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Environmental policy is extremely important in a nuclear age

June 21, 2012

One of the questions that will be debated in the upcoming election campaign is what to do about nuclear energy.  I don’t want you to be fooled by the political posturing of either candidate as they begin to tilt their positions to align with their largest campaign contributors.  Nuclear power must become a very important part of our energy mix.

As I talk with people about energy, the discussion inevitably turns to nuclear power, and it only takes less than a minute for Fukushima to come up as an example of why nuclear power is bad.  But I want to point out that the catastrophe at Fukushima was not the result of a technology failure.  If it wasn’t for the tsunami that slammed into the plant following a magnitude 9.0 undersea megathrust, the Fukushima plant would still be operating safely today and no one would be thinking about shutting down their nuclear power plants.

No, the catastrophe at Fukushima was the inevitable result of a failed environmental policy, and nothing more.  A properly conducted environmental assessment would never have allowed the plant to be built on the beach close to an offshore active fault line to begin with.  Proper environmental regulations would ensure that the risks were identified and the power plant’s location would have been chosen to ensure the safety of the plant and nearby communities.  That’s what environmental impact assessments are for.

But the critics of nuclear power have turned their fear and irrational sentiment into a religion.  We should stay focused on the science — that is, the facts, the evidence, and the consensus among real experts.  Today’s nuclear technology is safer than most other forms of energy — it is exponentially safer than coal.

Consider that the coal industry caused over 13,000 premature deaths in 2010, as well as almost 10,000 hospitalizations and more than 20,000 heart attacks.  That was just in the US and in just a single year.  If the nuclear power industry caused such hazards to human health, it would be out of business tomorrow.  In contrast, how many deaths has the nuclear power industry caused?  If you count the indirect deaths caused by Chernobyl, there have been less than 5,000 deaths in the industry’s entire 75 year history.

The point I want to make is that environmental regulations exist for a very good reason.  Let Fukushima be remembered as an example of what happens when environmental policy is not given adequate attention.  Let us all demand that our next President prioritize the utmost care for our environment.  Let us not continue to point toward Japan as an example of a failure in nuclear technology — that simply isn’t true.

Obviously, nuclear energy isn’t sustainable energy.  But, with combined cycle natural gas it may well be one of the two most viable solutions for reducing coal in our base load for the next 50 years.  Together, natural gas and nuclear power should be our bridge into a fully sustainable energy future.  In the mean time, truly sustainable energy will continue to evolve, and will one day provide the largest portion of our base load.

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