At one end of the hyperbole scale we have Helen “If you love this planet” Caldicott, who raises the specter of “cancer and genetic diseases” if things get any worse at the growing list of nuclear power reactors crippled or destroyed by last week’s earthquake in Japan. At the other we have Republican congressman Mitch McConnell, who argues that we shouldn’t abandon nuclear power, especially “right after a major environmental catastrophe.”
In between the pundits and genuine experts are pointing out that the mining, processing, and burning of fossil fuels kill hundreds or even thousands of times as many people every year as the nuclear power industry has in its entire history.
I’d rather we compared nuclear’s risk and benefits against those of clean renewables. What’s the worst-case scenario for a thermal solar power plant? Even a wind farm engineer’s most terrifying nightmare seems like a powder compared with nuclear technology. (And then there’s the waste-disposal headache that comes with current fissioin technology.) Mike the Mad Biologist has one of the sanest takes I’ve seem so far, although it suffers from an absence of a life-cycle cost-analysis, which undermines the case for nuclear power even as a second-best option.
But I strongly suspect that all of this is moot. Especially the sane stuff. For once, McConnell might be on to something. Right before the quote cited above he reportedly said:
This discussion reminds me, somewhat, of the conversations that were going on after the BP oil spill last year…
Exactly. Those conversations didn’t amount to much. We hadn’t even begun to calculate the ecological and economic costs of the spill before the U.S. federal government resumed the granting of permits for off-shore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. How many policy-makers bothered to question whether coal mining is worth the thousands of lives it costs each year while the country glued its collective eyes to the coverage of the Upper Big Branch tragedy?
Many have argued recently that rational policy debate and decision-making are no longer possible in an era when scientific evidence is a distraction easily eclipsed by the short-term, bottom-line demands of industry. I suspect that even irrational fears have been consigned to the growing pile of irrelevant factors. There’s just too much inertia in our industrial economy, and too much concentration of power in the hands of those for whom maintaining the status quo is the only respectable goal, for something as remote and complicated as a couple of hydrogen explosions in Japan to make a difference.
Back the 80s, it seems that popular opinion, whatever it’s foundation, could derail an entire industry. There have no new nuclear power plants ordered in the U.S. since Three Mile Island. Today, however, I doubt even the chattering classes have that kind of sway, let alone the public at large. Not in this country.