Tuesday, April 14, 2009
The United States has long held its flag as the leader of the free world, and proponent of progress. In the face of a climate crisis and turbulent oil prices, several of the nation’s prominent figures have made calls for the United States to take the lead in the effort to lower carbon footprints and find renewable sources of energy.
The result of those voices, and the efforts of environmental groups across America, are clearly shown in the recently passed stimulus package. Indeed, a healthy 79 billion dollars have been allocated to the development and propagation of wind and solar power.
Incidentally, 50 billion dollars in loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants was cut from the bill shortly before it was signed by President Obama. This ostensibly appears to be the result of a political inability to distinguish between nuclear weapons, and the productive, even humanitarian uses of nuclear technology, such as renewable power and plant made isotopes for the treatment of cancer.
Across the ocean, especially in the Scandinavian region of Europe, countries are embracing nuclear power as an environmentally friendly answer to the climate crisis and oil dependency. Sweden, Finland, and Poland are all in the process of moving towards the creation of new nuclear power plants.
This is in addition to the French nuclear powerhouse, and the substantial nuclear industry in Germany, Spain, and Britain. The irony is sharpest in the fact that these countries see nuclear power plants as an answer to global warming and minimizing carbon footprints, while the United States is still laboring under the outdated and stunningly inaccurate stereotype of “old-fashioned dirty” nuclear plants.
In fact, nearly 75 percent of all of the clean power in the United States comes from nuclear power plants. While the idea of solar and wind power is honorable, the implementation is costly and inefficient.
Power grids must be extended to reach the wind farms, often putting multiple environmental goals in competition; energy and preservation come readily to mind. Solar power has potential, but studies have shown it to require several technological breakthroughs to be effective. Are these two ideas worth funding? Arguably, yes. But at the sake of a safe, and efficient technology?
Critics of nuclear power have several valid points that must be discussed with objectivity. Safety is always a concern, with the fear of radiation often presiding over the discussion in a position of dominance. When one looks objectively, that fear diminishes when it is revealed that in the 12,018 deaths around the world from harvesting energy since 1977, only 56 have been a result of nuclear power (a paltry .46 percent).
Furthermore, they all stem from one incident in Russia. No American has died from nuclear power. Three Mile Island, the focal point of many nuclear critics, was a clear success story that has been sold to generations as a cautionary tale of nuclear destruction. The nuclear industry lost the public relations war when the first atomic bomb was dropped, but one can only live with that flawed overall perception for so long.
The fact is that despite being a nuclear plant built well before substantial safety regulations, there was only partial contamination and no deaths. With the advent of the modern nuclear plant, any remaining arguments about safety become mostly moot.
What of terrorist attacks? The Department of Energy has found that nuclear plants are robust enough to protect nuclear fuel from passenger planes. In comparison with the vast majority of other high value targets, the nuclear power plant amounts to a fortress.
In justification for removing the nuclear funding from the stimulus, environmentally conscious politicians cited the immense start-up cost and lack of profit from nuclear plants. They decried it as a failed technology, while airily stating that the main purpose of the stimulus was to create jobs.
The innate hypocrisy in that statement is almost blinding, as solar and wind power depends heavily on government subsidies in order to create profitable revenue and attract investors. Apparently, more inefficient methods of procuring energy are more worthy (politically) of funding than other, more efficient and proven methods.
Furthermore, the onerous red tape that restrains the nuclear industry (far beyond necessary safety regulation) was instituted by the very environmentalists that now disparage their economic efficiency. Lastly, why would nuclear power be a failed technology, barring mindless regulation, only in the United States?
The crux of the matter is that the rest of the modernized world sees the innate potential of nuclear energy, while America, in her presumptive ignorance, is held hostage by an irrational fear. Where others see a solution to a global climate crisis, we see only radiation and death – an image that has almost never been a reality.
If we are to take active and productive steps towards oil-independence and climate progress, nuclear power must be a dominant element of any energy plan. Wind and solar power are both avenues that should be explored, but ignoring a clear solution merely for political means is irresponsible.
William O’Hara is a Naval Academy graduate, law student at George Washington University, and founder of The PULSE Review, a public policy, law, and national security weblog.