Decisions Need to be Made With Facts, Not Fear
by Kelvin Wade
We watch the ongoing battle to contain radiation leaks at tsunami-damaged nuclear reactors in Japan with much apprehension. The fear is radiation being carried via the Jet Stream to us here in California. Already, many fearful Californians have started inquiring about and acquiring iodine pills. Also, some are using the disaster to lobby against nuclear power.
Before we hastily conclude that nuclear power shouldn’t be part of our strategy of reducing dependence on fossil fuels, we need to keep in mind that the U.S. currently runs 104 civilian nuclear power plants that provide 20 percent of our energy needs.
But this disaster in Japan dredges up our worst fears of nuclear power. When we think nuclear power, we think Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Some years ago, I drove out to the old Rancho Seco Nuclear Generating Station in Herald, California. Rancho Seco had so many problems it was closed by public vote in 1989. But just seeing those twin cooling towers, so reminiscent of Three Mile Island, nestled among rolling farmlands, riddled me with anxiety. Standing in the shadows of the towers one feels dread.
However, the fact remains that the overwhelming numbers of nuclear power plants have done their job and haven’t killed thousands of people or rendered areas unlivable.
When we think of space exploration, our minds don’t immediate go to the Space Shuttle Challenger or Columbia disasters. Out of five space shuttles, two were destroyed in operation killing the astronauts inside. We didn’t use those accidents as justification to shut down the shuttle program. We recognized that space travel is a dangerous undertaking with the reward worthy of the risks.
Our other energy sources aren’t without risk. Coal has killed more people than any nuclear accident has in this country. Coal mining is a dangerous activity but objection to it seems to center more on the pollution effects of it than the human cost. We deem the human cost acceptable for the energy return.
How many explosions and fires have there been at oil refineries? Once again, when there’s an oil refinery fire, the public tends to fret more about the subsequent rise in gas prices than the human toll.
Opponents of nuclear power would say that the potential damage of a nuclear accident far exceeds the damage of a mining disaster or oil refinery fire. That may be so. But that and the ongoing problems in Japan argue for better precautions, more safety, more redundancy and strict regulatory enforcement.
There’s no question all of our older plants should be reviewed and refurbished if need be. There needs to be better oversight. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission cannot be allowed to be like the Minerals Management Service (MMS) has been with oil companies. We can’t have what we’ve seen in the coal industry with a revolving door between companies and regulators. We can’t have those cozy relationships because the consequences can be catastrophic. Cronies at the top and lax enforcement cannot be tolerated.
Since we’re obviously not going to shut down our reactors, we’ve got to get better at regulating them and protecting ourselves.
But what about nuclear waste? Why aren’t we recycling it? France, which gets 80 percent of its power from nuclear reactors, recycles 95 percent of their nuclear waste. France is so efficient at it that half of their recycling plant helps recycle others countries’ nuclear waste. The sad thing is the U.S. developed the nuclear reprocessing technology that we don’t even use! Here, we’re too afraid of nuclear accidents and terrorism to do it.
One can have unparalleled admiration for the brave people responding to the Japanese nuclear crisis and compassion for those affected by this disaster but still support nuclear power. These are decisions that need to be made with reason and facts, and not just fear.