Nuclear Now, for the Good of the Earth 

Our search for energy has come down to a choice between the perils of nukes and the perils of global warming.

Consider two disasters:

1. At a nuclear power plant ten miles from a state capitol, a valve opens to relieve pressure in the reactor, but doesn't close back as intended. Cooling water drains out of the nuclear core, which starts to overheat and eventually becomes a mass of molten radioactive material. It melts through the concrete foundation and sinks into the groundwater. Geysers of radioactive steam spout into the air. The mist drifts across the neighboring cities, leaving a trail of corpses. Pregnant women deliver children with terrible birth defects.

2. Greenhouse gases increase the planet's average temperature three to nine degrees by the end of the century. Unprecedented heat waves provoke deadly strokes among the elderly, and new asthma outbreaks among children. Wildfires, droughts, and dust storms sweep the country. Intense rainstorms destroy homes on floodplains in low-lying areas. Category Five hurricanes render cities along the Gulf of Mexico almost uninhabitable. Melting polar ice caps raise the sea level 37 inches and flood coastal communities. At least one million species are driven to extinction. Mosquitoes carrying dengue fever swarm into Florida and Texas, and malaria creeps into new parts of Southeast Asia, South America, and Africa, killing as it spreads.

The first scenario — the China Syndrome that experts feared was under way during the accident at Three Mile Island — never happened. The second one is daily unfolding around us. No utility has opened a US nuclear power plant since that dark day in 1979. But if we want to avoid the catastrophe known as global warming, we'd better start soon.

That's not to say that Three Mile Island wasn't terrifying — just ask Nat Goldhaber. Now the managing director of Claremont Creek Ventures, an Oakland-based venture capital firm, in 1979 he was the interim director of the Pennsylvania energy agency, and had just gotten to his office when someone called with news of the accident. For the next three days, his life was a chaotic, terrifying vortex. Staff and commissioners with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave conflicting analyses, and one report claimed that a bubble of hydrogen gas had formed at the reactor's core and could cause a massive explosion. At the end of the first day, Goldhaber went home and slept next to a Geiger counter. "I woke up the next morning and heard it clicking," he recalls. "I suggested that my wife head down to visit some friends in DC."

Altogether, roughly 25 percent of the nearby population evacuated in a panic, as Goldhaber worked out civil defense plans in a nuclear bomb shelter. But the crisis passed, and no one was hurt. In fact, Goldhaber's wife, Marilyn, was an epidemiologist, who later conducted a study on the effects of the accident on pregnant women in the area for the Pennsylvania Department of Health. "And there were none; it was a completely neutral event," he says. "She or her staff literally interviewed everyone in the area." But that didn't satisfy the critics of nuclear power, who often conflated the industry with nuclear weapons and the arrogance of science. "I remember that the Jane Fonda gang came to town in the midst of this, and Tom Hayden said to my wife, 'I don't care about studies. This is an opportunity to get nuclear power,'" he recalls. "It surprised me how long a hangover the Three Mile Island incident has had in rational decision making."

Indeed, decades of Cold War brinkmanship, the aberrant tragedy at Chernobyl, and a nuclear industry initially characterized by arrogance and poor economic performance have all contributed to our opposition to nuclear power. It was a fear that seemed rational at the time, but now turns out to have cost us almost thirty years that could have been spent staving off catastrophic climate change.

In the meantime, as California suffered through a historic energy crisis, and airborne hydrocarbons threaten to wipe out life around the planet, the nuclear industry has quietly gotten safer and more effective. Since 1990, increased efficiency has provided power to 26 million additional homes without building a single new power plant. Consequently, and with the help of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal subsidies, the utility industry has been planning the construction of fourteen new nuclear plants.

More and more environmentalist leaders are coming around to this way of thinking. Jared Diamond, the author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, has sung the praises of nuclear power. So has Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, Gaia hypothesis brainchild James Lovelock, former Friends of the Earth board member Hugh Montefiore (who was expelled from the group for his efforts), and, in a recent Washington Post opinion piece, Greenpeace Canada cofounder Patrick Moore (although his environmentalist credentials took a serious hit once he started flacking for Canada's timber industry).

The most compelling argument so far was put forward by Peter Schwartz, the chair of the Emeryville scenario-planning firm Global Business Network, in a 2005 essay in Wired. American coal-burning plants spit out enough hydrocarbons to cause fifteen thousand premature deaths each year, he wrote; thousands die mining coal in China; global demand for energy is projected to triple in less than fifty years. Nuclear power, on the other hand, has become as cheap to produce as coal or natural gas, emits no hydrocarbons at all, and may even be an effective way to produce hydrogen, which could someday replace oil as the means of powering cars. "The more seriously you take the idea of global warming, the more seriously you have to take nuclear power," Schwartz wrote. "It's the power to light a city in a lump the size of a soda can."

Still, Schwartz and others have a long way to go before they convince most environmental leaders. According to Dave Hamilton, the Sierra Club's director of global warming and energy programs, nuclear power still carries too many risks and too much cost for the public. Power plants are especially vulnerable at a time when Islamic fanatics are looking for targets, he says. Uranium mining devastates the land from which it's extracted. The government must still subsidize plant construction to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars that could be better spent on renewable energy sources and energy efficiency programs. "It's not a panacea on global warming," he says. "We would have to commit to nuclear power on such a scale that it will take more than a few wayward environmentalists to really make a national case that this is our best move."

The most serious problem remains what to do with all the leftover radioactive material. According to Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade association, two thousand tons of high-level waste are produced each year, and no one yet has a satisfactory way of making sure it doesn't poison the water supply. Bradley Angel, the executive director of the environmental group Greenaction, claims that the government's waste management policy deliberately exploits the poverty of Native Americans, essentially trying to bribe them to store radioactive material on tribal lands and risk the lives of their children. "When you look at the practical implications of what they propose, it discriminates against poor people, and in some cases, it's outright racism," he says. "If it's so safe, why isn't Patrick Moore volunteering to have it in his community? ... I don't see Dick Cheney volunteering to have it next to his ranch in Wyoming."

Granted, there's something about consigning Native Americans to the least desirable land on the continent, and then deciding to dump radioactive waste there, that spoils a perfectly pleasant dinner conversation. That's exactly what California and the federal government have tried to do for decades, at Ward Valley and the larger proposed facility in Nevada's Yucca Mountain. Three months ago, allegations surfaced that scientists employed by the Department of Energy had fabricated data about the safety of Yucca Mountain's storage plan, forcing the government to conduct these studies all over again and adding fuel to a 25-year-old fight between Nevada and the feds. The stakes are enormous: If the federal government mismanages the storage facility, underground radioactive material could migrate into the water supply for large parts of Nevada and California.

Nonetheless, even these problems pale in comparison to the thermal Armageddon we face in the near future. Yes, energy efficiency programs have made miraculous strides, and nowhere more so than in California, which uses 47 percent less energy per capita than the rest of the country. But consumption is just one side of the coin; energy production also has to be addressed, especially as billions of people in the Third World emerge from poverty. In the face of this catastrophe, most environmentalists have stuck their heads in the sand and shouted "Solar! Wind! Biomass!" in hopes that someday, these strategies will eventually solve all our problems.

We don't have the luxury of waiting anymore. The Earth is warming, the ice caps are melting, and the hurricanes are getting stronger. Because of the interplay between greenhouse gases and the world's oceans, the full range of effects doesn't manifest itself for at least thirty years, which means we're just now experiencing the consequences of the carbon we pumped into the air in the 1970s. We need to reduce hydrocarbons now, not in some mythic distant future when photovoltaic cells finally pay off. For decades, atomic power raised fears of war and thermonuclear hell. We've spent that same period quietly preparing a different hell for ourselves. If we want to escape it, we have no choice but to unlearn our old fears and embrace what was once unthinkable.


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