Spectra Pipeline campaign is a teachable energy moment

If I lived in New York City, I would be campaigning against the installation of large, high pressure gas pipelines and for the continued operation of the well-built and well-maintained Indian Point Nuclear Power Station. I would also campaign for the construction of additional nuclear plants. In my opinion, nuclear generated electricity is more compatible with densely populated cities than natural gas pipelines.

The San Bruno explosion mentioned in the video has been nearly forgotten by most who were not directly affected. Of course, it did not occur when the pipe was new; it took several decades worth of deterioration and high pressure operations before that event happened. However, the explosion was not unique; there have been numerous similar explosions widely distributed around the United States and the rest of the world.

High pressure gas pipelines represent a hazard that needs to be understood and acknowledged. Explosions and fires usually end quickly and harm only those nearby, but the harm is real and immediate. In contrast, Fukushima proved to the people who paid close attention that nuclear plants can be protected with enough layers so that even catastrophic failures and core melting can occur without injuring the most exposed plant workers. The probability of any harm to the uninvolved public is acceptably close to zero.

The people who produced the above video would probably recoil at my suggestion to discourage the expansion of natural gas pipelines by encouraging the use of nuclear energy. They probably would not immediately understand that more nuclear energy means less natural gas infrastructure investment, especially in places like New York City where the cost of installing new pipelines must be well above average.

The participants in Radon in My Apartment? might not understand that the best defense against risky fossil fuel projects is a greatly expanded energy supply that drives prices down and reduces investment incentives. Their fear of nuclear energy has been taught through repetitive reinforcement that has lasted for at least four decades; the campaign against fracked gas is just a couple of years old.

From a public relations point of view, nuclear energy has disadvantages that are actually important advantages from the point of view of ensuring real human safety. The redundant layers of safety systems, physical protection and backup systems help to make accidents at nuclear plants both rare and slowly developing.

Those characteristics make them “good stories” for the news media. People seem to pay more attention to rare events and a slowly developing story can be milked for days for ratings and profitable advertising. We all should agree that rare is better when it comes to accidents. Situations that develop slowly offer more time for responders to react, more time to move people out of harm’s way and more time to assemble effective assistance from distant locations.

Add in the fact that many members of The Establishment have vested interests in limiting the use of nuclear energy. Allowing it to expand at a more natural rate would reduce the proven profitability of selling fossil fuels to markets that cannot get quite enough energy. The combination of naturally good story lines amplified by commercial interests provides a recipe for long memories of non-fatal accidents like Three Mile Island and Fukushima in the same society that has collective amnesia regarding numerous fossil fuel accidents that have caused far more direct harm and property damage.

One more comment about the content of Radon in My Apartment? The Spectra Pipeline – regular readers of Atomic Insights will know that I agree with Dr. Bernie Cohen about the minimal risk associated with radon exposure for non-smokers.

It is a telling commentary about the effectiveness of the long-running antinuclear FUD campaign that one of the more effective ways to encourage people to question the expanded use of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas from deeply buried shale rock is telling them that the resulting gas might be a little radioactive.

Other inherent characteristics of natural gas worth questioning, like the facts that it is flammable, explosive, contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and has a volatile price history seem be less important in the minds of certain activists. Oh well, at least the radioactivity issue can capture their attention and inspire action that might start to overcome the seductive, well-funded advertising and lobbying campaigns of the oil and gas industry.

If we address the issue honestly, the situation offers a teachable opportunity to help people to understand the importance of getting accurate energy information. We need to make the right energy supply choices instead of those that make The (fossil fuel funded) Establishment happier and richer.

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