The nuclear disaster in Japan has many Americans asking whether expansion of nuclear power plants in the United States is wise considering the risk.
The answer is yes.
Nuclear power plants are exceedingly safe, far safer than oil, gas and coal production and distribution facilities. What’s happening in Japan is an aberration, a series of disasters so immense few imagined them and therefore failed to engineer for them.
We need to learn from what happened in Japan and engineer our existing and new nuclear plants so that that what happened there can’t happen here.
Nuclear power is essential for the future of the American economy and our national security. We must not only continue to use nuclear power, but expand its use.
To argue that nuclear power is too dangerous to use is to fundamentally misunderstand radioactive materials, their use and storage and the overall health effects of radiation exposure.
We have been taught to have a hysterical fear of radiation, mostly through decades of propaganda associated with the Cold War. As a result we see it as more of a threat to our safety than other energy sources.
But the fact is oil, gas and coal have killed more of us than nuclear power ever has or ever will.
Just in the past 12 months there have been six oil refinery explosions in the United States, killing more than a dozen people. A natural gas pipeline in a San Francisco-area subdivision exploded last year killing eight people, one of several dozen petrochemical pipeline explosions, accidents and spills last year.
A coal mine explosion in West Virginia last year killed 25 miners, the most serious of nearly a dozen of coal mine accidents in the past decade that have killed about 100 miners.
Our dependence on oil, gas and coal pollutes our air, causing tens of thousands of cases of respiratory illnesses a year, and pollutes our water causing hundreds if not thousands of cases of cancer and other illnesses every year.
Though there are 65 nuclear power stations operating 104 reactors in the United States, and about 80- nuclear-powered U.S. Navy vessels, there has only been one nuclear reactor accident in U.S. history and no one died.
But this isn’t meant to be Pollyanna. Just like with coal, gas and oil, there are enormous safety and environmental problems with nuclear power, especially in the manufacture of nuclear fuel and in the storage of spent fuel. And in the rare instances when nuclear power goes wrong, boy, it goes wrong big.
But those problems are manageable, more so than with petro energy.
In next 40 years the U.S. population is expected to increase to 420 million and demand for electricity is expected to increase from 4 trillion kilowatt hours a year to 6 trillion.
That 50 percent increase in electricity demand will not substantially come from wind or solar, which currently accounts for less than 4 percent of electricity production. Petro fuels or nuclear power are the only realistic choices (unless we choose to blanket the country in solar panels and wind turbines, which is unlikely and probably still won’t come close to meeting demand)
The burning of fossil fuels is killing us. To increase its use by 50 percent or more to provide us the electricity we’ll need the next four decades will require us to continue the enormous transfer of wealth to other countries (primarily Canada and Mexico), which hurts our economy and endangers our national security.
Moreover, if we want to be energy independent without using nuclear power, it will require the strip mining of Utah, Wyoming and Colorado for their oil shale, increased tunneling and strip mining of West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania for their coal, the drilling of oil in wildlife refuges and off the California and Florida coasts and the building hundreds of new oil refineries and coal, oil and gas-burning electrical plants.
The environmental and health effects will be enormous.
Or, we can lessen the need for petro power by building a couple of dozen more nuclear power plants with an eye toward safety and continuation of their exemplary safety record.
The nuclear accident happening in Japan is tragic. But it’s no reason to become hysterical about nuclear power in the United States. Our prosperous future depends on it.