In the past week, both Eduardo Porter, a left-leaning columnist from the New York Times and Hendrik Hertzberg, a centrist-looking-left columnist at the New Yorker have advocated nuclear power as the necessary bridge to solar and wind power.
Both writers use the same arguments: We can’t produce enough energy—by which they mean electricity—by solar and wind, so we need nuclear to replace carbon-spewing coal and oil if we are to address global warming in time. Porter and Hertzberg make two assumptions: 1) we must wait for the market to develop for solar and wind as opposed to making massive government investment to create the market; and 2) the only viable solutions involve central generation of electricity controlled by large companies and the decentralized solutions such as mini-generators in neighborhoods and solar panels for heating space and water are unacceptable.
But using nuclear energy to produce electricity strikes a bargain with a devil as pernicious to the earth as global warming. The safety problems with nuclear power are numerous and well documented. Briefly, a major accident spewing significant radiation has occurred somewhere in the world about every 10 years since the 1950’s, including Chalk River, Kyshtym, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, to name some of the more notorious accidents.
There is also the issue of storage. The United States still hasn’t found a permanent place to store nuclear wastes, so it sits at the plants or in temporary locations smoldering and spewing radioactivity. The half life of some nuclear waste is 25,000 years, which means that in 25,000 years half of the radioactivity will have dissipated. That’s more than twice the length of time that humans have had civilizations with written records and agriculture. How many people can speak the languages humans spoke 25,000 years ago? When I think of storage of nuclear waste, I always imagine future intelligent life discovering cavernous vaults with strange hieroglyphics on them, wondering what the symbols mean and eager to break open the vault and see what is inside. They drill through only to let the radioactivity escape and poison them and those in nearby settlements.
By spending money on building more plants for the nuclear generation of electricity we deny resources that could make solar viable. Instead of the private sector investing in nuclear, why can’t the government increases taxes on the private sector’s use of coal and oil and use the funds to buy solar-based batteries, solar roof panels for heating federal buildings and other existing solar products? Making solar and wind more competitive does not have to involve only making them cheaper; it can also involve making coal and oil more expensive by raising taxes or withdrawing current tax breaks. The government could also give greater tax breaks for developing wind mills and solar plants. It could pass a law that makes it harder for rich folk to pursue lawsuits because their view of the Atlantic is impeded by a windmill.
Why waste precious public and private resources in nuclear energy? Let’s go right to what must be the energy of the future—solar and wind.