Climate changes, and so should attitude about nuclear power

Written by Jayson Jacoby April 15, 2011 11:17 am

I’ve just finished re-reading, for the first time in several years, one of the more frightening non-fiction books written in the 20th century.

It’s called “The Warning.”

The authors are Ira Rosen and Mike Gray.

Published in 1982, the book chronicles, in exhaustive detail, the infamous 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania.

This incident has of course been rehashed frequently during the past month since the tsunami-spawned crisis began at the nuclear facility in Japan.

Three Mile Island is a fascinating event, and nuclear power an equally compelling subject.

Also an especially challenging one, in my estimation.

On the one hand, the Three Mile Island episode proves that such an elemental power as that spawned by splitting the atom can transform some of the smartest people on the planet, albeit briefly, into a credible analogy of a Neanderthal who kindles a blaze and then gets burned because he can’t truly control the combustion.

A nuclear reactor is a rather more significant thing than a campfire, of course, which is why Rosen and Gray’s book exerts such a powerful hold on the reader.

On the other hand, in this, by every account the worst disaster in American nuclear power history, which dates to the early 1950s, no one died.

No one, in fact, was even hurt.

Nor, despite several major studies, is there any indisputable evidence that the trivial amount of radiation released during the accident caused cancer or any other illness in people living near the plant.

All of which makes Three Mile Island a curious sort of disaster, considering how we normally define that word.

The commonest explanation for this discrepancy, it seems to me, is that problems at nuclear plants should be rated on a different scale, as it were, because the potential effects of a malfunction are so much more severe and widespread than with other forms of generating electricity.

Of course this is true.

If a hydroelectric dam breaches, the damage can be terrible, but it’s not likely to spread far beyond the banks of the river.

An explosion at a coal-fired power plant will likewise have a limited swath of destruction.

The deadly debris from a nuclear disaster, by contrast, needn’t be so blatant as a wall of water or a gout of flame.

Radiation scares the hell out of us because we can’t see or smell or taste it, even as it attacks us, quite literally, at the cellular level, as precise in its destruction as a scalpel yet also as indiscriminate as a shotgun blast.

Our fear of nuclear power has been exacerbated too by its association with nuclear weapons.

This is unfortunate, I think, as the two have little in common besides fission.

A nuclear bomb is a comparatively crude device, designed to unleash an uncontrolled reaction.

A nuclear power plant is precisely the opposite — the chemical reaction is the same except it’s scrupulously constrained by a variety of sophisticated devices, which are in turn monitored by well-trained workers.

Even critics, for the most part, concede that nuclear reactors are an efficient way to generate electricity.

One ton of uranium, for instance, can produce as much power as burning 16,000 tons of coal.

But opponents contend that the risks, both from an accident such as Three Mile Island and from the lingering threat of the spent fuel and other radioactive debris reactors create, are too great to justify the advantages.

This is a reasonable argument.

But it’s not, in my view, a very convincing one.

The reality is that the nuclear power industry, worldwide, has a safety record that shames most industries.

(And yes, I’m accounting for the 1986 accident at Russia’s Chernobyl plant in my conclusion. Chernobyl, even though it happened seven years after Three Mile Island, has about as much in common with the latter plant, not to mention with even safer modern reactor designs, as a Model T has with today’s airbag-festooned minivans. Most important, Chernobyl’s reactor lacked a containment vessel, which is designed to prevent radiation from escaping into the environment. Three Mile Island has such a vessel, and it worked as it was supposed to in 1979.)

As Rosen and Gray’s book makes clear, the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island happened only because of a series of human errors, combined with peculiarities in the design of the plant, created a cascade effect that I doubt could happen again, in that precise sequence, in a million years.

And even at that there were at least half a dozen moments during the crisis at which one person, had he had accurate information or merely been in a different room, almost certainly would have prevented the accident, the authors show.

In one case an engineer wasn’t available because he was with his daughter, who was having dental surgery.

Yet as improbable as the Three Mile Island incident was, it did happen. And I agree that society, in deciding how to satiate its energy appetite, must weigh the potential ramifications of each option against its benefits.

Based on that crucial calculus, it seems to me that America, rather than getting too much of our power from nuclear reactors (about 20 percent today), is getting too little.

The reason I believe this is climate change.

The vast majority of scientists have concluded that climate change, unless it’s reversed, poses a grave threat to humans around the globe.

Further, the experts assert that the vast quantity of carbon dioxide our machines spew into the atmosphere is the predominant contributor to this phenomenon.

The biggest culprits in the U.S. are coal-fired power plants. They produce about one-third of the country’s (and 10 percent of the world’s) anthropogenic carbon dioxide.

Nuclear reactors, in common with hydro dams, don’t emit a significant amount of carbon dioxide.

We’ve pretty well tapped America’s rivers for power production.

But we have plenty of space, and industrial capacity, to build nuclear reactors.

Yet not one new nuclear plant has been authorized in America in the 32 years since the Three Mile Island accident.

This is not a rational reaction, certainly, based on the totality of the evidence regarding nuclear plant safety, both before 1979 and since.

Yet, given the insidious, unique hazards that radiation poses, it’s not a surprising reaction, either.

What has changed in the ensuing 32 years, though, is our knowledge of climate change.

The consensus of science is that, unless we significantly cut our carbon dioxide emissions, civilization could face the most dire threat in human history.

This sounds to me like a situation vastly more dangerous than the modest expansion an industry that’s never killed anybody in the United States.

Of course we can, and should, curb our appetite for electricity.

And we must continue to increase our use of comparatively clean, safe and renewable sources such as wind, solar and the ocean tides.

But none of those yet has both the consistency and the capacity to match the output of the nuclear reactor.

The world survived the four-decade Cold War, a period precipitated by the specter of nuclear armageddon.

What a peculiar, but refreshing, twist it would be if we could now harness that same force to spare the planet from a future where the great danger is not the metaphoric chill of global political tension, but the very real heat of our own exhalations.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.