09/17/2008 12:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Nuclear Fears And Our Stunted Debate On Alternative Energy

Nuclear power is complicated. But it's not rocket science. John McCain wants to bring 100 new plants online, while Barack Obama demands that we solve the problem of waste disposal first. As is usually the case, the most common sense approach is somewhere in the middle. So in order to find the truth about nuclear power, I visited one of the 104 nuclear power plants already in operation in the U.S.

I visited the North Anna nuclear power plant in Louisa County, Virginia, located near scenic Lake Anna about two hours from Washington, DC. It has been online since 1978 and provides 17% of the electricity in Virginia.

First of all, the notion that nuclear plants are located in industrial wastelands guarded by moats with three-eyed fish is all myth. In fact, two of the main considerations that determine the site for nuclear power plants are distance from urban centers and the proximity to open water. These two requirements pretty much ensure that plants are located in calm, natural and secluded environments, the kind many of us might seek when planning a getaway vacation. Although communities tend to suffer from the NIMBY syndrome (Not In My Backyard) when it comes to housing a plant, many individuals probably wish that their backyards looked sprawling green space with lakes where most power plants are located. Louisa county, home to the North Anna plant, boasts the second largest fresh water inland lake in Virginia, historic Green Springs (a national landmark), and a growing vacation community. On my drive to the plant, I passed family farms, fishing piers and hiking trails which co-existed peacefully with the 1800 megawatt plant down the road.

Second, nuclear power has been around for over fifty years. The science behind operating a plant no longer requires reckless leap of faith. In fact, any HVAC technician or car mechanic is well-qualified perform many of the tasks that keep a modern nuclear plant running smoothly. So although each station worker is given precise parameters within which to operate, most of them will understand the general principles about heat and pressure in order to troubleshoot a malfunction without panicking. At the end of the day, most of the operations at a nuclear plant involve maintaining the right balance of heat and pressure in the major valves, the same way that HVAC mechanics, plumbers and electricians maintain, diagnose and correct problems in our kitchens and basements.

Third, fear of a plant meltdown like Chernobyl or Three-mile Island seems unshakeable. The environmental lobby manipulates our fear of radiation by pointing to the increased rates of thyroid cancer after the Chernobyl accident. But the reality is that these plant models are obsolete. The challenges we face require an understanding of today and tomorrow's technology, not yesterday's. The Russian nuclear plant at Chernobyl suffered from numerous design flaws well-known at the time; it had ineffective accident mitigation, poor steam suppression and the tendency to produce faster and less stable nuclear reactions. No other country even bothered to test, let alone adopt the Russian model.

Three-Mile Island, which incidentally did not result in any deaths, was caused by a series of mechanical failures. But even this meltdown was maintained within the containment facility and did not result in contamination of the surrounding community.

This is not to say that nuclear power doesn't have risks. Ironically, John McCain points to his Navy experience on submarines with nuclear plants, to claim that he has never known Navy nuclear plants to have caused ill-effects, injuries or deaths. But just because he doesn't know of any incidents, doesn't mean they didn't happen. There have been numerous reports where radioactive coolant was spilled into the ocean during submarine to submarine transfers. Five-hundred gallons of radioactive coolant were spilled into the Thames River in Connecticut in 1971. In 1975, a Navy submarine contaminated the beaches of Guam.

And although Barack Obama is correct in recommending that we address the question of spent fuel before licensing new power plants, we don't have to look far for the answer. France, the U.K, Russia, and Japan have already solved this problem by reprocessing spent fuel. According to the World Nuclear Association, reprocessing waste reduces it to 1/5 of its original volume.

The real discussion about nuclear energy isn't about whether or not to pursue it; it already accounts for 20% of our electricity. The false debate occurring now just plays to our fears and ignores the need for a consistent nuclear policy that provides incentives for safe development and coherent regulation.