose the greatest risk. We're starting to get sufficient baseline data to have a sense of nuclear's actual risks (though some, such as long-term waste storage still haven't been resolved).
The biggest risks, as I see it, with nuclear are actually organizational. Tepco, Hanford, and Chernobyl are all cases in point: managerial incompetence or malfeasance have resulted in hugely damaging events or consequences. A large part of this managerial threat can be attributed to the very high concentration of value that a nuclear plant poses. At roughly 18 GWh annual production rom a typical plant, that's $1-2 billion in annual retail electrical revenues -- a pretty substantial turnover.
I'm not disagreeing with you about the lala land coal plant btw, just comparing apples to apples. I assume the well run perfectly engineered nuclear reactor might not be as cheap or efficient as the badly run stupidly engineered reactor.
The problem with large-scale fission is that any one failure has the potential to disrupt the entire workings of the machine, which is whatever country happens to be downwind. There is no resiliency in the network - you have people telling you the accident will probably never happen, but when it does, you could get anything from Three Mile to Chernobyl.
Maybe we could have a wider network of smaller plants that pose smaller risks individually, and any one failure wouldn't be a big deal. But that's probably not economically or socially (who wants a mini-reactor in their neighborhood?) feasible.