In the Sunday, May 30, 2010 New York Times Week in Review section, Elisabeth Rosenthal’s “Our Fix-It Faith” describes the blind faith of Americans in “technology” solving all of their problems. The eruption of the BP oil spill contradicts this technophilia, but Americans seem incapable of allowing this eruption to alter their psychological commitments. Not only have Democrats sought to embrace the Republican chorus of “drill, baby, drill!” as a way for the nation to meet its energy needs, but President Obama and many Democrats, like the weak-kneed “Blue Dogs” and the corporate sellouts known as the “New Democrats,” are also rushing to re-embrace nuclear power, after the latter has spent 30 years left for dead.
The BP oil spill is exhibit A for the argument that we humans cannot rely on technology to protect us from the hazards of drilling for oil in the ocean. Indeed, we cannot stop the gush of oil into the ocean one month later! As gallons of oil continue to spread through the ocean, this will cause environmental devastation beyond our current ability to comprehend. This also means that the livelihood of many Americans who fish or harvest shellfish, and the families and communities that rely on their wages, will also face devastation, as we learned from the Exxon Valdez disaster, which now pales by comparison. And then there is the impact on those who simply want to be able to go to the beach and enjoy a swim in the ocean. So much for simple pleasures. American lives and lifestyles are being ruined by the very thing thought necessary for us to be able to maintain the way we live and the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed.
While the BP oil disaster should give us pause regarding “drill, baby, drill,” it should also cause us to push pause on the race to re-embrace nuclear power. Nuclear power is currently being touted as a “green” alternative to fossil fuels, but it relies on a blind faith in technology saving us from ourselves far in excess of the way our technophilia blinds us from the reality that continues to erupt off the shores of Louisiana.
The track record of nuclear power in the United States is poor. The truth is that there wouldn’t even be a nuclear industry if Congress hadn’t limited the liability of the nuclear industry in the event of an accident back in 1957 (the Price-Anderson Act). Despite this massive functional subsidy to the nuclear industry, nuclear power plants have not been built in the United States in the last 30 years because they aren’t economical.
So, of course Obama has offered $8.3 billion in loan guarantees earlier this year to encourage two new nuclear power plants to be built in Georgia. The current price tag to build a nuclear reactor is $10-12 billion dollars. In the event of a nuclear accident, the liability limit to the nuclear industry would be met in about the first hour of a serious nuclear accident, according to safe energy advocate Harvey Wasserman. Taxpayers would be on the hook for the rest. Likewise, money to build new nuclear reactors will come either from taxpayers or from utility rate hikes to consumers and businesses. France is thought to be the world leader in nuclear energy, but their recent efforts to build a reactor for Finland has led to cost-overruns and delays. Four years later, it is anybody’s guess when the reactor will come online. The people pay for nuclear reactors to be built and they are on the hook in the event that there is an accident. Either way, we lose. This money and time would be better spent pursuing known ways for greater energy efficiency and to develop renewables. They would cost less and we would be safer.
Nuclear power requires mining and enriching uranium, which in itself uses lots of fossil fuel. Therefore, simply to produce the fuel needed for “green” nuclear power, a great deal of greenhouse gas is produced. The still-radioactive spent fuel rods must be secure from terrorist attack, and stored so that they don’t overheat or leach into the soil or ground water of nearby communities. And transporting the radioactive waste to a still as yet unbuilt repository for highlevel radioactive waste requires not only more fossil fuel use, but presents another vulnerability to terrorist attack. Not only do we become more vulnerable from a national security standpoint if we go back to nuclear power, we will become a less open society as the Department of Homeland Security classifies information pertaining to nuclear power in the name of protecting us against terrorism, although this is information that citizens require if we are to understand the truth about nuclear power and the risk to the public health and to the environment it presents.
Finally there are the issues of the waste and the possibility of accident. According to the Center for Russian Environmental Policy (as summarized by Wasserman), the death toll from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident was 300,000. In terms of long-term effects, some scientists put the figure close to 985,000. Its cost, according to some estimates, was half a trillion dollars and counting.
As for the nuclear waste, the radioactive half-life of the highlevel radioactive waste produced by generating nuclear energy ranges from tens of thousands of years to the millions. If BP cannot stop oil gushing into the Gulf (which represents millions if not billions of dollars of lost profits to them), do we really think that we can find a place with such geological characteristics, and engineer the disposal site to such perfection that, once radioactive waste is safely (?) transported there, it will be safely stored for millions of years? We are talking about an engineering feat of godly proportions. In the meantime, such doubts have arisen over the current site for a repository in Yucca Mountain, Nevada that we will be waiting for this godly act of creation for 20-30 years minimum. I think it requires a very blind faith to look at this reality and continue to put our eggs in the nuclear basket. This continued commitment to nuclear power is a blind, irrational commitment to a past that failed us, and fails us.
So why has nuclear power arisen from the dead? Perhaps Americans continue to repress the traumatic fact that this nation is the only nation to have used nuclear bombs in war. The United States dropped nuclear bombs from planes onto the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing about 200,000 immediately, and tens if not hundreds of thousands afterwards from cancer and related disease. Almost all the dead were civilians. What could make this right?
Perhaps, then, Americans doggedly, blindly, pursue nuclear
power to heal this wound in the national psyche. Or, to keep it covered. Perhaps, if nuclear power could solve our
energy needs without environmental damage, perhaps if it could become a clean,
pure energy source that would allow us to pursue our desires unhampered and
without antagonism—either the antagonism of another imperial war in the Middle
East or the antagonism of a premature end to human flourishing on the planet
earth due to climate change brought on by burning fossil fuels—then maybe, just
maybe, history could absolve us of our war crimes, past, present, and
future. Then we will have become
republican again as we would not be driven by future energy needs to commit
imperial wars of aggression. We will
have become innocent again, as we will have become absolved for our nuclear
transgressions. And we will have become
saviors of the world again, this time, saving the world from the impending
catastrophe of climate change that we have done so much to invite. This is the blind faith, I believe, that
causes our obsession with nuclear power despite the realities all around
us. It is the blind faith that we can be
absolved of our nuclear crimes to become memorialized as saviors of the world
in the future.