Love Thy Nuke

Liberals cringe at the mention of Ralph Nader – in whose absence, Al Gore would have taken Florida, and Bush Duh’s containment in Texas would have been secured.

When they oppose nuclear power – in favor of wind and solar – liberals dont appreciate that they’re repeating the same error. In rejecting nuclear, you dont get wind and solar – they arent real options yet. You get coal and gas. A recent Scientific American article describes the exceedingly slow market penetration of new energy sources. It took oil, coal and gas decades to become widespread – the path for renewables promises to be just as long. Nuclear energy is a solution for the here-and-now.

The issue is NOT whether nuclear power is good in the abstract – what matters is that it’s far better than the real alternatives right now – and thats why liberals need to get behind this wagon and push.

The first step is understanding just how bad coal is. Of 92 naturally-occurring elements on planet Earth, coal, the all-time dirtiest fuel, contains 76 of them – including such toxins as mercury, lead and arsenic, and radioactive elements: uranium, thorium and cadmium.

About 1/70th of a teaspoon of mercury can make the fish inedible in a 25-acre lake – a typical coal plant emits 170 lbs of mercury in a year – and 100 lbs of lead – and 200 lbs of arsenic – and 4 lbs of cadmium – and 1,000,000 lbs of undifferentiated particulate crap. Even if you could capture everything that comes out the smokestack (you cant), the waste ash left behind is radioactive. Yes, you heard right: coal plants produce radioactive waste. And because coal-ash disposal isnt as rigorously managed as nuclear waste, coal ends up delivering 100 times more radioactivity into the environment than nuclear.

Simply put: coal really sucks. One estimate blames coal for 25,000 premature deaths in the US each year. And we havent even mentioned CO2! “Clean coal” – which doesnt exist – is about carbon-capture – NOT about all the other crap that goes into the environment when you burn it.

Natural gas is far better than coal. It gives off virtually no particulates or SO2, and much less NOx. It produces no waste ash. It’s also become quite cheap because of recent development in North America, and the difficulty of overseas export.

The fly in the ointment for gas is CO2. While it only puts out about half the CO2 per unit of energy (compared to coal) – it’s still an insane amount of CO2 – and so gas fired plants are not going to help curb emissions. Gas is way better than coal – but nuclear beats them both. Close to zero CO2, SO2, particulates and NOx.

Contrary to popular myth, nuclear power is the safest energy source the US has ever had, without exception. The civil US nuclear industry has to date killed… nobody. Death toll from Three Mile Island: 0. Death toll from coal since Three Mile Island: 750,000. More Americans have died cleaning the turbines of windfarms and falling off the roof while tending to solar panels.

The sticking point on nuclear power SHOULD be cost – but the high cost comes from rigorous safety standards, and the fact that the nuclear power industry internalizes ALL of its production costs – including waste management. Gas is cheap as long as you dont factor in environmental degradation (global warming). Coal is cheap until you factor in ruined lakes, asthmatic children, and lead, arsenic and mercury poisoning. (Did I mention that coal sucks?) Put otherwise: the costs of nuclear power are higher but they are real – the cost for fossil fuels are only nominally low – the real cost of their use is much greater. Liberals in any case should be should be willing to pay a bit more for energy that doesnt ruin the environment or sicken people.

But liberals time and again get stuck on the risk of accidents and on waste disposal. The US has had precisely one major nuclear accident – Three Mile Island – which led to precisely ZERO deaths. The record on civilian nuclear waste disposal is impeccable. Safe storage is challenging, but achievable. If the US would permit reprocessing, the quantity of the material to be stored would drop by more than 90%. The material is encapsulated in glass, then steel, then usually concrete too, then stored underground. Always helps to recall the alternative: fossil fuel waste storage happens in your children’s lungs, in your backyard, and your local forests and lakes.

There are psychological processes that work against nuclear power. People are concerned by the spectacle of thousands dying in a discrete area because of an accident. They are less concerned by more abstract processes, caused by coal plants, that REALLY KILL 25,000 people EVERY year – simply because those deaths are spread out in time and space. A similar process was on display a few years ago, when 14,800 people died in France in a heat wave. If it were a mid-air collision of two jumbo jets killing 1/10th that number, it would have been big news. 3,000 people died in 9/11 – but 30,000 die every year in the US from the flu, and yet no countries get invaded. This is how coal kills – quietly, in hospitals, a few at a time – not very photogenic – makes for really dull reporting. But it’s no less real – and way more deadly.

Nuclear power is safe and clean – its industry is mature and has an unmatched safety record. Renewables may be the future – but nuclear is the bridge that gets us there, without losing the planet along the way.



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