Will We See Nuclear Progress in Japan?

03/18/2011 02:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Lee Schneider Communications director at Red Cup Agency. Founder of Digital Fundraising School. Writing on the intersection of culture and technology

Japan has been on everyone's mind, and some of the discussions I've heard have surprised me. Or, more accurately, what I haven't heard has surprised me. When the talk turned toward Japan in my morning meetings this week, it was about the loss of life, the tremendous cost, and the opportunity to support nuclear power, make it safer, and make it work better. How about getting rid of it? That didn't come up. The assumption was that nuclear was here to stay and that it was the future.

I hope not.

Now I know that Thomas Friedman of the New York Times is a fan of nuclear power, because he calls it a breakthrough in clean energy production. In a 2009 editorial he wrote that France was dealing just fine with its nuclear waste issues, and that a nuclear waste storage dump in Nevada's Yucca Mountain was "totally safe." Because he writes for the Times, he must be right, huh? I happen to know he's flat out wrong. A couple of years ago I wrote and produced an hourlong documentary for The History Channel about all things nuclear. I went into nuclear missile silos, visited a reactor, and probably inhaled a few barium molecule or two at Livermore Labs. I also read a lot of what Robert Oppenheimer wrote, studied interviews with Edward Teller and Albert Einstein, and looked into was going on at the Yucca Mountain site. Was it "totally safe?" I wouldn't use the term "totally safe" in relation to radioactive material leaking into groundwater. But don't take my word for it, check out what Greenpeace has to say, and Counterpunch. The Obama administration has been working on terminating the Yucca Mountain program.

There hasn't been a nuclear power plant built in this country since the Three Mile Island accident. That was 1979. But President Obama is talking about building new ones, massive gigawatt-sized reactors, and even smaller ones that would use thorium, rather than uranium-235. Thorium nuclear batteries are supposed to be the best, new green way to make power. I hope not.

I think of progress as forward motion, moving ahead into new territory and fresh concepts. But the spiritual view, on the other side of things, looks at progress as going inside, claiming a deeper self that we might have neglected or forgotten. Progress, in that view, isn't always "forward." It may even seem backward, anti- or pre-technology. Caroline Myss, in her latest newsletter, wrote, "only a fool would tamper with nuclear power without the assistance of a holy guardian, shaman, or priest." I don't agree with that, because it assumes that the shaman or priest may know more than the scientist. The real key to progress is mutual respect. Scientists need to listen to the shamans, and shamans should not run away from science or think they are better than scientists. Progress isn't always forward, but it is always inclusive.

Will the future of power generation be nuclear? I hope not. Will the future of science involve truly respecting the Earth? I hope so.