Thursday, March 17, 2011

Time to end nuclear power?

Events are still unfolding in Japan; Ben Boychuk and I discuss the future of the domestic nuclear power industry in this week's Scripps Howard column. My take:
It's not time to put the kibosh on nuclear power in the United States.

It's also not time to make it a lot easier to build a plant.

And understand: Building a nuclear power plant in the United States is very difficult. It costs lots of money and takes many years of moving through an excruciatingly slow permitting process. Advocates of nuclear power have spent recent years urging that the process be streamlined -- and some environmentalists, seeing nuclear power as an alternative to carbon-belching fossil fuels, have even started to support that view.

They're wrong. The bar to building a nuclear plant should be almost prohibitively high. The permitting process should be slow -- giving engineers and government officials a chance to consider and address all the ways disaster could afflict a plant -- and construction itself remain expensive, in large part because of all the safety measures that must be put in place.

Why? The vast majority of the time, nuclear plants run smoothly. But as Josh Freed, a nuclear power advocate, told the Washington Post: "When nuclear goes wrong, it goes wrong big." The area around the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the Ukraine, for example, is a virtual no man's land more than 20 years after the disaster there -- and cancer rates for hundreds of miles outside that zone remain precipitously high.

Cheap, mass-produced energy has probably lifted more people out of poverty than any other force. That fact must be acknowledged. But it also comes with a cost -- no matter what form it takes. The health and safety costs that come with nuclear power can be more extreme than most. The disaster in Japan is a warning against the hubristic idea we can ever make it perfectly safe.
Ben's a bit more sanguine about nukes than I am. Read the whole column for his take.

No comments: