Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.
How many times have we been told, since the Fukushima nuclear crisis began, that we’re not being told everything? The revelation that three reactors suffered fuel meltdowns soon after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami—a scenario vigorously denied by plant and government officials at the time—only reinforces my view that whatever the technological wonders of nuclear fission, it’s humans that can’t be trusted. The continually shifting “facts” and belated revelations about the disaster have me wondering how nuclear proponents can continually be seduced by the wonders of this “clean” energy while completely overlooking how miserably it’s being managed, and how the cover-ups keep piling up.
Science journalist John Horgan writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Chronicle Review about his on-and-off status as a nuclear proponent, noting that he “jumped on the pro-nuclear bandwagon” again last fall after being convinced of its safety and its low emissions relative to coal.
Fukushima took a bit of the green glow out of him, though: “I was still congratulating myself for my open-mindedness when the tsunami smashed into Japan, which had been a paragon of nuclear competence.”
The past competence of Japan’s nuclear industry is not very impressive when you dig into it. But setting that aside, Horgan’s main point—that Fukushima ought to at least give us pause—is a rare admission for a nuclear proponent. Horgan, who teaches a class in the history of science and technology at the Stevens Institute of Technology, concludes his commentary by noting that he encourages a healthy skepticism in his classrooms full of techno-optimists:
Here’s what I say to my students: I wish I could encourage you to make a career in nuclear power. Given the current limits of wind and solar energy, we need more nuclear generators to reduce our reliance on coal and other fossil fuels and to curb the effects of global warming. But given the checkered history of nuclear power both in this country and elsewhere, I don’t blame the public for opposing new plants, or for not wanting to live as close to one as I do.
This opposition may thwart the nuclear revival in America. If you want to help solve our energy problems, I tell the young engineers in my classes, you should probably look for a more stable industry. In short, I’m staying on the nuclear bandwagon, but I’m not encouraging anyone to join me.
It seems to all come down to who, and what, you believe and trust. Nuclear power is like a religion, and you’re either a true believer or a skeptic.
Rod Adams pushes a hard pro-nuclear line at his Atomic Insights blog and was one of the people who helped usher Horgan back into the pro-nuke fold after they appeared together on a post-tsunami Bloggingheads.tv discussion. Adams spends a lot of time hashing over the technological arguments surrounding nuclear power, but ultimately even his views are largely an act of faith. One of his most telling personal revelations came in a recent comments-field back-and-forth over a blog post questioning whether Nation environmental reporter Mark Hertsgaard is “a nuclear skeptic or a nuclear crank.” Adams wrote:
. . . I am unabashedly in favor of personal mobility, fresh vegetables in the middle of winter, and moderate indoor temperatures even in July and August in the steamy southeast U.S. I like fast boats, cruising back roads with the top down, and flying to exotic vacation spots every once in a while. I think our creator has offered us a technology that makes it possible to both eat cake today and to have some available tomorrow.
So there you have it. Adams is very well-practiced at debunking nuclear-energy opponents with oodles of techie talk, but at the end of the day he believes God wants us to drive deluxe motorboats and convertibles and live lives of comfort and convenience—thus he’s given us the knowledge and power to split atoms. To me, this makes Adams little more credible than the anti-nuke zealot who has a gut feeling, deep down inside, that nuclear power is just wrong.