No Nukes, Again

With only a few days separating us from the nuclear disaster in Japan, is now a good time to start a discussion about whether we should expand the role of nuclear power in our energy plans? I don’t think so.

Why? Because the tendency will be to react more on emotion than reason. That’s just human instinct.

Fortunately, some lawmakers agree with me. When asked if the Asian disaster would dampen enthusiasm for nuclear power in the U.S, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said:

“This discussion reminds me, somewhat, of the conversations that were going on after the BP oil spill last year,” McConnell said during an interview on Fox News Sunday. “I don’t think right after a major environmental catastrophe is a very good time to be making American domestic policy.”
On Meet The Press, Sen. Chuck Schumer mostly agreed, too:  “I’m still willing to look at nuclear. As I’ve said, it has to be done safely and carefully.”
Tell that to Eugene Robinson, who penned a column today that labeled nuclear power “a uniquely toxic technology” and “a bargain with the devil.” I suspect more such pieces will be published (if they haven’t already) in the days to come.
All energy sources carry some risk. Oil and coal emit greenhouse gases (the latter spews a lot of particulate matter as well), while natural gas is cleaner but still puts carbon into the atmosphere. Wind and solar will never provide the kind of muscle we need to power the world’s economy (plus, wind and solar farms take up huge amounts of land to generate relatively little power).
So what do we do? Of the non-carbon-generating energy sources, nuclear power provides some 70% of it. Should we do away with it and replace it with what?
Obviously, it makes little sense to build nuclear plants in areas that are prone to earthquakes and the resulting tsunamis, as northeast Japan is. And any plant built near the sea should have its back-up generator’s diesel tanks protected from a wash-out.
As horrible as this tragedy is, we need to keep it in perspective. About 60,000 motorists are killed every year on U.S. roads and bridges. That’s literally millions of people over the last several decades, but I don’t hear any talk of closing down our highway system.
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  • Dave Colomb

    We need to direct the discussion on the reasons that the Japanese plants are having issues. Those are the age of the technology and where the plants were placed. Even with those issues we're not at a catastrophic level yet, they are dealing with once in a lifetime issues, and dealing with them realtively well.

  • Terry Cowgill

    I would agree, Dave. This was a triple whammy. The Japanese have some of the best emergency preparedness in the world and they are still struggling to get a handle on this disaster. I suspect, however, that they are dealing with it as well as any nation could. Yes, let them sort it out so that we can learn from their enormous problems.

  • Terrence McCarthy

    Couldn't agree more, Terry. Making decisions and statements now about the future of nuclear power plants can only be fueled by emotion, not intellect. We're going to learn a lot from this disaster, as a lot was learned after Three Mile Island. My best friend in high school majored in physics at Fairfield. Then did post graduate work at Georgia Tech. After a stint in the Navy, he went to work at a nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, PA.Three Mile Island.Dick was the go to guy, the nuclear physicist who was called in after the steam hit the fan. He played a heroic role and has learned much about what not to do when it comes to constructing and decommissioning plants. He's still at it, spending much time in, where else: California.

  • Richie

    What Japan should show the world is that we should build our nuclear facilities in strategic locations where theater due to natural disaster is minimal. Unfortunately, Japan will be paraded in an emotional appeal to the masses not to build any more nuclear facilities to ensure we remain dependent on our energy needs.

  • Richie

    Please excuse my mispellings and errant use of prepositions. I am remote this week and have poor editing and review capabilities. The above should read:What Japan should show the world is that we should build our nuclear facilities in strategic locations where the risk due to natural disaster is minimal. Unfortunately, Japan will be paraded in an emotional appeal to the masses not to build any more nuclear facilities to ensure we remain dependent on foreign sources for our energy needs.

  • Fred Baumgarten

    Wow. We're facing an earthshaking calamity (pun intended), one of possibly global proportions, and we'd seriously consider keeping nukes? Wow.There is no sense in which nuclear energy is not incredibly dangerous and presents a catastrophic risk. Best estimates of Chernobyl are that it caused nearly 1 million deaths. That's a single event. Your car analogy is specious. We can choose to drive or not drive, and everyone decides on acceptable risks. I don't choose nuclear energy, and it's not an acceptable risk.

  • Terry Cowgill

    You must have a different living arrangement than I do, Fred. My children must take the bus to school or ride in my car. I have no choice but to drive to work, so I must accept the risk that I will die in my car — a risk, by the way, that is far, far greater than dying of radiation poisoning.As for Chernobyl, that was an incredibly shoddy facility from top to bottom, run and owned by a giant and very corrupt communist government that would have rather spent money pampering its elites than on plant safety. If you think we should decommission all our nuclear plants, that's fine. But then how would we replace the 13-14% of the world's electricity that currently comes from the world's 439 nuclear reactors?

  • Fred Baumgarten

    Tell that to the millions (yes, mark my word) who will CERTAINLY die as a result of this one disaster alone.Me? I'd rather drive a horse and buggy than be dead. I don't care how we replace that electricity, or whether we do or not. I'd rather my kids lived in a cave than died. I'd rather take my chances driving than with nuclear power, even if I have to (yeah, I commute too). At least I have some control over whether I die or not behind the wheel. At least an entire part of the earth like Chernobyl (and northern Japan) will not be made into a wasteland if I do.Please believe me when I say this is not personal, but it is insane to believe in nuclear energy — and we are about to find out why. The worst has not even close to come yet. The only reason you might not know that yet is because the full extent of the disaster is being suppressed by mendacious government officials and a willingly head-in-sand press.Chernobyl was a "shoddy facility," yes, but so are the 40-year-old plants in Japan, and the number of things that are going wrong dwarfs even Chernobyl, so I guess the design of the plants is kind of moot.

  • Terry Cowgill

    "… the millions (yes, mark my word) who will CERTAINLY die as a result of this one disaster alone."How on earth can you say that with any degree of certainty? Far too early to make such a sweeping assessment.

  • Fred Baumgarten

    Best estimate from Chernobyl: just short of 1 million. Japan is on its way to worse than Chernobyl, if not already there. Situation completely out of control. Total meltdown — if not multiple total meltdowns — very likely. Spent fuel pools burning and spewing even more toxic radiation. Do the math.

  • Terry Cowgill

    Your "math" is based on the assumption that things are much worse than we're being told. That could be true, but it is not yet fact.Interesting. An old friend who is a staunch environmentalist and a strong believer in anthropogenic global warming just sent me the following message:"Granted, the disaster in Japan is a tragedy, yet is a consequence of human error in planning, not in technology … The possible consequences of global climate change from fossil fuel consumption would have far greater impact than even the worst localized nuclear crises. That is the reality of the situation."

  • Peter Halle

    I am not as sanguine as you, Terry, nor as pessimistic as Fred. What we do know is that every 10 or 20 years there is a nuclear disaster, and that the consequences of a single event can be catastrophic. How can we say this is a once-in-a-lifetime or 100-year event, when the technology has been around only 60 years? Would any of your readers want to live in the shadow of a nuclear plant? As you know, I live near a hydro plant and sleep just fine, TYVM.Fred is right that the car accident comparison is specious – conflating "accident" in such different contexts. And if I may further disagree with you, I don't think we need to wait for our emotions to die down. "We" are outside that room. I expect legislators, engineers, scientists, and captains of industry to be rational now.I think the solution is to wean ourselves of these plants over time, perhaps decades, and massively invest in R&D. Wind and solar are not economical now, but perhaps they could be, or some other safer kind of power. Paradoxically, the push that brought us the A-Bomb, or the brilliant work of Bell Labs or NASA, might bear clean fruit.

  • Terry Cowgill

    Peter, I don't think I was being sanguine about nuclear power. I said we shouldn't close the door on it so soon after this tragedy. And that I agree that means telling "legislators, engineers, scientists, and captains of industry to be rational now."The auto accident comparison may sound specious to you and Fred, but the result is much the same. Millions killed or injured "every 10 or 20 years," while, just as the case with nuclear and fossil fuels, alternatives to driving for many of us are either too costly or impractical — or both.

  • Fred Baumgarten

    High radiation levels now 18 miles away — and that's just what's being admitted to in the MSM.Terry, the numbers of car deaths are compelling and tragic, no doubt about it, and your argument is moving, but here's the problem: It's not just about raw numbers.First, there's a huge difference between deaths caused by a single event and one that causes many individual deaths over time. That's why we have phrases like "weapons of mass destruction." Second, the impacts of a nuclear event are much more far-reaching in time and space. Chernobyl not only killed nearly a million people over time, but also made an area half the size of New Jersey permanently uninhabitable — certainly for hundreds if not thousands of years. How many more people were displaced or sickened (not direct fatalities), I do not know, but they must be many, and that was in a merely lightly inhabited part of the world. Radiation is a poison that lasts in the environment for hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of years. We don't even know the full effects and implications of that.Let's say we dodge a bullet in Japan — and by that I mean, thing s stay pretty much the way they are now, which by the way is not even the most probable scenario. We’re still looking at some unknown number of people killed or sickened over time, certainly hundreds if not thousands, tens of thousands displaced, and a swath of long-contaminated land that at a bare minimum has an 18-mile radius. From where we are now, it would take very little to reach a “tipping point” at which we’re talking about the tens of millions of inhabitants of Tokyo and environs.And again, even if we dodge that bullet, what about the next one? How many times will we get “lucky”? What if it’s Indian Point, which has now been exposed as the most at-risk nuclear plant in the U.S.? These events are not automobile accidents. They are world-shattering events.Third, as I already noted, driving a car does involve some element of choice. You and I may be compelled to commute to work, but theoretically I could find another job that doesn’t put me at such great risk. There is an element of control – I’m sure you even like to think, as do I, that if I drive smartly and defensively, I can control my “fate” on the road. Radiation does not give us any individual control.Finally, your automobile analogy is a false choice, just as your global warming argument is. Why don’t we put more into public transportation instead of our highway system? “Liberal” activists have been asking that for decades. Why don’t we have every car going 50 or 100 miles to the gallon? Why aren’t we inventing more safety mechanisms for cars? Why aren’t solar and wind 50% of the energy output?The answers to these questions have nothing to do with what is possible and everything to do with what is politically and “corporately” expedient. What could we do with the billions or trillions of dollars we use for our military, our wars, our bailouts and corporate subsidies – or even the $2.3 million in blood money we paid to free a CIA killer? Well, it’s a moot point, because we’ll never find out.Unless, I fear, we don’t dodge that bullet – in which case, if there’s a silver lining, it’s that it might finally be our wakeup call. But it’s going to come at an awful cost.

  • Terry Cowgill

    We'll never agree on this but I was pleased to see that the Washington Post editorial board and I are on the same page:http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/too-soon-to-write-off-nuclear-power/2011/03/16/ABZ64Eh_story.html

  • Fred Baumgarten

    I'm glad your views are echoed by the corporate, government-approved MSM, Terry. LOL. My only question is, When will it not be too soon. When we're all growing three heads and glowing?

  • Terry Cowgill

    Fred, I think if the WaPO agreed with you, then you'd be happy to supply a link — after you picked yourself up from falling off your chair.