On Wednesday, April 26, 2006, the NewsHour program on PBS produced a short segment marking the 20 year anniversary of the Chernobyl accident. The segment is typically “balanced” by showing pictures of children with the claim that they have to be carefully monitored for the effects of radiation exposures and then showing pictures of cooling towers, control rooms and containment vessels in the US with information about how much of our electricity comes from nuclear power plants.
There is also the well discussed comparison between the Chernobyl Forum Report, with its stated results that as many as 4000 (or 9000) people MAY eventually contract cancer that can be attributed to the Chernobyl accident, and the Greenpeace computation that 93,000 people will die from the accident. I’ve talked a little about the differences in the way that those studies were conducted and also tried to ensure that you understand that the Chernobyl Forum Report does not provide any prediction of the number of people that WILL contract cancer. Instead it provides a range a possible values with the quoted numbers being at the very high end with the distinct possibility of NO lingering health effects.
Even more interesting than the segment on Chernobyl, however, is an interview conducted by Ray Suarez following that segment. He invited Patrick Moore of the new Clean and Safe Energy Coalition (CASEnergy) and Paul Gunter of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS).
PBS gets it right by understanding that the real question for today should be a discussion of the benefits of nuclear power versus the fear induced paralysis with regard to new nuclear power plants that has so far been one of the legacies of the Chernobyl accident. The two guests do a pretty fair job of quickly summarizing two of the many positions that one can take with regard to that discussion.
Mr. Moore points out the impressive safety record of the industry, the fact that the power source does not release any greenhouse gases, the fact that the alternative to nuclear is really more coal, and the fact that used nuclear fuel can be recycled. Mr. Gunter discusses the “near miss” at Davis-Besse, asserts that there really were health consequences from Three Mile Island, states that nuclear fuel recycling cannot be separated from nuclear weapons proliferation, and asserts that it is quicker and cheaper to address global climate change by investing in conservation.
That is one assertion that I really want to challenge. Judging from the video, unless Mr. Gunter has had a terribly rough life, he is old enough to remember when there were no nuclear power plants in the world at all. Now, before he is old enough to retire, there are more than 440 nuclear power plants producing about 50% more useful energy every day than Saudi Arabia. That build-up occurred even in the face of focused opposition by groups like Mr. Gunter’s NIRS, which is only one of many groups whose sole purpose is to slow the development of nuclear fission power.
The energy conservation industry is much older than nuclear fission. I would be willing to bet that you can find tips and tricks about how to do more with less energy on the Dead Sea scrolls and in ancient Chinese writings. I know that my grandparents had lots of ways to reduce coal consumption during the Depression – I remember hearing the tales when I was a child. I have also read Dickens and many other stories that tell me that people have been thinking about energy conservation for many, many years. With the possible exception of some advertising by fossil fuel companies that really seems more focused at brand switching than overall encouragement of more fuel consumption, I cannot think of any focused opposition to the use of more energy efficient products or techniques.
Nuclear fission power has proven that it can make a huge difference on a relatively short time scale, even with the many challenges of developing totally new technology, training people in a difficult, exacting profession, and responding to focused opposition by people that might be motivated by worrying about the economic challenges of a new energy competitor.
As we move into the future, no matter how individually efficient people are, total energy consumption will increase as populations increase and as we spread wealth to areas that currently have little or no resources at all.
My answer to Mr. Gunter is conserve all you can, but the energy demand that remains should be served by the cleanest possible energy source. In many cases that energy source will be a nuclear fission reactor, though natural gas, specially processed coal and refined petroleum are also going to be part of the solution.