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Opinions On Nuclear Power

May 9, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 19

Rudy Baum’s editorial “Resist Hysteria” begins with the question, “What is it about the word ‘radioactivity’ that drives otherwise rational people to utter panic?” (C&EN, March 21, page 5). However, the editorial neither answers this important question nor takes it seriously.

People fear radiation partly because they cannot see it and they cannot control it. A fear of something potentially deadly that you can neither see nor control does not seem irrational, and scientists and engineers should not underestimate the importance of such fears. The nuclear disaster in Japan comes at a time when many people feel the world is spinning out of control on many levels and when trust in our political and other leaders—including scientists and engineers—is particularly low. Those of us in the scientific community must work to earn people’s trust; we cannot simply demand it.

Telling them to “get a grip” is not the answer.

Randall Q. Snurr
Evanston, Ill.

I much appreciated Baum’s editorial about nuclear energy and am relieved to find ACS is on the side of reason, through him, on this important issue. Unfortunately, I know Baum will now be flooded with letters protesting his position. The fact that his position is based on the scientific facts and the resulting thoughtful evaluation of the pluses and minuses of the nuclear option will be irrelevant to the writers whose visceral dislike of nuclear energy will ignore the requirement that people calling themselves scientists are supposed to act in accordance with the dictates of reality.

Juliette M. Moran
New York City

One can hardly argue with the title of Baum’s editorial. However, it is a large leap to the conclusion of that piece: “Nuclear power must be a component of the mix of energy sources for the world in the 21st century.” There are a number of reasons why a nonhysterical person would argue with that assertion.

At this time, no country on the planet has implemented a long-term solution to the problem of nuclear waste. I consider it criminally irresponsible to implement a process where you don’t know what to do with waste that remains hazardous for tens of thousands of years. One can postulate that someday fast breeder reactors may be able to reduce waste dramatically. But so far the hazards, costs, contamination, and transportation issues for reprocessing technology have not been solved. Until this technology is proven and implemented, it is hard to imagine how a responsible person could advocate for more nuclear reactors.

Aside from the issue of waste disposal, issues of safety, security, proliferation, and cost remain. Despite billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies for the past six decades (the majority of energy-related federal R&D money), nuclear power construction will not take place without further government guarantees and subsidies. One of the biggest potential hidden costs is the Price-Anderson Act. Passed in 1957 as a temporary measure to help a fledgling industry, it has been repeatedly extended and makes the government liable for any serious nuclear accident (potentially hundreds of billions of dollars). In a free market, risk is assessed by insurance companies, and the industry bears the cost. The marketplace has determined that nuclear power is too risky. It is only through massive government intervention that the nuclear power industry exists.

Concern over climate change has led many to advocate for nuclear power. This position ignores the environmental damage caused by uranium mining and processing, as well as the potential damage the waste could cause during the next 50,000 years. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that nuclear power can play a significant role in ending fossil-fuel use. There is simply not enough uranium on the planet to significantly replace fossil fuel, nor is there enough time to build the necessary reactors before ecosystem collapse spells the end of civilization as we know it.

In a nutshell, it is too late. Rather than drain precious time and money on this costly and dirty energy source, I suggest that fossil-fuel extraction be taxed at a rate that would bring an end to the industry within 30 years. The marketplace would then redirect resources appropriately. On a level playing field, it is unlikely that nuclear plants would be part of the mix.

Realistic analyses of global energy use show that our current levels of consumption cannot be met by renewable energy in the time frame necessary to prevent global ecosystem collapse. Building nuclear power plants does not change the picture. The only alternative to apocalyptic scenarios is a dramatic reduction in per capita energy usage, particularly by developed and developing nations.

This doesn’t necessarily mean a reduction in quality of life. Happiness does not need to be energy intensive. If we are to end fossil-fuel use in time to ensure that our grandchildren survive, we must redirect the focus of our economy away from massive consumption and toward quality of life. If this is accomplished, we don’t need nuclear energy. If we do not accomplish this goal soon, then it would be a better use of our time to learn basic survival skills.

Mark Schauer
Dublin, N.H.

I usually find myself agreeing with Baum’s positions on environmental/energy issues. In this case, however, he is well off the mark. The idea of “nuclear power at any cost” is now being proved disastrously wrong by the ongoing events at Fukushima, Japan. Pursuing the dream of cheap nuclear energy is a course of action taken in error from which we, the world, must make every effort to extricate ourselves, much as we did from programs of nuclear weapons testing in the sixties.

A thorough analysis of the supposed energy gain of nuclear power versus carbon burning would probably show that in the aggregate, little carbon-free energy is produced by this process, yet we are willing to bet the farm against hugely elevated risks of cancer and reproductive defects to obtain this energy. There is ultimately no long-term benefit to the human race from this scheme.

Even if it could be shown that nuclear power is energetically positive, Baum did not once broach the subject of nuclear waste disposal, though large pools of spent fuel are a key contributor to the disaster at Fukushima. The failure to make any progress on nuclear waste disposal worldwide is underscored by the fact that to date only one small country—Finland—has a long-term storage depository constructed and ready for use. In a move seemingly motivated by narrow political interests, the U.S. government has scuttled two decades of work on its Yucca Mountain depository after an expenditure of many billions of dollars. This leaves all our reactors laden with the same lethal stores of spent fuel as at Fukushima. We are setting a terrible example for all the other countries that currently use or plan to construct nuclear power facilities.

The existing U.S. reactors are all approaching, or have exceeded, the end of their originally designated 40-year life span. Running them past that time exposes the public to the consequences of almost certain materials failure. NASA recognized the danger of age-related failure to its shuttle fleet and wisely mothballed those vehicles before loss could occur. The same has to be done for our nuclear power fleet.

Instead of building more units, society will have to find the will to decommission these highly radioactive plants and properly sequester the spent fuel. Only then can we contemplate safe ways to replace the energy that nuclear power once promised to deliver. In the meantime, we may have to dial back our energy consumption to a radical degree and pay a much higher price for the energy we do use. Otherwise we may see the next Fukushima closer to home.

Gary Katz
Cabot, Vt.

After reading Baum’s editorial, I could barely type fast enough to keep up with my thoughts. “Resist Hysteria,” he said. I’m not hysterical.

I was against nuclear energy before the disaster in Japan, and I have to ask: Whose idea was it to build nuclear power plants in an earthquake-prone region? Japan is located where three tectonic plates come together. Three! You’d think that the engineers who built the plants would have taken this into consideration. Perhaps they did wave a red flag but were overruled by whoever was in charge, or perhaps they were just overconfident in human ability to outsmart nature. In any case, citizens of Japan and, to a smaller degree, citizens of the world, are now paying for their gamble.

Enough with nuclear power. I don’t understand why people keep pushing it. It is not safe, and there are alternatives: solar (don’t laugh), wind, wave, etc. These can be done, and they’re getting better all the time. Although uranium is relatively cheap, the cost of building a nuclear power plant can be in the billions of dollars.

Let’s say a reactor costs $10 billion to build. For that same amount, 1 million houses could be equipped with $10,000 worth of solar cells each. I admit there are problems with alternative energy—the major one being a lack of consistency. But if you hook all the panels into a grid, you don’t need chemical batteries to store energy; you could use something as simple as a raised tank of water.

Personally, I think every new commercial or private building with adequate sunlight should be required to be equipped with enough solar cells to minimally power the building. We need to get the ball rolling. If people see solar panels on new houses, they will be more likely to put them on their own. Demand will increase, new companies will be built, new jobs will be created (well, they will as long as we don’t farm everything out to other countries). More research will be done, costs will decline, and better cells will be created. Then the whole world, including Japan, can convert to solar. And nuclear can be placed where it ought to be—as a mistake in our past. Politician with a backbone, can you hear me? Don’t let yourself be led down the uranium-brick road.

Our economy needs a boost, and we need a safe, clean source of energy. Why not get it from the sun? Whew, that’s off my chest.

Thanks for listening.

Lisa Parsons
College Park, Md.

I want to thank Baum for his editorial. The more important situation in Japan is the devastation and loss of life caused by the earthquake and tsunami. This is not meant to minimize the situation at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which is indeed serious. However, Japan will more easily recover from the power plant problems than it will from the loss of life and damage to infrastructure, education, and industry in general.

I have worked in the utility industry for more than 30 years, and I would much rather work and live in the neighborhood of nuclear power plants than fossil fuel plants. As Baum states: “Nuclear power must be a component of the mix of energy sources for the world in the 21st century.”

Laura Schinnell
West Richland, Wash.


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