As Congress ponders how the country can avoid an energy crisis like the one that has affected California, many people believe that only science-fiction can offer a long-term solution–a solution in which discoveries in theoretical physics would lead to a new energy-producing technology. The fuel for this technology, as they imagine it, would be abundantly available, safe, inexpensive and clean.
It may surprise those people to learn that the only fiction here is the belief that this is some future fantasy. Actually, the relevant discoveries in physics happened nearly a century ago, and the resulting technology–nuclear power–is now almost 50 years old. But the fact that this valuable technology is playing a diminishing role in our economy reveals something very important–not about nuclear power itself, but about the motives of its militant opponents.
Nuclear power provides a cheap alternative to fossil-fuel-based sources of electricity. With comparable capital and operating costs, and a mere fraction of the fuel costs, it can provide electricity at 50–80 percent of the price of traditional sources. It is extremely reliable, and is by far the cleanest of any viable energy source currently known.
Its safety record is also exemplary. In America today, the nuclear industry ranks among the safest places to work. It experiences only 0.34 accidents resulting in lost work time per 200,000 worker-hours, compared with a 3.1 average throughout private industry. While during the past 40 years, hundreds of thousands have died as a result, directly and indirectly, of coal mining and other means of energy production, there has not been a single fatality, or even a serious injury, resulting from the operation of civilian nuclear plants in the United States. The annual probability of radiation leakage for the newest reactors is estimated at less than one in a billion–a level of safety no other source of energy can even approach.
Why then is opposition to nuclear power so strong?
The loudest objection raised by the anti-nuclear groups is that there is “no safe level of radiation.” It is also the phoniest. The major sources of radiation are natural and ubiquitous: we are continuously bombarded with radiation from cosmic rays in the upper atmosphere and from naturally occurring radioactive elements in the earth. Compared with these background sources, the radiation from nuclear power plants is negligible.
The average annual radiation dose received by Americans is 360 millirems (or “mrems”), about 300 of which come from naturally occurring sources like radon. By contrast, you would get only 0.01 mrems per year as a result of living 50 feet from a nuclear power plant. Even a single annual cross-country airplane flight exposes you to 3 mrems, while a medical X-ray gives you a dose of 20 mrems.
Yet the hysterical claims of the anti-nuclear activists continue to shape government policy, leading to absurd licensing standards for nuclear plants. For example, the radiation levels in Washington’s Capitol building (due to uranium in the granite walls) would legally prevent the structure from being licensed as a nuclear plant. People who work full time at the Capitol are exposed to radiation levels thousands of times higher than those produced by nuclear plants.
Similar irrational standards apply to the Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste disposal site that is being developed in the Nevada desert. In the 1980s the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) insisted that radiation at the site cause no more than 1,000 deaths in 10,000 years–compared with the thousands of deaths per year the EPA was then predicting from exposure to natural radon. Yucca Mountain is now being further delayed as environmentalists demand that the time scale be extended to 100,000 or even 1,000,000 years.
No wonder not a single license for a new nuclear plant has been granted in over two decades–and no wonder the country faces insufficient supplies of electricity.
The opposition to nuclear power represents a political, not a scientific, viewpoint. The anti-nuclear groups, and the broader environmentalist movement of which they are a part, are fundamentally hostile to capitalism and production. They are against nuclear power, not on any sound scientific grounds, but for the same reason they consistently oppose logging and oil drilling and dam construction–because they want to reverse the progress we have made in conquering nature to serve man’s interests.
They do not seek a better means of generating energy–they want us to “conserve” and to do with less. Their goal is to turn out the lights on our industrial society. What the defenders of nuclear energy need, therefore, is to defend that industrial society–by upholding man’s moral right to produce the wealth on which his values and life depend.
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