By William Urban

With hearings on a second proposed nuclear power plant at Clinton scheduled for November 8, this might be a good moment to think about the implications of increasing the share of energy that we produce from nuclear energy, and of not increasing that share.

I’m of very mixed feelings about nuclear power. I’ve heard discussions of the pros and cons all my life, so there aren’t many facts left out there to sway me to one side or the other. The first problem is that there is a growing demand for power, and second that we cannot continue on our present course long. The alternatives are few, mostly unproven and generally expensive.

A dozen years ago, when I directed the Associated Colleges of the Midwest’s semester long program in the Czech Republic, I invited a prominent Czech energy specialist to address the students. When the students urged him to shut down the nation’s only nuclear reactor, he replied that the country was already polluting the skies with brown coal, that the water had already been 95% dammed, that wind was too light for extensive use, and there was almost no oil; moreover, as far north as the Czech Republic lay, solar energy would be of little use. What should the Czechs do when winter came?

That isn’t quite the problem we face in America, but neither is it completely irrelevant. We could import ethanol cheaply from Brazil (which uses a more effective sugar base), but our corn producers wouldn’t be happy about that. We could use more solar energy in the southwest (and in our homes), and more wind on the Great Plains (and off the Massachusetts coast). Corn requires fertilizer and pesticides (or more genetic manipulation), and more ethanol demand will encourage planting in areas which should be left as grasslands; in any case, ethanol cannot be produced cheaply.

More insulation of buildings could be encouraged, and nothing would be a greater incentive than high energy prices. That’s not a political winner, however. Not when people complain about $3 gas, then forget even to breathe a sign of relief when it returns to just over $2. One should never expect the public to behave completely logically — after all, there are voters who believe that the national economy is bad right now. The Europeans, who are models for many anti-nuclear spokesmen, wish they had our unemployment rate; and many third-world cities would love to have the air we now have in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.

The French get almost all their power from nuclear plants, the Germans are closing down their last reactors. That suggests that politics, not science, is dominant in the debate. Nuclear plants are going up around the world, and not always for power alone, but to build atomic weapons.

For us, the final word might be foreign relations. If we think it essential to break our dependence on oil (most major oil producing areas in the world have unstable politics or use oil as a political weapon—Venezuela and Russia, for example), we have to have an alternative soon.

If nuclear power is the only alternative we can see in the next five years or so, construction has to start soon, because those plants can’t be put up safely in a hurry. Safety is another issue. I don’t see underground coal mining as safe, either; and although I recognize that strip mining can produce some highly attractive housing sites, with ponds and privacy, there is a part of me which recoils instinctively (and perhaps illogically) from moving soil around in the manner the process requires.

Is nuclear energy safe? If it is, why not build closer to the consumers? Near Chicago rather than outside Clinton? If damage from an accident is too horrible to contemplate, what about global warming?

Vulnerability to terrorism is a concern, too. More a problem than accidents, since American and European reactor designs minimize the dangers. (Chernobyl happened because of a poor design and because the Soviet operators shut off the safety features.) Maybe we should build reactors underground, like the Iranians and North Koreans. But ground water is one of the environmentalists’ concerns.

So, where are we? With a choice between undesirable alternatives? Perhaps. But when has that not always been the case? Finding it difficult to make a choice between something good and something bad is a problem only for the mentally disturbed. In my view, the pros and cons are mixed, but a decision has to be made. Not a decision about nuclear power alone, however, but about where we are going to get our energy, or whether we must just learn to live with less.

Daily Review Atlas (November 2, 2006), 4.