MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, Md., May 8, 2014 — The media and the international community lament the evils of fossil fuel and the promise of renewable energy, but often ignore the obvious alternative. An energy source that is relatively cheap to use and that produces less environmental and public health impact than fossil fuels already exists: That source is nuclear energy. Until we are able to develop renewable sources of energy that are more efficient, it will remain the best alternative to coal and oil.
Even taking into account the number of deaths caused by the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the number of people killed by nuclear power since the middle of the last century is only a fraction of the deaths caused by fossil fuel and the petrochemical industry. Every day we read about gas explosions, car fires, and many other accidents in which fossil fuels were at least contributors. We hardly notice the deaths from cancer and lung disease caused by pollutants from burning fossil fuels.
We have become so jaded to these deaths that we hardly associate them with fossil fuels. In the rush to exploit these fuels, we also discount the possible dangers of ground water pollution from “fracking”, the potential for gas explosions, and other human and environmental risks.
Every energy source has built in dangers. Wind farms decimate migratory bird populations, corn ethanol drives up food prices around the world and consumes enormous amounts of water, and the production of solar cells also produces toxic waste. There is no known source of energy that is completely safe, but there are relatively safe sources. Nuclear energy is relatively safe.
Many people are still extremely afraid of nuclear power plants, partially thanks to hysterical media coverage of problems at nuclear power facilities, such as Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, Chernobyl in Russia, and Fukishima in Japan.
Fanning Public Fears
The media, in many cases without adequate knowledge, have helped to inflame opposition to nuclear power with scenarios that do not coincide with the technical state of the art or with safety features of new nuclear power plant designs. We all have seen movies in which a mad person takes over a nuclear plant or in which a terrorist explodes a nuclear bomb in one of our cities. While these scenarios are possible, that possibility is remote. The logistics involved in creating one of these doomsday scenarios are extremely complex, and while we should build safeguards against their occurrence, they shouldn’t dictate our decisions about nuclear power.
More feasible terrorist scenarios are the hijacking of a dozen tanker trucks to explode in an urban area, the poisoning of a city’s water supply, or even the use of airliners to hit sky scrapers. There are “weapons of mass destruction” all around us, but they don’t excite film makers the way nuclear terrorism does. Why? Because they don’t produce the fear value of nuclear disaster.
The number of recorded fossil fuel explosions and their resulting death toll over 120 years is too long to mention, but one terrorist scenario above happened on 9/11, and the explosive was jet fuel, not plutonium. Almost 3,000 people died when the planes hit the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, a field in Pennsylvania. The terrorists didn’t need nuclear materials to destroy their targets, just flying gas cans and box cutters.
We have grown so accustomed to the great threats of fossil fuel products, both as energy sources and as the base of our petrochemical industry, that we no longer see them as a threat to our lives the same way we see nuclear power. We often over estimate the risks of the unusual — such as the risk of a plane crash — and underestimate the risks of the commonplace — such as a car accident.
The Benefits of Fossil Fuels
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Let’s be clear, there is a place in our future for fossil fuels and petrochemicals. However, we should concentrate in using this limited resource in the production of durable goods and also implement a complete system of reuse and recycle. You can use “plastic lumber” to resurface a balcony in your home and after ten years it will look the same as the day you installed it. Burning or burying a resource that is limited does not make sense in a smart society. We already know of techniques to extend the benefit of fossil fuels and petrochemicals in ways that are smarter and kinder to Mother Earth and safer to us mortals.
So what are the real draw backs of nuclear plants? Beside the inflated fear of a nuclear disaster, most of the opposition to nuclear power comes from the disposal of used nuclear fuel. Serious discussions about the subject always end up with the question, “So what do we do with the spent fuel?”
Breeder Reactors As A Solution?
The one solution most scientists appear to agree on is the use of breeder reactors. However, there exists a number of challenges to this approach, and with the opposition to all things nuclear, many have put research of this option on the backburner. China is seriously looking at this option as a solution to its energy needs of the future. Theoretically, breeder reactors could produce significantly less waste than traditional reactors.
Until a permanent solution is realized, we should depend on current techniques of disposal of nuclear materials such as the facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Singling out a site like this is no different from, and probably much more environmentally benign, the hundreds of thousands of sites around the world where we have deposited the waste from the fossil fuels and petrochemical industries.
In fact it is easy to realize that our landfills today are full of plastics and other components of the fossil fuels and petrochemical wastes from our modern (disposable) way of life. How many times have you seen on TV that in 600 years one thing we can look forward to is the degradation of the first plastic bottle? Sad, but true.
Mario Salazar, the 21st Century Pacifist, is a bleeding heart liberal, agnostic, exercise fanatic, Redskin fan, technophile, civil engineer, combatinfantry veteran, jewelry maker, amateur computer programmer, environmental engineer, Colombian-born, free thinker, and, not surprisingly, pacifist. You can find his articles – ranging from politics to cooking a mean brisket – in 21st Century Pacifist
Follow Mario on Twitter @chibcharus