The title saying implies that there actually is sufficient punishment to fit "nuke crimes", whether those are intentional or accidental. But let's just consider a part of the "eye for an eye" ultimate punishment scenario. What if there is no sufficient punishment to fit such crimes against people, our species, our ecosystem and all that or who live within it? Does a deterrence in the form of negative consequences for causing or allowing a nuclear horror to be caused exist under such circumstances? The Chernobyl disaster (25 years ago on April 25, 2011) has killed about one million people (see How Nuclear Apologists Mislead the World Over Radiation at HelenCadicott.com) via radioisotope poisoning (especially via cancers due to decay of isotopes like medium duration Cs137 and Sr92, or the short-lived ones like I-131). Or what about the effect on those born after the event, often many years after the event, who are often afflicted with genetic alterations (generally not for the better, either)? For example, a very noticeable decline in health, ability to think, and ability to resist diseases that would normally be much less severe has been observed. In much of the Ukraine and Belarus (where about 56 million people live), the percentage of "normally healthy" children has dropped from 90% (before) to less than 20% (the present case). But don't worry, no connection there, now move along.....
And to help out in matters of fogging up the issue, it was against official Soviet/Ukraine/Belarus and Russian government policy to even acknowledge death by radiation and radiation induced tissue damage for 5 years after the event, and to make scarce any historical data. Over 240,000 "liquidators" (often USSR military personnel) were exposed to more than 10 mSv doses - which is 7 times "background", and some a lot more. There was a lot of bravery and tremendous sacrifice by these "liquidators" (up to 900,000 "volunteers") in building the containment structure around Chernobyl as well as cleaning up the "hot spots" of belched out reactor core that was spewed significantly in a 50 km radius (though not in a uniform manner). Over 500 million people (mostly in Europe) were dosed by Chernobyl Unit 4's contents in 1986. Fun, wow.
How do you take the people who screwed up on that dreadful day, and kill them tens of thousands of times, over and over again and again, as retaliation and as a lesson to those who might screw up in the future in nuclear matters? You can't - even "made for movies" zombies don't have that much recuperative stamina. And what about their bosses - shouldn't they also "get the business", too? Odds are, the ones at the plant who did the dire deed are long since dead and gone via acute doses of ionizing radiation. So what if it was painful (and radiation poisoning is reputed to be a really bad, really painful way to die). The fact is, there is no justice obtained from such a horrid event when the perp(s) bite(s) the big one, no balancing of the proverbial scales of justice from this crime. Even if the perp(s) of the crime(s) suffer incredibly, it doesn't make it right. However, the thought that there actually are really severe negative consequences to those who own such facilities if a bad "oops" occurs is a requirement of "behavior modification" for the owners of nukes/nuke materials and is needed to minimize the probability of an "oops" - accidental or deliberate, it does not matter - from taking place. Sorry won't cut it.
The same goes for Fukushima 1, Fukushima 2 and Fukushima 3, plus the spent fuel rods in Fukushima 4; combined, this too is now a "7" on the disaster scale (same as Chernobyl). And guess what, there are higher numbers than "7", and that is not exactly something to look forward to, not at all.
So, you can't do the time, when the nuclear based crime you committed is so nasty that you need to be killed thousands of times over, since by definition, you only die once. Well, that poses some interesting philosophical questions, even in states like Texas, where a lot of people seem to revel in the cruelty that is their capital punishment fetish, especially those in leadership positions and those leading political parties or those who are elected/selected officials.
But for nukes, odds are, the owners will be rich, and most probably, corporations, with a collection of really rich people owning the majority of voting and controlling stock. And while a corporation is composed of people, well, those entities often tend to act a bit psychopathic, devoid of that human characteristic called empathy. Why put an entity devoid of empathy (as in the question, "What if it happened to me?") in charge of a nuke or several nukes, when all that entity craves is ever greater quantities of money. That corporation (just like most big corporations) will proceed to rent and/or purchase politicians/leaders of society (some of whom are owners of that corporation or related ones) who will aid in the additional "smooth and profitable operation" of the money making portions of that corporation. That's how they behave, that's what they do, whether they make baby food or operate nukes. As that other saying goes (Molly Ivins was a strong proponent of this one) - "a shark's gotta eat".
Of course, it is not very often that questions such as the punishment for misbehavior or "accidents" - who gets it and what form should it take - about nukes are posed. And a lot of effort has gone into making things that way (keeping the public "fat, happy and quiet"), and it is not until a "wake up event" happens that such uncomfortable thinking is ever allowed in public discussion. But, with 3 partial core meltdowns all resulting from an event not of human making interacting with a human made "accidents waiting to happen" nuclear power complex, maybe it's time that these societal questions get confronted. As for answers..well, it's not like it's a question of what is the sum of one and minus two..., let alone what is the fourth root of the answer to that equation. These questions are of the more human variety, laden with moral and value judgments. All kinds of human behavior by all kinds of humans with all kinds of motivations are involved in this problem of nukes, and to add more spice to the gumbo, lots of money is also involved.
Nuclear reactors (nukes) originally came into being as part of the U.S. war effort, and were made to mass produce nuclear bomb fuels (especially plutonium and tritium) as well as to understand what makes a bomb functional, how to make more nukes, more weapons grade material and possibly come up with other uses for them, such as powering nuclear powered submarines. But, things went off towards the loony bin with a vengeance, because soon both the U.S. and the USSR had weapons out the wazoo; enough, as it turned out, to alter the climate of the earth and with a very high probability, eliminate all human (and most mammalian) life off of the surface of the planet. And that fate could be accomplished with only a tiny fraction of those weapons actually used. The most notable stabilizing strategy was called MAD - Mutually Assured Destruction - a Freudian Slip if there ever was one. Very large fractions of both the U.S. and USSR economies were devoted to nukes and nuclear weaponry as well as nuclear weapons delivery. Eventually atmospheric, space based and underground Bomb testing was ended, and by treaty, too, for these two countries. But, by now there are 9 nuclear armed countries - US, USSR, England, France, China, India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea - so the genie is out of the bottle, so to speak. The technology to make a Bomb is pretty old by now, too, and worst of all, it is KNOWN that they HAVE been made, and thus they CAN been made.
Nuclear science can be incredibly seductive, and the energy released by nuclear fission is quite incredible. Just imagine, so the thinking goes, that we could tap this power for... electric power, or thermal power, or both. Virtually limitless (well, in retrospect, there are limits) power, and maybe it would be too cheap to meter, so why bother? And look, no need to worry about all the air pollution that results from burning coal, oil and natural gas, depletion of those fossil fuel resources and especially no CO2 pollution given off with respect to boiling water (to spin a turbine/generator). You may as well line up all of this years Sports Illustrated Swimsuit models and dangle them as bait in front of a bunch of shy, horny and emotionally frustrated scientists, militarists and bankers/business people (usually male, at least in the 1950's). Resistance would have been futile, and besides, what was the alternative?
The first seriously scaled nukes were used for military purposes - to power nuclear weapons manufacturing complexes (in the U.S., at places like the Hanford and Savannah River "reservations") and then later for nuclear submarines and then ships like aircraft carriers. For subs, there may be no practical alternative, even if the main use was to tool around the ocean, underwater, in a craft loaded up with Bomb tipped missiles. By the 1960's commercial scale nukes were under construction (the first went online in 1957 at Shippingport, Pa, near Pittsburgh). Of course, there are still lots of interconnections between a "civilian" reactor and the military parts and aspects associated with The Bomb. By now, there are 104 operating nukes in the U.S., loads of them overseas (USSR, France, Japan especially), and some are even retired (the original one in Pennsylvania, and ones in Michigan, Maine, and NY, for example).
The lure of nukes - a Siren Song
Many claim that nukes are the only way that we can maintain a large electrical production and electricity based society without the byproduct CO2 pollution that comes from burning fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum coke (pet coke), natural gas (methane) and oil. On the basis of less air pollution (CO2, coal ash particles), less radiation spewed about (radon, burned up uranium present in trace amounts in coal), less acid gas (SO2, NOx), fewer quantities of poisonous heavy metals (Hg, Pb, As, etc) thrown out the smokestack, and fewer coal mining deaths (accidents, black lung disease), nuke proponents claim that nukes are less harmful than coal. Plus, they also claim that nukes are an inexpensive way to make electricity - especially if governments pick up the R&D tab, provide low risk financing/grants, ignore proliferation, ignore/subsidize/legislate away the trash disposal problems and legislate away the cost of the nuke risks (where that is defined as the cost of an "oops" times the probability and/or actuality of an "oops"). Thus, it is the lesser evil argument (it's either nukes and/or coal, or no electricity) which they state as a fact and which justifies nuke derived electricity. And given our current population levels and population density, perhaps it might be better than the "not much electricity at all" scenario, which would probably involve a significant "population level readjustment" to survive on a significantly lower energy usage.
Add to that the questions of who is advocating for nukes, how they came to that belief in nukes, the fact they they believe their belief in nukes is factually - and definitely not a religious-like "faith" - based, the "more logical view", as well as the social, economic, political and scientific circles that they "abide in", and things become quite clear. After many years of study, as well as probably decades living with their nuke beliefs and advocating for them, change to a different way of thinking about energy, how it is used and how it can be made at a price we could live with is for most in this set, very difficult. Part of this nuke advocacy comes from our weapons program, where trillions of dollars (especially in today's dollars) were spent setting up the entire scientific-industrial-political-economic complex of nuclear materials preparation and weapons systems manufacture, which has employed millions of people, just in the U.S. At one time, the U.S. Government directly and indirectly funded massive amounts of scientific research on a wide variety of topics - anything even remotely nuclear connected - and much of chemistry, physics, aeronautics, computers, math, mechanical and electrical engineering, biology, and medicine had some nuclear connection. That's partly how allies and friends can be bought,
And besides, as another saying goes, you've got to break some eggs to make an omlette. Stuff happens, and in the pursuit if a better society, accidents will happen. Besides, they hardly ever happen with nukes. Forward progress is not necessarily painless, nor a straightforward path..
The Fork in the Road
However, there are lots of recent advances in renewable energy generation, and in the use of electricity to do things and get things done that show that the "lesser evil" theory for nukes is incorrect. Furthermore, if we had spent the same money and used the same talents that were used to perfect and mass produce The Bomb, ways of delivering it, and to design, make and install nuke reactors as we did on renewable energy, we could have done a much more (or all) renewable energy path, and a lot earlier, too. And odds are, electrically powering up America with renewable energy would employ more people, be less threatening to our collective human existence and produce different incentives to accomplish a wide variety of things than would our "nuclear option". It also could produce differing ways and places to live, versus what we have today. Perhaps a lower average level of energy gluttony (and far too often, we/many of us actually enjoy energy gluttony in an addictive-like manner) than we currently live with would have been the result of a more renewable energy based society.
As an example, the recent developments in wind turbine design and manufacture need to be considered (not the only way to proceed with renewable energy, but a very visible one). The combination of large scale manufacture and installation of wind turbines with pumped hydroelectric (where there are a combination of hills and water) or compressed air storage (where there are no hills and/or available water) could have been supplying most of our electricity since the 1970's, if there ever was a serious effort to do this. But, there never was an epic scale R&D push for renewable energy, nor was there ever the financial incentive (like Feed-In Laws) to do such development. Of all countries, both the U.S. and Canada have awesomely over-sized wind resources compared to even present usage rates - combined, something like 40 times the present consumption level of electricity. The technology to convert water to hydrogen via electricity has been commercially practiced since the 1920's, as has the hydrogenation of nitrogen (Bosch-Haber ammonia synthesis). Hydrogenation of carbon monoxide/dioxide mixtures has been used to make methanol for many decades, and the oil technology known as "Platforming" (platinum based hydrogenation) has also been commercialized for many decades. We could have been making synthetic fuels from hydrogen and CO2 for some time, but because fossil fuels and valuable intermediates like ammonia were so cheap via hydrocarbons and/or coal, why bother? And we could have been making electricity via non-polluting approaches on a much more massive scale, but because nukes and coal burners were so "cheap" (actually, made cheap via government intervention and manipulation), again, why bother? By the way, while there does appear to be competition between coal burners and nukes, there is also a lot of cooperation; many of the same companies supply the goods, technologies, construction and finance expertise for both approaches to electricity manufacture.
So, we now have "blown the rent money", or at least a lot of it, on the equivalent of losing horses at the track - trillions of dollars (present dollars) for nukes, coal and natural gas for much of our electricity, and oil for transportation energy. But it needn't have been that way. And rather than go down this existing loser future pathway any more, we still can change to a renewable energy based society. There is NO valid technical reason why we can't do that, even if existing technology NEVER improved (and that just won't ever happen, as there are strong commercial incentive for improvement, notably in Europe). The reason why nukes have proliferated and why they continue to be so massively subsidized are political. The reason that renewables such as wind are financially not viable in the U.S. even though the actual cost of electricity made by wind turbines versus a new nuke is LESS via the wind turbine, even if some serious nuke subsidies are ignored (i.e. not counted as a cost), are also political. A sensible pricing policy for renewable energy for a country is also a political decision.
Of course, what happens when there is a "wind spill" or a "tower meltdown"? In general, a few million dollars goes down the drain, and the output of that turbine (not the wind farm in which the turbine was a part) is no longer available. But, a lot of the parts of the defunct turbine can be reused, and only very rarely for such a rare event is anyone hurt. What happened at the Chernobyl and Fukushima events - also pretty rare but no where nearly rare enough - can happen again, and it will, as sure as the sun will shine tomorrow (may be obscured by clouds, but it will shine, nevertheless). Nor is the acute poisoning of just a few million people the worst case event, not by a long shot. The sad truth is that we have been lucky so far in our endeavors with nukes, let alone with The Bomb that spawned all those nukes, and which in turn are indispensable to the mass production of atomic weaponry.
Will anyone in the US who owns nukes, or is in charge of managing nukes literally put their and their family's lives on the line for their money makers? That is, if an "oops" happens and a lot of bad stuff ( = poisonous radioactive material) gets away from its contained state, will they agree to a very public death by their money maker - radiation? Perhaps a massive does of X-rays, high energy electrons, or by an injection of polonium or radium containing serum, enough to be fatal in less than an hour? While this effort (to paraphrase Carl Hiassen in the book/movie "Striptease") at "going Old Testament on their ass" may seem uncivilized, perhaps it is only when these owners and the upper management have an intense and justifiable fear of a really horrid fatal fate should something bad happen that the probability of a nuke mishap will be minimized. But even fear cannot stop the inevitable - that over time, some event, or more likely a combination of events, will occur that leads to a nasty reactor mishap. And you can't stop the inevitable, maybe delay it, but it is inevitable, after all. Over time, a finite probability of a nuke event will manifest itself as a nuke event. So far, we have had 6 partial core meltdowns of commercial scale facilities since 1967, and a new crop of event probabilities (old age related accidents/leaks for facilities more than 40 years old) is coming into view. Add to that corporate ownership of many of these old power plants and a really strong desire to maximize output and thus maximize revenue above all other concerns, and that is not a pleasing picture to gaze upon.
So, to wrap it up, there is no way to do the time for the crime of Chernobyl and Fukushima like events. And there are alternative to using nukes that don't also instigate Global Climate warp-out via CO2 concentrations in our atmosphere that are inexcusably and atrociously too high. But, the price may be slightly higher immediate electricity bills or significantly higher ones, depending on which renewable options are pursued (PV panels and batteries in Northern Quebec are not going to be cheap..) and where they are installed. And odds are, in exchange for a future in which you can be guaranteed that mass poisoning via radioactive isotopes getting unleashed is going to happen, you might have to look at how your electricity is being made. But can we "man up" or "woman up" to this?
Sure we can. But the big question is not whether we can, it's if we will.