Commentary

When It Comes To Energy Choices, Let's Stop The Spin

I saw a Daily Beast headline the other day -- "Most Vulnerable U.S. Nuclear Plants" -- and immediately figured that Indian Point in Buchanan, N.Y., would be on it. I routinely hear test sirens from the facility, which is located fewer than nine miles from our getaway cottage on a dirt road off a dirt road used during the Revolution and not exactly an evacuation route built for SUVs and minivans. Those sirens will sound more ominous from now on.

The reporters for the story ranked Indian Point, which has two reactors, as the most vulnerable of all 65 nuclear facilities in the U.S. based on safety records, the potential for natural disaster and the size of the nearby population. The fact that 17.5 million people live within a 50-mile radius no doubt has a lot to do with its placement at the top of the heap.

I was never one to worry much about the dangers of nuclear reactors. I figured that nuclear power was a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels, and that we'd eventually figure out a way to dispose of the waste safely. Oh, and that the engineers and other grown-ups, by and large, had things under control despite the incidents at Chernobyl in 1986 and Three Mile Island in 1979. I'd also like to believe that it's not as easy to falsify safety records in the U.S. as it apparently has been in Japan.

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The nuclear industry faces a global public relations challenge. It's easy to conclude that nuclear energy may be permanently set back in some countries. Reaction in France, Switzerland, Germany and Italy, for example, has been immediate and pointed. And a USA Today/Gallup poll finds that 70% of 1,004 adults surveyed say they're "more concerned about the industry's safety" based on the crisis in Japan. Peter Eisler reports that 39% of them are "a lot" more concerned.

But I'm inclined to agree with Time commentator Bruce Crumley, who writes: "The modern human mind tends to rationalize rapidly. Genuine sorrow, pity, concern, and fear that Europeans are feeling in the immediate wake of the horrifying events in Japan will flatten out and fade with time. Eventually, concerns closer to home will again push to the fore, and before long, European headlines will return to topics of sky-high gas prices and new evidence of the threats posed by global warming."

I also agree with Robert Reich, who blogs that no one can totally guarantee against cataclysmic disasters such as the Japanese earthquake, but that private corporations exist for the sole purpose of making as much money as possible and cannot be trusted to monitor themselves. "Inevitably there's a tradeoff," he writes. "Reasonable precaution means spending as much on safety as the probability of a particular disaster occurring, multiplied by its likely harm to human beings and the environment if it does occur." Reasonable precaution also calls for strict regulation and oversight, he argues. Amen.

Americans freak out if there's a power shortage due to a storm or power surge. I know. I've been there as recently as last winter, huddled around a wood-burning stove and reading by the light of a Coleman lantern. It was cozy and romantic for all of about three hours. When the Con Ed repair crews showed up two days later, I wanted to hug them. Imagine what it would be like if we were told we had to limit our consumption of energy in rolling brownouts, or someone proposed a surtax on TVs with 82-inch screens  or electric can openers. Wouldn't that crack open a can of rhetorical worms?

We don't need PR as usual, or political diatribes as usual. We need both sides of the nuclear power debate to clearly and openly articulate and debate their positions so that we can make informed decisions about what we want. In fact, we need a grown-up discussion of energy use, with all parties participating, period.

As Bryan Walsh writes, (citing Bradford Plumer's report in The New Republic), all forms of energy have either economic or logistical challenges attached to them. Shifting from coal and natural gas to solar and wind power sounds lovely but it is "unimaginably ambitious" if "ultimately doable." What may not be doable is asking all interested parties to stop putting so much spin on the issue that we all walk away dizzy and dazed.

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