This is a blog I wrote decades ago, when the word "nuclear" was the other "N word" that was not spoken by decent people. That situation no longer exists, but the problem that spawned it still festers: the idea that nuclear anything is a solution of last resort; that nuclear is so inherently dangerous, unnatural, evil...that we should always look for a "better" solution. In that context, I think the words below are still relevant. What do YOU think?
Many of the problems we face today seem impervious to solution. Abortion, gun control and welfare rights come to mind. Solving problems like these seems to require that people agree on matters on which they passionately disagree. We have not found a way to resolve such issues, and we don’t seem to know how to make much progress toward doing so.
There are other problems, such as crime, homelessness and medical care, for which we can envision answers, but we don’t know how to get there from here. But since no one argues in favor of crime or of lack of housing and medical care, we hope that somehow we’ll muddle through to a solution of sorts.
There is a third class of crucial problems for which a solution is available but most people in politics and the media seem unwilling to consider it. You will seldom see this solution even discussed, because the pundits are convinced that you don’t want to hear about it. This unwritten conspiracy of silence is keeping us from recognizing that some of our worst long-range problems have a straightforward, proven solution we could begin to apply right now. To name a few of the problems in this category:
- Ten thousand people are dying each year (in America alone) from diseases carried by infected foods, and much of the world’s food spoils before it can be eaten.
- Tens of thousands of Americans die each year from respiratory problems caused or aggravated by air pollution.
- People are avoiding life-saving medical procedures such as mammograms or radiotherapy, out of unwarranted fear of radiation.
- Global warming and ozone depletion in the upper atmosphere may or may not be as urgent as some people claim, but we are spending considerable money worrying about them.
- Smog from gasoline-burning cars is choking our cities and we are dependent on uncertain foreign sources for their fuel.
- The water table is running dry in many locations although water is the most plentiful material on earth.
- And we are told that nuclear waste products will pose an environmental and public health threat for perhaps a million years.
Aren’t you glad that these are the solvable ones?
The forbidden solution to each of these problems is nuclear technology. In subsequent essays I will discuss each of these problems in turn, and I will also discuss some of the objections that have been raised in connection with nuclear technology. You may wonder why our politicians and pundits have decided to let these problems fester rather than consider applying a proven technology to solve them, and you may be surprised to learn that the objections to nuclear technology are not as serious as generally described.
Let me illustrate what I mean by “forbidden solution.” The Department of Energy was formed in 1974 out of the old Atomic Energy Commission. (It went briefly under the name Energy Research and Development Agency, but that is beside the point.) The purpose of this action was to separate out the regulatory function and put it into a new Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which would leave the Department of Energy free to promote and encourage the development and use of nuclear energy, as required by the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. But one of the first actions of this administration’s new Secretary of Energy was to eliminate the office of Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy, leaving the 20,000 employee agency with virtually no one to carry out its original function. Shortly after that, it submitted a report to Congress on how it proposed to tackle the global warming problem. When Congress discovered that nowhere in this fat report was any mention of the most effective step one could take to reduce the production of global warming gases–that is, to encourage the construction of nuclear power plants–the Department was told to correct this deficiency. So the Secretary re-created a nuclear function and filled the top slot with a life-long anti-nuclear activist, Terry Lash of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Other examples:
- At a press conference, a NASA official was explaining the latest plan for exploring the outer planets. Asked how the spaceship was to be powered during the long journey, the official said that several alternatives were being studied. The reporter persisted: “Isn’t it true that repeated studies have shown that nuclear energy is the only feasible way, and that all such voyages–ours and the Russians–have used it because nothing else will work?” The official muttered that the matter was being studied. He would not use the forbidden word nuclear.
- The tremendously important medical imaging technique called Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) was changed to Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to eliminate the forbidden word.
- A recent international initiative to help foreign countries with their energy problems is being carried out under a document that does not avoid the word nuclear; it says specifically that a wide variety of energy systems would be explored, but not nuclear.
Nuclear technology is an enormous reality; in the U.S. alone it represents $257 billion in total revenues, 3.7 million jobs, and $45 billion in tax revenues, less than 10% of it in electric power generation. Yet a series of grotesque hypothetical scenarios, based on what-ifs that have never happened in 40 years of activity, have scared people into making it an unmentionable in political and public discussion of urgent problems. Nuclear power has never hurt a single member of the U.S. public, yet this technology is being kept from solving problems that are killing real people by the thousands.