A Nuclear Reassessment
July 31, 2011
Until recently I supported the nuclear industry; I wrote to that effect on November 2, 2008. I did so because it represents clean energy that under normal conditions does not pollute our atmosphere as do coal and oil. Even the problems related to atomic waste disposal I saw as solvable. Enclosed in lead and glass and buried deep underground in secure locations, I consider them safe. I supported the West Valley facility that was subject to so much abuse by locals. The NIMBY (not in my backyard) attitude in that case I found unsatisfactory: local towns were asked to give up income that would have supported public programs because of what I considered overblown fears.
I have, however, rethought my position and I can no longer support the nuclear industry: atomic, I now believe, is not the way to go.
I came to this position quite independent of the recent episode in Japan; however, as I must point out, that event and the government response support my position.
It is with considerable sadness that I feel forced to oppose energy from atoms, because, I continue to be convinced, coal is even worse. Consider in this regard the health effects of coal from the Clean Air Task Force in 2004:
á 28,000 deaths per year, 2800 of those from cancer
á 38,200 non-fatal heart attacks per year
á tens of thousands of hospital visits due to asthma, cardiac and respiratory problems
Why then do I now oppose this nuclear source of clean energy?
As the Chernobyl and Fukushima events make clear, atomic accidents are major and near permanent national and even international catastrophes. The economic effects are devastating: 25 years after the Chernobyl melt-down about 6% of the budget of the Ukraine is devoted to related programs and tens of billions of additional dollars have been devoted to the far from complete clean-up. The silent health effects are of still more concern with in most of us a few DNA strands modified by the increase in atomic pollution. One predicted Chernobyl result: over 12,000 children born with congenital deformations.
Pro-atomic officials respond, "Yes, but we won't let that happen here." How fast and conveniently we forget. It has already happened here. We have had our own 1979 Three Mile Island, 1961 Idaho Falls (SL-1) and 2002 Oak Harbor, Ohio accidents as well as over 50 others.
And the situation is getting more threatening. Today we have 65 nuclear power plants. Most are aging facilities that are more prone to accidents.
Can we address our problems to keep ourselves safe? I claim not. Our industrial record with regard to safety regulations is terrible. We see this in every industry. They regularly break the rules and only occasionally pay a miniscule fine. And the atomic industry is not immune to this.
Meanwhile industrial representatives and their mutually supported political cronies work hard to defang what regulations we do have. Today, for example, the nuclear industry is fighting hard to avoid late-life facility inspections with any possibility of closures.
But we have the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) whose mission is to "protect people and the environment." Can we rely on the NRC to fulfill that mission? Again sadly I think not. I am frankly impressed with the credentials of the six current commissioners, but their purview is established by politicians and I am concerned by this kind of scenario: In 2010, the Vermont Senate voted 26 to 4 to block operation of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant after 2012, citing radioactive tritium leaks, misstatements in testimony by plant officials, a cooling tower collapse in 2007, and other problems. Shortly after that the NRC issued a 20-year renewal of the plant's operating license.
I have used industry and politicians as the bad guys in what I have said here, but those terms serve best as metaphors for our society. All of us stockholders want as big gains as possible from our portfolios and all of us citizens want the least costs from our government. As a result of that kind of thinking, we place pressure on company officials and politicians to cut corners, to buy cheap, to seek the easiest path and to let tomorrow take care of itself.
Thus, like Pogo, we have met the enemy and he is us.-- Gerry Rising