My opinion piece, below, was published in the Burlington County Times on June 21, 2010
There are multitudes of lessons noted from the BP oil spill, but so far there are very few lessons learned. One of these is the reality that when commercial for-profit corporations are handling toxic substances, they tend to put shareholders’ interests ahead of those of the general public and the environment. This is not necessarily malicious or evil; it’s just a fact of life in corporate America. Recently, we have seen this misplaced priority resulting in unnecessary deaths not only in the oil industry, but also in the Massey and other coal mine disasters.
There’s an ongoing debate within our political sphere and among the talking heads on the cable news channels on the trade-offs between stronger regulation, the environment, jobs, and America’s insatiable thirst for energy. Even those who espouse “drill, baby, drill” concede that enforcement of existing regulations should be strengthened in conjunction with additional exploitation of underwater oil reserves.
Yet, there’s one area that has not had any critical public debate, even given the recent disasters in the coal and oil industries.
We are about to break a decades-old moratorium on the construction of new nuclear power plants. President Obama has proposed billions of taxpayer-funded loan guarantees to construct plants in Georgia, and eventually elsewhere. This is a bad idea.
Unlike the BP oil spill, which is bad enough, the damage caused by a serious nuclear accident would last for centuries. Consider Pripyat in the Ukraine. That town had to be evacuated after the Chernobyl accident. Now imagine a similar scenario around any one of New Jersey’s nuclear plants.
Some people argue that nuclear power can be made safe. Even if that were true, consider the costs involved and the burden that would be placed on the American taxpayer. Large construction projects, like the building of a nuclear plant, have almost never been delivered on time or within budget. So it will be no surprise that the president’s loan guarantees will most likely end up as a bail out for companies that build these new plants. And the problems don’t go away once the plant is built. Like oil, much of the uranium fuel required for nukes comes from areas of the world which have potential instability, and the source of supply is subject to the vagaries of world politics. Will the American taxpayer be forced to foot the bill to maintain some modicum of stability like we do with Middle Eastern oil?
Much of the spent fuel from today’s reactors is stored on-site because the United States has no comprehensive plan for safe transport and storage of the toxic material. If this waste gets into the wrong hands, a conventional “dirty bomb” could be used to contaminate a large, highly-valuable area by terrorists. Yet, today, this material is under the stewardship of for-profit energy companies that put shareholder value ahead of the environment. Just think of the recent Times Square bombing attempt – and the possibility that a copy cat event could be successful, this time with a ton of radioactive waste in an exploding van. The cleanup costs would be astronomical.
Given the hidden costs of nuclear energy, and the persistent and widespread impact of the inevitable “accident,” it would be more prudent for the United States to invest its money and intellectual capital in renewable energy such as wind, solar, and tidal power, while also promoting conservation.
The president should provide a vision and direction, just like John F. Kennedy did fifty years ago with the challenge to land a man on the moon. Our best option to satisfy our insatiable need for energy lies in a concerted effort to wean ourselves from oil and uranium, and harness the clean energy from the sun and wind while protecting our fragile environment.
The words that JFK used in 1961 ring true today, We chose to do these things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone.”
We should leave our children with a legacy of clean energy, not contaminated regions. This is what America is about.