The Year of Living Dangerously in Power Generation

03/14/2011 06:24 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Over the past 12 months, we've had caved-in coal mines, underwater oil spills and now compromised nuclear facilities. What does it take for us to accept that renewable energy is the way to go, both from a safety and ultimately a cost effectiveness viewpoint? We are quick to forget the societal consequences surrounding our dependence on fossil fuels and nuclear until disaster strikes.

Coal miners working in dangerous conditions. Photo courtesy of Giorgio Monteforti via Creative Commons.

The Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, operated by Massey Energy, killed 29 miners in the worst disaster in four decades. The BP oil spill did inestimable damage to the Gulf of Mexico. And now, two and possibly a third nuclear reactors in Japan may melt down, damage TBD we won't know for months. For those including President Obama who believe we need a mix of "clean coal," nuclear, natural gas, and renewable (including solar, wind, fuel cells, geothermal) to solve the energy independence question, we say, sorry guys but look at the dangers citizens face when things go wrong.

Aerial photo of BP oil spill, courtesy of NASA Goddard.

Aerial photo of Sendai, Japan after the 8.9 magnitude earthquake and tsunami hit the coast. Official U.S. Navy photo.

Prior to the Japan quake and ensuing mayhem, I had noticed a softening by middle of the road environmentalists with regard to nuclear. The thought was let's stand firm on coal and oil but soften our position on nuclear, in the spirit of cooperation not to mention, hey, we need power NOW. Even pro-nuclear policy makers are saying let's first do more research and analysis before moving ahead on any nuclear project. This is sound logic which we heartily agree with.

The question is, in the grand scheme, is it worth even considering nuclear as a viable option? I think not, and here's why: we would be better off socking the millions that would surely be needed to study the situation into further development of wind, solar and natural gas power sources. As we speak, radioactive material has been released in Japan through two partial meltdowns. If and when a full meltdown were to occur, it would be Chernobyl Act II on some level. I for one am not willing to find out the severity of Fukushima Daiichi and how many generations would be affected.

Nuclear power is potentially a cost-effective way to generate significant amounts of power without foreign oil. Unfortunately, the effects of problem reactors appear to be so severe that we should not in good conscience pursue expansion of nuclear power plants. The same holds true for "clean coal." This buzzword sounds like a perfect solution but according to extensive research done by Sierra Club's "Beyond Coal" project, there is simply no such thing as clean coal. Kind of like "safe cigarettes." The Gigaton Report is a scholarly document that was presented to support the idea of expanding nuclear power facilities in the U.S. as a solution to climate change and promote energy independence. While this document makes many good points in support of nuclear power, we believe the potential risks to life and limb of citizens living near nuclear plants is simply too extreme.

So, if Sierra Club Green Home says no to nuclear, "crapola" to clean coal, and "out of the question" to offshore drilling, what remains? Solar, geothermal, wind, natural gas, fuel cells, petroalgae, etc. We know these sources combined will not meet our energy needs in total overnight, but if we systematically focus on these categories for energy generation, good old American ingenuity and know-how will prevail. We have the talent, resources and funds to make renewable energy work. Let's use the lessons learned in the past 12 months to sway public opinion in support of this position.

As always, I am anxious to hear your comments, thanks for reading.