SHIFT: Nuclear power is better than no power

Imagine life without electricity. The lights go out. Your fridge turns into a petri dish. The Internet becomes an abstraction, a memory. And of course, no TV — ah, maybe there is a bright side! But apart from that, having no electricity would suck.

As viable options dwindle, we'll need to get more of our power from nuclear plants. The last year a new one went online was 1997. However, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing license applications for more. Don't flinch. That's a good thing. Follow the link to find out why.

Five Minutes to Midnight on the Peak-Oil Clock
Our flatlining fossil-fuel supply cannot keep pace with rising world demand. U.S. oil production peaked in 1970. Worldwide oil production may be peaking right around now. And domestic natural-gas production has been declining for nearly as long as oil production. We need new energy sources.

Forget the whole genre of biofuels. They're a mirage, due to something called ERoEI: energy return on energy invested. It takes too much fuel to make these fuels. Ethanol is only the most notorious example of a bad bunch. Sure, it comes from corn, but corn production is impossible without massive inputs of chemical fertilizer made largely from natural gas — you know, one of those fossil fuels we're running out of. With other alternative fuels, such as oil shale and tar sands, the story varies but the ending is the same. These technological shell games are unlikely to run the power plants (or vehicles) of the future.

Despite the promise of renewables like solar, wind, and hydro power — which by the 22nd century will be all we've got left — their current forms can't sustain more than a fraction of our current energy usage. Yes, let's pursue them aggressively, but let's also keep the lights on in the meantime.

Coal: the Devil You Know Is Worse
That leaves two naturally occurring fuels that are plentiful enough to sustain us through the long decades we'll need to perfect renewables: coal and uranium. The distant possibility of harm under the highly regulated operation of nuclear power is trivial compared to the documented certainty of harm from coal. Counterintuitively, one aspect of harm from coal (yes, coal) is radiation.

Burning coal releases huge quantities of radioactive substances, uranium and thorium, according to the folks at the Oak Ridge Natural Laboratory. People living near coal-fired power plants receive 100 times more radiation than federal regulations would permit from a nuclear plant — along with tons of mercury, particulates, carcinogens, and global-warming gases.

Nuclear power has a uniquely negative way of firing the imagination, grabbing hold of our darkest fears. This blinds us to the real and provable deadliness of coal, oil and gasoline. Air pollution from fossil fuels kills two to three million people per year according to the World Health Organization. Nukes would give our lungs a break for sure. If you still think coal is a good idea, save me another thousand words of typing and just Google the words "climate change."

Our Old Friend, the Atom
After coal, the other natural resource we still have a lot of is uranium. Yet we get only 19% of our power from nukes. The French are way ahead of us at 78.1%. Even the Bulgarians, at 43.6%, are smirking at us. If oil suddenly gets more expensive, they'll make some sacrifices and squeeze by, while our cheap-oil-driven economy collapses like a house of cards.

What frightens us about nukes is, of course, radiation. But radiation is all around us, says the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation: We get it from outer space, the surface of the Sun, and the Earth's crust. We ingest it via air, water, and foods. Some radiation occurs naturally in the human body.

The only nuclear accident to release truly deadly amounts of radiation was the Chernobyl explosion. Incredibly, the Soviets built this Ukrainian plant (and several others) without a containment shell. All reactors operating in Western nations operate within four feet of steel and concrete, which means that if something goes wrong, there's a Plan B to prevent high levels of radiation from escaping into the air and ground water. Leakage even under extraordinary conditions (like the recent earthquake in northern Japan) has not been massively life-threatening.

Can't nuclear power plants explode? Only if, like Chernobyl, they process weapons-grade fuel. The nuclear fuel used in a civilian power plant is not enriched enough to produce uncontrolled fission — that is, an explosion. Western plants are designed to withstand earthquakes (though building one atop a fault line is undoubtedly a bad idea). A direct hit from an aircraft would damage the containment shell but would not penetrate it.

Really, Nevada Is the Ideal Place for Nuclear Waste
As for nuclear waste, do the numbers. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the past four decades' worth of spent nuclear fuel "would cover a football field about six yards deep." That is a drop in the ocean compared to the unfathomable volumes of other toxic waste produced by our energy, chemical, farming, and manufacturing industries. If we can't control such small amounts of radioactive waste — at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, under current plans — we aren't trying very hard.

Nuclear power can't run cars or trucks or planes, and that's troubling, since two-thirds of our energy usage is for transportation. But it can run electrified trains to carry both people and freight. When rising energy prices make our current modes of transport economically obsolete, we're going to need a passenger rail system for long domestic journeys and light rail to bridge shorter distances within communities. We'll also want to keep our home lives heated, air conditioned and well lit.

Would I take the same position if I lived near a nuclear plant? Actually, I do. My neighborhood is 42 miles south of Indian Point in New York. I own a radiation detector and potassium iodide tablets for emergencies (the chemical invades the thyroid and temporarily protects it from radiation-induced cancer). But like millions of other people, I'm willing to live with the risk. That's because I'm a grownup, and therefore capable of assessing different levels of risk and choosing the least of all possible evils.

Let's Do It with the Lights On
Given the choice between nuclear power and rolling brownouts for the rest of my life, I'll take nukes. Given the choice between nuclear power and the real possibility of death from pollution-related respiratory disease, if I had any say in the matter, I'd gladly take even more nukes. And given the choice between nuclear power and climate change, no contest. I'd get every watt I could possibly get from nukes. And I'd keep those nuclear plants running until there's a windmill on every lawn and renewables have truly come of age.