USA TODAY US Edition
Knee-jerks and nukes
Cal and Bob agree that despite the chorus of hand-wringers, it would be foolish to give up on nuclear power plants in the wake of Japan’s tragedy
Today: Time to bail on nuclear power?
Bob: We live in a knee-jerk world. Within hours of the damage to several of Japan’s nuclear power plants caused by a historic 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, politicians like Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman called for the end of nuclear power plant construction. Lieberman should know better. I grew up in his home state near one of the country’s oldest nuclear power plants (the Connecticut Yankee plant), and in all its years of operation — like virtually every other nuclear plant in the world — not a single life-threatening event has occurred.
Cal: And you told me you used to swim in the warm water generated by that plant. No wonder you became a liberal! I am pleased to hear that President Obama and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu are steadfastly defending nuclear energy as one of many alternatives, or supplements, to petroleum. The word “nuclear” has gotten a bad rap because of its association with atomic bombs and anti-nuke movies like The Chi
na Syndrome, a late 1970s movie about an accident at a nuclear reactor. Even a USA TODAY poll last week showed that 70% were more concerned about nuclear power today.
Bob: We should be vigilant, but not panicked. A handful of liberals — myself included — have for years called for the construction of more nuclear power plants in the United States. I mean, the last one came online in 1996! After the start of the Iraq War and the resulting spikes in imported oil prices, others joined in, including Vice President Biden. We support nuclear power for two reasons. One, it is cleaner and safer than coalpowered plants, which foul the air and people’s lungs. And two, because every kilowatt of power from domestic nuclear sources moves this country one step closer to energy independence from the often-hostile Middle East.
Cal: Agreed. And, like coal and natural gas, it is something over which we can have control, rather than being at the mercy of America’s enemies — in oil-producing Arab states and in Venezuela. These countries too often use their oil profits to undermine the United States and U.S. interests.
Bob: Why is it that politicians and policy wonks’ first reaction to a catastrophe like Japan’s is to call for major policy changes without knowing howthis will end? The tsunami was caused by one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded that caused the massive tsunami. And yet initial reports are that most of the nuclear plants in the tsunami’s
Cal Thomas is a conservative columnist. Bob Beckel is a liberal Democratic strategist. But as longtime friends, they can often find common ground on issues that lawmakers in Washington cannot. View the video version of this column at www.opinion.usatoday.com or at USA TODAY’s YouTube channel at youtube.com/usatoday. path stayed intact.
Cal: Some plants did, however, leak dangerous levels of radiation, but you’re right again. If jumping to conclusions were an Olympic sport, a lot of politicians would be taking home the gold. We need only to look back at the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico for a refresher course. Go back and read what environmentalists and knee-jerk politicians were saying at the time. Just weeks into that catastrophe, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and other Democrats called for an immediate ban on newoffshore drilling. “The risk of a spill is too great,” she said at the time.
Bob: In fairness, we were being deluged with scenes of spoiled beaches and a never-ending gusher that we seemed to be powerless to stop.
Cal: Exactly my point, Bob. Emotions rather than simple facts ruled the day. And what did we end up with? An arbitrary drilling moratorium that compounded the damage to the Gulf economy. Oh, and the environmental toll — though substantial — was not apocalyptic, as predicted by many. Forget the fact that there hadn’t been a spill like that in 42 years. Politicians always feel like they need to act first and think later. I wish the reverse were true.
Bob: It’s fair to say that the uncertainty today is driving the conversation. We have more questions than answers, and just as with the BP spill, we’re being inundated with catastrophic images and lan- guage — not the best environment to make longterm policy decisions. This could indeed be a tragedy on the scale of Chernobyl — or not. I won’t minimize the impact of the radiation that has already been released. The health effects might not be fully known for years. But the fact is that most of the nuclear plants in Japan were unaffected. The one-two punch proved too much, though, in Fukushima.
Cal: No politician, scientist or engineer can come up with a guaranteed plan or design to thwart nature. We can do our best, and learn and improve, but it’s silly and unrealistic to act as though any one source of energy is perfect.
Bob: Even if the Japanese reactors have some sort of design flaw — and we don’t know that they did — this wouldn’t change the numerical facts about nuclear power. In the history of the earth’s nuclear power facilities, we can count on one hand the number of headline-worthy events in which things went terribly awry. In 1979, a design flaw at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania caused hysteria, though fortunately no deaths. In 1986, Chernobyl in the former USSR exploded and sent radioactive debris across much of Europe. The death toll is still unclear, but certainly in the thousands. Poor design and gross human error were to blame. And now, we have Japan.
Cal: Three out of how many nuclear plants worldwide?
Bob: According to the European Nuclear Society, as of January the world had 442 operational nuclear power plants — 104 of them in the U.S. — and an additional 65 were under construction.
Cal: That’s a pretty impressive track record over many decades.
Bob: Three incidents, two of which were the result of human error, and the third from a-oncein-a-lifetime earthquake, make nuclear power one of the safest forms of energy in the world. And people want to shut them down?
Cal: More people died in car accidents in the U.S. in 2009 (more than 33,000 people) than have ever died because of the rare malfunctions at nuclear power plants. We’re not suspending automobile manufacturing or walking everywhere because of those numbers. We need some proportionality in this discussion, and most of all we need to wait and learn details of what actually happened.
Bob: One thing we can count on is that despite the devastation and human loss, nuclear power will actually becomesafer in the wake of this tragedy. Industrial disasters are horrible, but they always provide opportunities to correct flaws and improve the technology. That’s our history.
Cal: It seems no matter what the provocation or challenge, neither political party seems up to the task of accomplishing anything that is in the country’s best interest when it comes to energy. The Arab oil boycott under Jimmy Carter and the long gas lines and rising prices were supposed to motivate us to move ahead on freeing ourselves from reliance on Arab oil. Subsequent Democratic and Republican administrations have failed us. Is it the oil lobby and campaign cash that keeps us from moving forward?
Bob: It’s partly that, but neither the private nor public sector has put the enormous resources needed to find alternative energy sources to fossil fuels. Sure, we’re investigating wind power and better solar energy cells, among other things, but not on the massive scale that’s needed. If ever there was a JFK-type challenge to send mentothe moon in a decade, it is to challenge the country to become energy-independent in a decade and to start the hard work now.
Cal: Now if only the politicians could get on board. This could be one of those rare instances where everyone gets the credit.
Bob: Energy independence is not a liberal or a conservative issue, but an issue of U.S. survival.
Cal: That sounds like a good line in a campaign speech.
Bob: Nuclear power is a necessary component of our quest for energy independence, and it should not be abandoned no matter how horrific the scenes are coming out of Japan. I guarantee youthat the Japanese — whohavenodomesticoil deposits — will rebuild their nuclear power plants and then build more of them.
Cal: That’s worth keeping in mind as I fill my gas tank with nearly $4-a-gallon gas. Watching those numbers cascade ever higher reminds me, painfully, of our national debt clock. Bob: That’s another column for another day. Cal: You can say that again.