Even as radioactive steam was rising from the crippled reactors of the Fukushima Power Plant in Japan, Rep. Chris Gibson of Kinderhook stated, “I believe that nuclear energy is something that should be part of the future. Indeed, it should be part of a comprehensive energy policy for the entire Capital Region.”
Meanwhile, Sean Hannity and other talk-show hosts, along with several newspaper columnists, including two of the better-known in the Capital Region, described the world’s reaction to the disaster as hysteria.
Decisions to reinspect plants and re-evaluate nuclear energy in the light of an accident do not constitute hysteria, but responsible leadership. On the other hand, comparing deaths from nuclear power plant accidents to deaths from coal mining accidents, as one columnist did, is comparing bananas to kumquats. A more equitable comparison would be between deaths from coal mining and deaths from uranium mining and mining for other radioactive fuels. Uranium mining, like coal mining, has become safer in recent years, but both have a history of causing illness, death and pollution.
It would have made more sense to compare the number of people sickened and killed by electric power plants fueled by coal and oil with those powered by uranium and other radioactive fuels. That is an apple-to-apple comparison. However, it is comparing a Granny Smith to a crabapple.
Also, the argument that there have been more adverse effects from fossil fuel plants than from nuclear power plants and that, therefore, nuclear energy is safer, is unfair. Since fossil fuel plants produce more than four times the world’s energy than nuclear plants and have been producing electricity for many more years than nuclear plants, they are likely, for the time being, to have produced more accidents and possibly even deaths.
But there are many other factors to consider when comparing nuclear energy to fossil fuel energy. Even though the worst nuclear accident ever, Chernobyl, spewed radiation into the air and ground and caused sickness and death, it is not the only yardstick by which we should measure the safety of nuclear energy. It’s the potential danger of nuclear energy, the fact that a nuclear accident could kill thousands, even millions, of people, that must be the primary yardstick by which we measure nuclear energy’s safety.
Proponents of nuclear power, like Rep. Gibson, have pointed out that human error, poor design and natural disasters have been the primary causes of nuclear accidents. True. In fact they are the primary causes of most accidents, but we cannot completely eliminate human error or accurately predict and protect against natural disaster. Human error, poor planning and natural disasters cannot turn a fossil fueled electric plant into something akin to an atomic bomb, like they can a nuclear plant.
But there are other problems with nuclear energy. Uranium and other nuclear fuels, like oil and coal, are nonrenewable energy sources, and currently there is a serious uranium shortage, according to a March 9 Reuters report.
Nuclear power plants require vast amounts of water, another increasingly scarce resource. Add to that the unsolved problems of safely transporting and storing nuclear waste, inadequate security at nuclear power plants, the possibility of terrorists either stealing nuclear material or sabotaging a nuclear plant, the cost of nuclear accident cleanups ($18 billion for Chernobyl) reveals that Rep. Gibson’s Granny Smith is rotten to its nuclear core.
Fossil-fueled power plants are no panacea; neither are solar, wind and hydro. But given a choice, the sun, wind and water are preferable to a nuclear plant. Until changes are made, we will need to use fossil fuels. But we should not build any additional nuclear power plants in New York state.
The world’s energy problems are related to some of its other problems and cannot be solved solely by searching for new energy sources. Slowing down the world’s burgeoning population is part of the solution. Lifestyle changes are part of the solution also.
To put it bluntly, we are pigs. Each generation of Americans believes it must live in a bigger, more energy-sucking house than the past generation. We commute an hour to work, often one person to a car. We keep adding new energy-demanding devices to our lives. We refuse to subsidize and expand our public transportation and rail system. We don’t produce or buy local, trucking goods across the ocean and continent to our homes.
We brag about our vacation in the Bahamas, meanwhile ignoring the beautiful vacation sites in our own state. Our children must participate in nighttime sports, even though daytime games would suffice and regardless of the waste of electricity and cost to taxpayers. We buy what we don’t need. Then, before it wears out, we throw it away and replace it with something else.
I would support Chris Gibson if he would push for the building of wind farms in the area, even if I could see one from my house. To do otherwise would be to support NIMBYism.
To oppose a nuclear power plant, however, is not NIMBYism since the effects of a nuclear accident are never confined to anyone’s backyard.
Dan Weaver lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.