There are some striking similarities between the campaign of 2008 and that of 1976. Both featured a experienced legislator running against a relative newcomer to the national political stage. In both elections, energy and economics are important campaign issues. In both elections, one candidate has an expansive energy plan that includes efforts to increase the use of nuclear power and one candidate acknowledges the existence of nuclear power.
Fortunately, thirty years makes a difference and the attitudes of today’s electorate reflect the fact that we know a lot more about nuclear power and the other alternatives to fossil fuels than we did in 1976. We have experienced the meltdown scenario that was used to frighten people with visions of catastrophe and had enough time to evaluate the fact that the visions were mirages. Nearly 30 years after Unit 2 of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant melted, we can say for sure that no one died and that “that the actual release had negligible effects on the physical health of individuals or the environment”. We can also say based on experimental evidence that when fuel melts in a light water reactor, it pools and freezes inside the pressure vessel – a melted core has no chance of penetrating the containment structure.
We also have been reminded that fossil fuels were not unlimited in 1976 and they are certainly less available now, after 32 years of ever increasing consumption of the stored combustion energy capital of the Earth. Though oil prices have declined precipitously in the past few months, that price decrease can be entirely attributed to a reduction in demand. Production today is less than it was 3 months ago and essentially unchanged since 2005. We may not yet be at “peak oil” but we are way above the tree line and can see little evidence that we are going to be able to climb much higher.
After 32 years of trying to make them work, solar, wind and biofuels still supply a tiny fraction of the energy used every day, and their economics only work with numerous subsidies and mandated efforts to make them work.
I am cautiously optimistic that no matter who is elected, the period from 2009-2012 will NOT be a repeat of 1977-1981 with regard to nuclear power developments. One indicator that is very encouraging – Ralph Nader did not drop out of the 2008 campaign after visiting with the reticent candidate for a couple of days worth of energy policy related discussions and a agreement to work to halt developments. Nader has not called Obama “a breath of fresh air” or introduce him at a Public Citizen meeting.
In the final days of the 2008 election, the differences in position on nuclear power between the two candidate are coming into play. The encouraging difference between now and 1976 is that the organizations supporting the candidate that is more reticent about his support for nuclear power recognizes that the public wants him to be more supportive of the technology; in 1976 the organizations supporting the candidate who strongly favored nuclear power believed that the public wanted him to back away from his commitments to recycle nuclear fuel, build new plants, and develop more advanced technologies like breeder reactors.
We do not have to wait and see what develops – we can help ensure that both candidates recognize that Americans know that we need new sources of clean, abundant, safe energy. Nuclear fission based power plants have a 50 year history proving that they can and do meet the criteria. Get out and vote, but remember that democracy is a constant effort in self governance that does not stop with choosing a leader.