A couple of days ago, I wrote a post about Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Mark Udall (D-CO) and their mutual support for nuclear power as expressed during a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park. A friend pointed me in the direction of an op-ed published by the Durango Herald (published from Durango, CO) titled Senators and Climate: McCain-Udall visit showed hope, problems that asserts that Udall’s expression of support for nuclear power includes an unsolved caveat and that McCain’s support for nuclear power makes his acceptance of the reality of climate change political poison.
He also agreed with McCain that as part of a national response to climate change, nuclear power, which produces no greenhouse gases, should have a larger role in America’s energy mix.
Both, however, followed those courageous-sounding stances with deal-braking qualifications. While McCain urged Obama to act, he also said he would support no measure “unless nuclear power is an essential and vital part of it.”
And while Udall said nuclear power needs to be part of the solution, a spokesperson later modified those remarks to say he supports research into how to handle nuclear waste. Until a safe disposal method is found, the spokesperson said, Udall does not want to expand the use of nuclear power.
The op-ed writer then states that the qualifications made the positions so far apart as to be irreconcilable. I disagree, I think that Udall’s expressed reservation about nuclear power is analogous to a senator who says that he supports health care but will not vote for a bill until someone figures out how to set a broken arm. I am not knocking Senator Udall’s education, but I am asserting that he does not understand the state of human knowledge with regard to “how to handle nuclear waste”.
We know how to handle used nuclear fuel safely; we have been doing it for more than 50 years. No one has been hurt by exposure to the material. It would be exceedingly difficult to find a reasonably qualified scientist or engineer who would assert that any one will be hurt as long as we keep doing what we have been doing. The only real dispute comes when people – for various reasons – attempt to introduce an impossible criteria and want someone to “prove” that no one will be hurt out into the distant millennia.
That is like asking a prosperous father to prove that none of his great-great grandchildren will ever starve. The father can confidently assert that none of his children will starve tomorrow. He can even make reasonable provisions to ensure that none of his descendants will starve for a long time into the future, but it is impossible for him to predict what might happen hundreds to thousands of years into the future. Anyone who tries to put that criteria into the discussion is not serious; they are trying to ensure perceived failure for other reasons.
McCain’s expressed reservations about a bill regarding climate change are reasonable. No logical person would attempt to pass a bill restricting atmospheric emissions and air pollution without accepting the continued and increased use of the best available tool – even Henry Waxman has stated that he believes his bill will result in growth in nuclear energy production. (Markey is another story, but he is not quite as pragmatic.)
However, I do not believe that any logical senator will agree to pass a bill that does so little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as the Waxman-Markey bill does while calling it a climate change bill. There is a good reason for principled opposition to accepting the emissions credit giveaways to coal interests that are a far cry from the 100% auction initially proposed by then Senator Obama. Perhaps the Senate might even have enough reasonable people in it to agree that a straight waste disposal fee (call it a tax if you want to) based on the quantity of the pollutant – including CO2 – would be a more effective way to make polluters pay.
If the Senate produces a climate bill that actually reduces emissions, increases grid reliability, improves power affordability, and increases American energy strength so that we again lead the world in its most important industry, I am sure that Senator McCain could vote for that bill. The only way such a bill is possible is if it meets his criteria of recognizing that nuclear fission is an “essential and vital part” of the tool box that will enable such challenging accomplishments.
The conclusion of the Durango Herald op-ed cements my view that the writer has a world view that includes just two political parties, each of which is playing to win in a game where there is a winner and a loser. My own world view is different – political parties mean little, ideas mean a lot and doing the right thing means that there are people who progress a bit more than others but all move forward. I was a swimmer. In that sport, the only permanent winner is the clock, but all participants can make progress.
So until some magic breakthrough occurs and nuclear waste can be rendered harmless, Udall is off the hook on nuclear power, and McCain is free to join his fellow Republicans in opposing climate-change legislation.
A more helpful exchange might have ensued had McCain offered someplace in Arizona to store nuclear waste, or had Udall announced that some degree of risk associated with nuclear power is acceptable in light of the threat of climate change. But as human beings, they can be forgiven for not wanting to suffer that level of straight talk.
There is no need for a magic breakthrough – “nuclear waste” is not causing any harm now and will not cause harm in the future as long as society continues to survive and knowledge does not disappear. McCain does not need to forward and offer a place in his state for all of the nation’s used nuclear fuel; Palo Verde, which is in Arizona, is already one of dozens of locales that already gladly accept having a bit of used fuel around as an integral part of a vital power plant infrastructure that provides reliable, emission free electricity, good jobs, and local tax base contributions.
Based on all of the recent polls I have read, support for nuclear power is no longer political poison. A large majority of Americans support its use knowing what they currently know, as more learn about technologies like the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, the Hyperion Power Module, the NuScale, the mPower™, the Westinghouse AP-1000, the Areva EPR, the Toshiba 4S, and perhaps even the Adams Engine™, support will continue to grow. Any reasonable politician with his fingers in the air will recognize this trend and get on board. No party that desires continued popular support will stubbornly cling to anit-nuclear ideas that are about as current as hippies gathering in the park to protest a war in Southeast Asia.