Recently, I’ve been bothered by a grim hypothetical question: What if the estimated 50 civilians killed by the oil tanker train explosion in Quebec instead died from a nuclear power plant disaster? I imagine that here in Vermont we would be having very heated public conversations — indeed public demonstrations and protests — on the topic of nuclear power. But when 50 people die because of a fossil fuel accident, we hardly hear a peep around here. Why?
I think it is because we perceive fossil fuel power production and its dangers very differently than we do nuclear power. But does nuclear energy deserve all of the terror we heap upon it? I’m not a stranger to fears about nuclear power — actually, no: I’m not a stranger to fears about nuclear weapons. When I was a child, my father joined many other citizens concerned about the dangers of the nuclear arms race. He wrote a booklet called “What About the Children?” discussing what would happen to children in our Vermont schools and homes in the event of a nuclear war. There is mention of a physician friend who secretly stocked morphine at home, to kill the pain his children might endure should the worst befall them. So I grew up in fear of nuclear power — I mean nuclear war. Well into my adulthood, I carried fear of nuclear energy because of what I knew to be the dangers of nuclear weapons. Then, in the past decade, I started to read more about climate change, and once in a while I’d come across a discussion of nuclear power — not as a danger to be avoided, but as the only current energy source that can be seriously considered as an alternative to fossil fuels.
Vermont’s most public climate change activist, Bill McKibben, devotes two pages to nuclear power in his recent book, “Eaarth.” “Nuclear plants are frightening,” he writes. But McKibben doesn’t say they’re frightening because of how many people might die in a disaster. They’re frightening because “the new ones spill so much red ink,” with the “capital costs of new conventional reactors” being so very high that investment is deterred.
McKibben acknowledges that nuclear power plants are safer than “nastier” fossil fuel power sources: “I mean, if a nuclear plant has an accident, it’s bad news, but if you operate a coal-fired plant exactly according to instructions, it melts the ice caps and burns the forest.” In other words, fossil fuels are destroying the planet, and nuclear power is a safer alternative, but it’s more expensive and there’s lots of regulatory red tape.
On the same topic, in 2005, Nicholas Kristoff wrote an op-ed called “Nukes are green.” (You can see from the title that Kristoff uses our fear of “nukes” — nuclear weapons — to hook us into reading his piece about nuclear power.) He begins: “If there was one thing that used to be crystal clear to any environmentalist, it was that nuclear energy was the deadliest threat this planet faced.” But, he says, it’s time for us “to drop that hostility to nuclear power.”
A sensible energy plan must encourage conservation — and promote things like hybrid vehicles and hydrogen fuel cells. But for now, nuclear power is the only source that doesn’t contribute to global warming and that can quickly become a mainstay of the grid. Is it safe? No, not entirely. Three Mile Island and Chernobyl demonstrated that, and there are also risks from terrorist attacks.
Then again, the world now has a half-century of experience with nuclear power plants, 440 of them around the world, and they have proved safer so far than the alternatives. America’s biggest power source is now coal, which kills about 25,000 people a year through soot in the air.
To put it another way, nuclear energy seems much safer than our dependency on coal, which kills more than 60 people every day.
Which brings us back to death tolls and the estimated 50 people who were incinerated in a quiet Quebec town. That’s just one day, one tragic fossil fuel accident. Kristoff calculates that just as many people die every single day because of fossil fuel pollution — to say nothing of climate change-related deaths due to oil and coal consumption.
Now let’s compare to nuclear energy. How many people die due to nuclear power accidents? How many people die due to pollution and climate impacts? How many people die constructing and operating nuclear power plants? James Lovelock, one of Britain’s best-known climate change thinkers, reviews the loss of human life associated with nuclear power in his most recent book.
True, there was a nasty accident at Chernobyl in the Ukraine 20 years ago that killed a total of 75, mostly brave firefighters and rescue workers. Then there was the expensive industrial accident at the Three Mile Island power station where no one was even hurt but which frightened the whole nation. In 50 years in the whole worldwide nuclear industry no more than 100 have died.
If Lovelock were writing one year later he’d also note Japan’s Fukushima power plant disaster, but given how relatively few people died in that accident, Lovelock’s death count would still hover at about 100 people who have ever died — ever — because of nuclear energy production.
I have a lot of respect for each of these thinkers. And they all agree that we are on a collision course with climate cataclysm — food shortages, ruined cities, refugee crises, fires, floods and droughts in unheard of proportions — if we don’t do something very big, very different, very quickly to counter our global dependence on fossil fuels. Furthermore, all three of these men acknowledge that nuclear power has the capacity to be that alternative.
What these guys are saying won’t convince everyone, but it certainly convinces me that nuclear energy is a lesser evil and the energy source we must quickly consider as an antidote to the world’s fossil fuel addiction. That said, I’m sure I could be convinced by thoughtful counterarguments. These days my fears about nuclear energy are less about meltdowns. I’m more concerned with the very dangerous world my children will inherit if we don’t have a deeper, impassioned but careful, evidence-based debate about how to solve our climate crisis. A better discussion will help us find the best solution.
T. Elijah Hawkes lives in Middlesex.
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