Well, I can’t put it off any longer. A small newspaper article buried deep in the interior pages on Sunday announced that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has granted a license for two new nuclear reactors to be built in the state of Georgia. The plant will take a while to build — estimates are it could begin producing power in 2016 — and there certainly could be delays between now and then.
But still, the tiny announcement raises a huge question that I don’t have an answer to: What do I think about nuclear energy?
It used to be simpler. Whether for real or imagined reasons, there has not been a new license issued in the United States since 1978, when Jimmy Carter was president, a gallon of gas cost 79 cents, and the first cell phone was introduced.
The Three Mile Island nuclear near-meltdown was in 1979 and since that event, nuclear power has been, at least in this country, judged to be too risky.
Certainly, the nuclear industry continued to advocate for this source of power, but public opinion held it to be too dangerous, for several reasons: Nuclear power plants can blow up or leak radiation, there’s no safe place to store the waste and for all practical purposes it lasts forever, and even if there were a place to dispose of the waste no one wants it transported from the plant through their city or town to the waste dump.
Not insignificantly, some nuclear waste could be used to build atomic bombs, something the planet does not need more of. And besides, until recently, electrical energy was cheap and the threat of climate change was not yet in the public mind.
Back when I was in college and sitting around very late at night with other undergraduate English majors discussing with deep seriousness what we took to be the greater philosophical issues of the human condition, one of the participants asked a question that sparked general hilarity: “If you’re standing up to your neck in a vat of rhinoceros poop (not an exact quote) and someone throws a bucket of elephant vomit at you, would you duck?”
This is where I am with the question of the role of nuclear power in our energy future. On the one hand, it’s carbon-free and to the extent that it replaces either new or existing coal plants it would be a positive in terms of climate change. But it comes with very serious risks, as we have seen at Chernobyl (1986), and most recently with Fukushima (2011).
Nuclear proponents argue that the fears that derailed the nuclear industry are no longer as relevant as they once were. Risk cannot be eliminated, but nuclear power is said to be safer with significantly lower incidence of accidents (unless, perhaps, you build one in the path of a tsunami).
Proponents also argue that new technology substantially reduces the risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons and point out that 30 countries operate nuclear power plants, with France leading the way with nearly 80 percent of its electricity coming from this source.
Others point out that we have new worries: Nuclear power plants could be targets for terrorism, for example, and nuclear plants sited near population centers (17 million people live within a 50-mile radius of Indian Point in New York) are prime targets.
And it’s not like it never happens: Since 1980, there have been nearly a dozen attacks against nuclear power plants in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Israel.
So, when I’m confused, I turn to the experts. There are two I look to most for their opinions on matters related to climate change. One is Bill McKibben, who has been a powerful voice on the subject of global warming and is spearheading the 360.org campaign to bring atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to safer levels.
The other is James Hansen, who was one of the first and over time the most consistent ringer of the warning bell about the adverse consequences of climate change. The trouble is, they’re on opposite sides of the issue.
McKibben says no to nuclear power, pointing out the dangers. Hansen says the technology has improved, the risks have been reduced substantially, and more than anything else the problem of global warming is so serious (think rhinoceros poop) that we have to include nuclear energy in our response. No help here, other than to reinforce my confusion.
Another hero, Amory Lovins, is coming to Davis later this month to make his case for why he thinks we don’t need nuclear to get out of the way of the global warming train wreck; he says we can do it all with solar and other renewables. His is not a universally shared opinion.
I hope I’m not boring you with all this back-and-forth. It seems to me that many of the people I have brought this up with have a similar confusion or ambivalence, with smart, thoughtful people on both sides.
This is going to take more than one column. In the meantime, I’d appreciate any thoughts anyone might have on this topic.
— John Mott-Smith is a somewhat confused resident of Davis. This column is published on the first and third Thursdays of each month. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org