The devastating earthquake that hit Japan last Thursday has produced horrifying images of utter destruction. But despite the humanitarian crisis that has left scores of dead and thousands struggling for survival, many media outlets have unduly focused on the failures of nuclear power reactors, drawing from this natural disaster fodder for a larger fight against the nuclear agenda in the United States.

In the hours following the devastating 8.9-magnitude earthquake off the coast of Japan and the tsunami that followed, several nuclear reactors throughout the region were left dangerously vulnerable. The most severe damage has occurred at the Fukushima Daiichai plant, where four separate reactors have been left in critical condition after system failures amounted in the earthquake’s aftermath.

While safety has always been a serious concern with nuclear energy ever since the catastrophes at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, the unique series of events that harmed critical back up systems in Japan has been overlooked. The failures leading to partial meltdowns would not have occurred without the abnormally large earthquake and ensuing tsunami.

Due to these irregularities, many prominent public figures throughout the world have overreacted to the events unfolding in Japan. This past Sunday, Sen. Joe Liberman (I-Conn.) has called for a stop on the development and construction of nuclear reactors in the United States, citing the need to understand the events unfolding in Japan before proceeding. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has temporarily closed seven of Germany’s 17 nuclear power plants. China has suspended approved projects and is inspecting its nuclear reactors to ensure that safety standards are maintained.

Over the past few days, more details have surfaced and painted a grim picture of the circumstances in Japan. Numerous fires, high levels of radiation within the reactor facility and countless failures to try and cool the overheated fuel rods have left many comparing this incident to the devastating nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986. Unlike Chernobyl, however, the chain reaction of failures can be directly attributed to the collapse of backup systems like diesel generators for reactor cooling, which were severely damaged by the 33-foot wall of water.

Moreover, what many fail to recognize when technology fails, is that human engineering is not perfect. Just a year ago, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill ravaged the Gulf of Mexico due to the failure of back up systems to prevent blowouts. Likewise, over the last 40 years, the Challenger and Columbia shuttle explosions demonstrated the risks associated with state-of-the-art engineering.

The revival of nuclear energy as a viable solution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has been suggested with the full knowledge of the costs associated with its cutting-edge technology. The momentum towards nuclear energy has been sparked by affluent support from former President George W. Bush and most notably, President Barack Obama. Even Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, has stated his support for greater use of nuclear energy in the United States. Despite past nuclear disasters, developments in reactor technology since Chernobyl and Three Mile Island and disposal of spent fuel rods have greatly outweighed the costs of going backward.

The modern economy depends upon complex technological systems that few understand — and even fewer can quickly fix. As we look to develop more creative methods of harnessing energy, we need to recognize that risks must be taken and failures do and will occur regardless of preparation and safety systems. We can only learn from failures; they will help us better understand the systems we depend upon for our comfortable lives. As we become more and more dependent upon technology in our daily lives, we must be conscious of the risks, but not let them inhibit progress.

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