Nuclear and Consumption, Perennial Questions

As the United States watches nuclear calamity unfold in Japan, a national poll of over 1,000 people shows wavering support for new nuclear power plant construction in the U.S. -- the lowest level of national support since the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979. Likewise, popular support for nuclear power declined sharply following Chernobyl in 1986.

Unique in its ability to reason, the human animal certainly bears an uncanny ability to forget, demonstrated best by the yo-yo of popular support for nuclear power that has waned following disaster only to spring back with great resurgence after a little time has passed, especially in eras of high gas prices or poor economy. Unfortunately, the aftermath of any nuclear disaster lingers far longer than attention spans seem capable of holding memories or convictions.

The disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant has not only renewed and sharpened the debate around building new nuclear plants in the U.S., but it has also re-focused the country's attention on the safety of the plants already in operation. The cooling pools that currently house radioactive waste were originally designed as temporary holding tanks, but since the dawn of the nuclear age the United States has been unable to settle upon a permanent repository. (Yucca mountain has long been the contentious on again-off again repository in waiting, although Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the mountain's home state, once declared, "Yucca mountain is dead, It'll never happen." A poetic narrative profiling Yucca, About a Mountain by John D'Agata, delves into some of the conflict, confusion and magical thinking that fuels the fires of the debate.)

A dangerous result of this politically charged stalemate in the U.S. is that, with nowhere else to put our mounting waste, cooling pools tend to be packed much more tightly with spent fuel rods than those in Japan. This "sardine effect" would only heighten and complicate a disaster if one ever were to occur in the U.S.

Tom Yulsman of the CEJournal wrote early last week, "It seems obvious to me that given the scale of the challenge in front of us, nuclear power is no panacea — and given the events in Japan, it is a perilous choice. On the other hand, I have a hard time imagining how we’re going to meet emissions reductions targets without it. What a dilemma." Click here for the entire post.

Indeed, the coal and oil industries seem to be capitalizing off of this dilemma, using the current nuclear reticence to downplay the negative effects of fossil fuels. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently announced plans to open coal reserves in Wyoming, in an area responsible for 14 percent of all U.S. CO2 emissions. The coal to be mined in the Powder River Basin will take an estimated 10-20 years to extract, a tiny window of "energy safety" for a country that should be working on long-term thinking, not to mention the comparably huge environmental impact in exchange for buying us just a little more time.

Quoted in an article in Forbes online, Salazar said, "...we need to embrace and encourage safe development of traditional energy - coal, oil, gas and nuclear."

Perhaps what' s needed is a new look at the word "traditional." Nowhere in the dictionary is "traditional" defined as "dirty," "destructive" or "deadly." In this time of crisis in Japan, there is opportunity to make a stronger push with renewables worldwide, and to look once again at the question of consumption. For the nuclear-wary Americans polled, perhaps most would be willing to bear some risk in exchange for heated homes in the winter. Perhaps some would think risks associated with nuclear are worth taking in exchange for street lights, lights to do homework by, lights to power computers with. The tricky part is drawing a universal line between what is necessary, or worth the risk, and what is not. And that line cannot be drawn unequivocally in a free society. Is a flat screen TV, always on standby, worth the risk? The answer to that question may, as a society, remain unanswerable, and may fluctuate along with opinions as the urgency of Fukushima fades in years to come.