The news cycle being what it is, it’s not surprising that we’ve taken to navel-gazing just days after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami—even as we struggle to uncover, report on, and comprehend the full devastation that they have reaped. And with ever-scarier headlines homing in on the efforts to avoid a meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, it’s not surprising that the focus here has been on energy policy. Politicians like Joe Lieberman are asking for America to “put the brakes on” nuclear until we know what happens in Japan; the pundits are dutifully debating the merits of his suggestion.

Much of the reaction has called for calm before panic. Japan’s quake-tsunami one-two hit is a freakish, one-of-a-kind thing, many are arguing, and Fukushima was older and not as well prepared for manmade or natural attack as its American counterparts. We can draw lessons from it, sure, but those lessons should not be that nuclear can’t work at all.

The argument for the nuclear industry comes from some expected corners. Take this editorial in the Wall Street Journal’s Asia edition, titled “Nuclear Overreactions: Modern life requires learning from disasters, not fleeing all risk,” as excerpted in Mike Allen’s Playbook this morning:

After a once-in-300-years earthquake, the Japanese have been keeping cool amid the chaos, organizing an enormous relief and rescue operation, and generally earning the world’s admiration. We wish we could say the same for the reaction in the U.S., where the troubles at Japan’s nuclear reactors have produced an overreaction about the risks of modern life and technology.

But the same argument—or thereabouts—is being made by what Politico’s Ben Smith is dubbing “the anti-anti-nuclear left.” The point here is less that people are overreacting irrationally to the current, escalating crisis in Japan, but that when put on the scales alongside fossil fuels, the risks of nuclear energy are given a fresh and perhaps relatively less frightening perspective.

In the anti-anti-nuclear camp is Matt Yglesias, who writes:

What happens when a tsunami hits an offshore drilling platform or a natural gas pipeline? What happens to a coal mine in an earthquake? How much environmental damage is playing out in Japan right now because of gasoline from cars pushed around? The main lesson is “try not to put critical infrastructure near a fault line” but Japan is an earthquakey country, so what are they really supposed to do about this?

I don’t really want to be the nuclear apologist guy. I think of myself as a clean energy guy. I’m an energy efficiency guy. But what I’m definitely not is a fossil fuel guy. And you can’t make sense of the safety concerns around electricity generation unless you put the nuclear risks in some kind of context.

Yglesias was responding to a Slate column by William Saletan, who writes that, in the long-term, fossil fuel energy production is far more dangerous than nuclear.

If Japan, the United States, or Europe retreats from nuclear power in the face of the current panic, the most likely alternative energy source is fossil fuel. And by any measure, fossil fuel is more dangerous. The sole fatal nuclear power accident of the last 40 years, Chernobyl, directly killed 31 people. By comparison, Switzerland’s Paul Scherrer Institute calculates that from 1969 to 2000, more than 20,000 people died in severe accidents in the oil supply chain. More than 15,000 people died in severe accidents in the coal supply chain—11,000 in China alone. The rate of direct fatalities per unit of energy production is 18 times worse for oil than it is for nuclear power.

Even if you count all the deaths plausibly related to Chernobyl—9,000 to 33,000 over a 70-year period—that number is dwarfed by the death rate from burning fossil fuels. The OECD’s 2008 Environmental Outlook calculates that fine-particle outdoor air pollution caused nearly 1 million premature deaths in the year 2000, and 30 percent of this was energy-related. You’d need 500 Chernobyls to match that level of annual carnage. But outside Chernobyl, we’ve had zero fatal nuclear power accidents.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.