Nuclear power still a good option

March 18, 2011


In the 1979 movie “The China Syndrome,” reporter Kimberly Wells (played by Jane Fonda) witnesses an accident at a nuclear power plant and then uncovers a plot to keep it a secret in order to protect the power company’s billion-dollar investment. The film was a gift to the political left, which at the time opposed the pursuit of nuclear energy to reduce our addiction to foreign oil. In some liberal circles, that opposition remains strong.

The film, along with real-life accidents such as Three Mile Island (also in 1979), in which no one was killed, and Chernobyl (1986), which, according to the World Nuclear Association, “killed two Chernobyl plant workers on the night of the accident, and a further 28 people within a few weeks, as a result of acute radiation poisoning,” account for much of our modern thinking about all things nuclear. Other films, like “Dr. Strangelove,” “Fail-Safe” and “On the Beach” — along with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which ended World War II and launched the Cold War with the Soviet Union in which “mutual assured destruction” (MAD) and civil defense drills became the norm — make us nervous about what the unrestrained power of the atom can do.

The nuclear reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant were damaged by the tsunami, not the earthquake, and not by faulty construction or worker error, as was the case at Chernobyl and to a lesser extent Three Mile Island. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has significantly tightened standards since those incidents, but no regulation or safety precaution can offer a 100 percent guarantee against an accident or natural disaster.

Politicians tend to overreact to such things and stoke public fear. The otherwise cautious and principled German Chancellor Angela Merkel quickly announced plans to shut down seven of her country’s nuclear power plants pending a safety review.

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a proponent of nuclear energy, told members of a House subcommittee on Tuesday that, “The American people should have full confidence that the United States has rigorous safety regulations in place to ensure that our nuclear power is generated safely and responsibly.” He faces off against nuclear energy opponents, including Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who was recently quoted as saying, “We have to listen to what is happening in Japan and protect ourselves and our people.” Run for the hills! Chicken Little lives!

The Houston Chronicle quoted Peter Cardillo, chief market economist for Avalon Partners, a brokerage house in New York: “It’s a situation where you sell (your stocks now), and you ask questions later,” thus indulging in self-fulfilling prophecy as Japanese and American markets dipped.

The Obama administration continues to stonewall when it comes to exploring for new sources of oil in or near American territory. (It has approved just two deepwater drilling sites since the BP oil spill in the Gulf, which, contrary to doomsday predictions, did not foul beaches for a decade or cripple the seafood industry, which seems to have recovered well in plenty of time for the summer vacation rush.) Too many politicians continue to oppose coal exploration, an American natural resource. Without advances in nuclear energy, the United States will continue to face not only the petroleum price equivalent of mood swings, but also deepen our dependency on foreign oil, a dependence that will ultimately lead to a host of domestic and international problems.

Cooler heads must prevail and conclusions avoided until a full assessment of the Japan disaster is known. Science cannot prevent earthquakes or tsunamis, but that does not keep people from wanting to live near the shore. Scientists and engineers have made great progress in addressing safety issues raised by Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, but again, nothing is foolproof or there would be no traffic accidents or airplane crashes. And we still drive and fly, don’t we?

We need clean energy that can be developed on our own territory. Nuclear power, in conjunction with the discovery of more oil and the use of coal, natural gas, bio fuels, wind and solar power, offers the best option for the foreseeable future.

Cal Thomas is a columnist for Tribune Media Services.


usnsnp 5 years, 3 months ago

The main problem with nuclear energy is where are you going to store the waste. If things are so safe with nuclear energy why does the Federal Government have to subsidise the insurance on the plants. In the time that it takes to build a plant and the cost of building one we could build a large number of natural gas power plants, we could improve the efficiency of our present system, at present our system is only 38% efficient. All this column is about is throwing another rock at the administration. If the administration had not shut down and improved the inspection of oil rigs in the gulf and there had been another blow out the same people that criticize the administration for going so slow would be criticizing them for going to fast. Cal why dont you just say that you do not like the President and the Democrate Party instead of trying to write columns that make sense.

dinoman 5 years, 3 months ago

just a thought ... just how much money is spent on out current power sources and do you think for one minute that they the current power supply doesn't want a new supply to become efficient. if that is the case then you are very wrong the current power supply has no interest in promoting another source of power especially one that is better.. they don't even want to research new power sources ... so i say get your heads out of the sand and face reality... we need new and better power sources.. and i mean clean sources not the big n.. its is dirty power ... maybe not now but longer term it's very dirty power.... lets wake up America...

jonas_opines 5 years, 3 months ago

You're flat fooling yourself if you think we just want power sources as opposed to needing them.

If we got rid of all of our energy, and the comforts it brings, there would rather a lot more deaths resulting because of it than all of the nuclear related deaths combined.

Flap Doodle 5 years, 3 months ago

Have fun out there in your mud hut next winter.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 3 months ago

We've come a long way from "too cheap to meter" several decades ago. Short term, we'll have to deal with this energy source; long-term, we need to figure out the next steps.

Brent Garner 5 years, 3 months ago

First, I am impressed that the Japanese nuclear plants are even still standing after being hit by a 9.0 quake. From what I have read elsewhere, they were not designed to that standard. Frankly, I don't know if you can design and build to that standard. A 9.0 is a very devastating quake.

Second, as noted in the column, it was the tsunami that messed things up. And again, I am not sure how you prepare for a 33 foot tall wall of water. Japan has experience with these things and, as a consequence, has built barriers and such to "defeat" such waves, but this one was HUGE!!!

Third, despite the forgoing there has not been a Chernobyl type disaster! Yes, there are problems. Yes, those plants are probably finished except as examples for future study. Yes, the permanent loss of those plants is going to be extremely costly in terms of lost generating capacity as well as infrastructure.

Does this mean we should turn out backs on nuclear power? I am certain that all of us would like our power to come from some hypothetical source which neither pollutes nor in any way shape or form poses a risk to the environment. Sadly, even the so-called "green" sources do not live up to that expectation. Further, none of them are cost competitive on a per KWH basis. Solar seems to be getting the closest. Over the last 30 years I have watched, with interest, the cost of solar cell production fall and the efficiency rise. One or two more breakthroughs may well find solar competitive with other sources. That would be a good thing. Further, there are ongoing improvements and breakthroughs with nuclear power. Bill Gates former associate has backed a firm that is investing in a unique design of "reactor". From what I have read there don't appear to be any moving parts. The design seems to rely on a method of converting the heat of radioactive decay into energy. Again, from what I have read it appears the "device" is a sealed unit designed to run without intervention for 10 years at which time it is simply "removed" and replaced. If this is true, what a wonderfully innovation in nuclear power.

So, all you panic stricken folks, calm down. This has not been nor, do I think it will be, anything on the scale and impact of Chernobyl. In the long run, this will be controlled and mitigated. It is frightening and scary in the here and now, but if we always run from all our fears where would we be? Huddling in the dark around a campfire in some cave somewhere most likely.

Scott Drummond 5 years, 3 months ago

Thank God the Japanese were intelligent enough to use their government to regulate the power plant construction in the public interest.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 3 months ago

The main problem with nuclear is it's the ultimate Rube-Goldberg method of meeting our energy needs-- technologically, it needs to be executed perfectly, which means it costs way more than the alternatives, and comes with extremely high negatives that are on full display in Japan right now, negatives that can, and in time probably will, be repeated at every nuclear plant in the world.

Learning From Japan's Nuclear Disaster by Amory Lovins


"Nuclear-promoting regulators inspire even less confidence. The International Atomic Energy Agency's 2005 estimate of about 4,000 Chernobyl deaths contrasts with a rigorous 2009 review of 5,000 mainly Slavic-language scientific papers the IAEA overlooked. It found deaths approaching a million through 2004, nearly 170,000 of them in North America. The total toll now exceeds a million, plus a half-trillion dollars' economic damage. The fallout reached four continents, just as the jet stream could swiftly carry Fukushima fallout."

"Since 2005, new U.S. reactors (if any) have been 100+% subsidized--yet they couldn't raise a cent of private capital, because they have no business case. They cost 2-3 times as much as new windpower, and by the time you could build a reactor, it couldn't even beat solar power. Competitive renewables, cogeneration, and efficient use can displace all U.S. coal power more than 23 times over--leaving ample room to replace nuclear power's half-as-big-as-coal contribution too--but we need to do it just once. Yet the nuclear industry demands ever more lavish subsidies, and its lobbyists hold all other energy efforts hostage for tens of billions in added ransom, with no limit."

Ken Lassman 5 years, 3 months ago

I always liked Amory's metaphor for nuclear power: it's like cutting butter with a chainsaw.

Heating water to 2000 degrees to create steam by using a process that you can never really turn off so you have to contain it in layers of steel and concrete and pour a constant supply of water into it to keep it cool even if you stop making electricity?

The new Georgia nuclear plants being proposed, even with federal loan guarantees, are going to cost 8 billion dollars, and after Fukushima, my bet is you can add a few billion dollars more to that total. Who is going to buy the electricity, which is guaranteed to be the most expensive kwh in the country if you have alternatives, which you do? And who is going to invest in the proposed Texas nukes, who are slated to be built by, you guessed it, Tokyo Electric Power?

I think that nukes are going to be on the back burner for a long, long time again, and if they emerge again, it'll be some next generation version,.But even then, it'll probably be the most expensive electricity going.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 3 months ago

"I always liked Amory's metaphor for nuclear power: it's like cutting butter with a chainsaw."

Another one I like is "using a cannon for a door knocker." I'm not sure of the source.

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