Letters to the Editor

The nuclear ‘emperor’ still wears no clothes

Dear Editor,

In 1976 some visionary, highly rational and dedicated Coloradans brought before the voters an initiative regulating future nuclear power plants in the state (I helped as Larimer County campaign manager). It was a simple proposition: until the state Legislature could certify that the long-term nuclear waste problem had been solved, no more nukes. Ahead in the polls in August, the industry unleashed a fear campaign around the “freezing in the dark” theme and voters bought into the fear. As we all know, there was little if any suffering from lack of more nukes in the 35 years since then due to nukes having, in the sage words of another bright Colorado light Amory Lovins, an “incurable case of market economics.” And the waste problem still is not solved, nor is it much closer if at all despite 35 years and billions of hard-earned dollars that could have been better spent on sustainable (not leaving the next generation saddled with problems we create such as plutonium wastes or climate change) electrical generation.  

The brilliant columnist George Monbiot recently laid out four conditions for supporting nuclear that reflect the solid thinking of Colorado’s “Amendment 3” creators in 1976, and that I personally agree with as well (see column of 3/16/11 at monbiot.com):  1. Its total emissions — from mine to dump — are taken into account, and demonstrate that it is a genuinely low-carbon option. 2. We know exactly how and where the waste is to be buried. 3. We know how much this will cost and who will pay. 4. There is a legal guarantee that no civil nuclear materials will be diverted for military purposes.

Miller Hudson’s Statesman article (4/1/11) brought good perspectives, pro and con, but concludes with unjustifiable technological optimism about nuclear’s persistent unsolved challenges and a serious lack of imagination and an all too familiar scare-tactic warning that not embracing nuclear is a “return to the past.”

Hogwash.

As Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregon once said, “digging, drilling and burning are 19th century technologies.” Nuclear is just another form of digging, drilling and burning, and is the most water consumptive electrical generating technology per kilowatt hour generated — hardly a good idea for the West. As Lovins has pointed out since his brilliant Soft Energy Paths of 1976, the energy productivity and sustainable energy path is ready — we just have to embrace it. It is the high-tech future that makes sense for Colorado and a very small planet, and its distributed and decentralized nature fits the freedom desires of Westerners. Take away the huge government subsidies, starting with the government’s guarantee of handling accidents from nukes via the Price-Anderson Act, and nuclear completely fails in a free market.

I had to confront the whole system of nuclear energy and its alternatives when deciding whether to work on that 1976 campaign. Nuclear engineering students and professors at CSU rightfully pointed out that coal produces more radioactivity release into the atmosphere per kilowatt hour than nukes, and they almost persuaded me. But as Fukushima reminds us, nuclear requires an intense perfection of management for thousands of years that we simply can’t expect of human systems. It is grossly unfair, and fundamentally immoral, to approximately 200 future generations to saddle them with toxic waste management in the hope that we’ll save a couple cents, in theory, on electricity costs today. Our statewide policy should parallel Monbiot’s four conditions, and we should not let anybody scare us into thinking we’ll have regrettable problems if we embrace a 21st century future of sustainable energy sources instead of 19th century solutions cloaked in high-tech nuclear fashions. The nuclear “emperor” still wears no clothes if you look close enough. Our choices are not nuclear or coal — future generations are telling us to choose neither and to get more efficient and clever. Let’s do it.

Christopher Juniper
International sustainability economist/consultant (presently working on a sustainable energy plan for the Pikes Peak region on contract to U.S. Army Garrison Fort Carson)