Nuke Em

1979 witnessed the worst nuclear plant accident in American history. Nobody died. Nobody even got seriously ill. At worst people were exposed to about as much radiation as in six chest x-rays. But there were victims. The accident effectively ended the building of nuclear new power plants in the U.S. so thousands died or became sick from the use of dirtier and more dangerous energy production methods, such as coal, oil and natural gas. Beside pollution, more CO2 was added to the atmosphere.

There is no safe or clean way to produce energy, just choices among better or worse alternatives. Nuclear power is one of better ways to produce electricity. Nuclear power plants produce no sulfur, NOx, particulates or greenhouse gases. It has been removed from the energy mix for strictly political reasons.

I have been trying to figure out why nuclear power evokes such strong emotion.

One possibility is that critics don't understand the nature of energy. They see the problems and dangers of nuclear power and naively believe if they stop it, they will eliminate danger. In fact, the power not produced by nuclear energy will probably be produced by coal, and we all know how safe and clean that is.

Which leads to a second factor: established interests don't benefit from nuclear power. The coal, oil and gas industries employ hundreds of thousands of people. A lot of money is made mining, drilling and moving these forms of energy. But you don't have to be conservative to oppose nuclear power.

Among the radicals, I believe that their underlying fear is that nuclear power will actually work to produce abundant, clean energy. This conflicts with their Visigoth view of the future, where small green communities produce what they need locally and communally. There is nothing wrong with this kind of community, but if we do it, it should be from choice, not necessity and it will not be possible on a very large scale by its very definition.

But the explanation for most of the discomfort with nuclear power is just fear of the new. Many people would rather stick with old technologies that we know are bad. As a society, we have become timid.

Think of electricity itself. What if electricity were invented today? With today's social and political structures, could we get it accepted by society, lawyers and regulators? Probably not. Electricity is always dangerous. Each year people are killed by electricity. You could illustrate the point with tragic incidents where a fisherman was electrocuted when his fishing pole stuck a live wire or a falling utility pole killed a child. Electrical lines are strung all over the place. Each of those lines is a potentially deadly menace. Some people claim that exposure to electricity causes cancer or birth defects. You can never prove to their satisfaction that this is false. No, electricity is too dangerous and untried. We are not sure of all the dangers. Best stick to oil lamps and wood fires.

Let's get over this precautionary principle paralysis. Nuclear power is one of the best forms of energy production we have. If we are to go to a hydrogen economy, nuclear power will be what we need to produce that hydrogen. We have to move forward or we slip back.

Posted by Jack at June 19, 2005 11:01 AM