Nuclear Energy: Unsafe at Any Age?

08/07/2011 04:56 pm ET | Updated Oct 07, 2011
  • Steve Heilig Health care ethicist, epidemiologist, and environmentalist

Which is a bigger threat to humanity's future -- climate change or nuclear power? According to two op-ed authors from Oakland's Breakthrough Institute writing recently in the San Francisco Chronicle, it's no contest, and only the former matters: "For Millennials like us, global warming is the intergenerational threat today, not nuclear power."

This seems to me a false dichotomy. But what seems to have set them off is a coming revival of the 1970s Musicians United for Safe Energy concerts against "nukes." They note that the MUSE artists such as Graham Nash and Jackson Browne are "misguided" and maybe worse than that, tend to be "sexagenarian."

Now, leaving aside why anybody would willingly self-adopt corporate marketing labels like "millennial," as somebody who is neither adolescent nor geriatric, I'd say these young whippersnappers are themselves a bit confused. Since March's Fukushima meltdown, I've followed the debate on nuclear power more closely than I had in many years. I wrote on this topic here.

  • The upshot therein was that my undergraduate adviser, famed/infamous biologist/ecologist Garrett Hardin, was probably correct when he wrote in the 1970s that "a society that cannot survive without atomic energy cannot survive with it."

    Subsequently, I moderated an online Collaborative on Health and the Environment forum on the Fukushima disaster and nuclear power with two leading experts, a nuclear physicist and a physician, which can be heard here -- although be warned, it is an hour long.

  • The upshot of this talk surprised even me a bit, as when I asked these experts to sum up their prescription, they basically agreed that, due to all the flaws and risks, we should "shut 'em down." Which I can't help note was also the slogan of the original MUSE and other anti-nuclear energy activists.
  • Thus, the more I've learned about nuclear energy, and the more that is revealed about the many human foibles leading to disasters thus far and how many close calls there have been, the less faith I put in its safety. I do tend to agree that climate change is the most sweeping environmental threat; it's undeniably a looming worldwide disaster (and for more on that, here is another online discussion I held on that, with a leading longtime journalist on this issue, Mark Hertsgaard). But that specter does not make nuclear power any safer.

There are good reasons we have not built more nuclear plants here in many years, and the fact that nobody will insure them against meltdown is telling -- if the actuarial geniuses won't wager money even on something so profitable as a power plant, should we wager our lives? Add in the still-unsolved and likely unsolvable problem of how to safely store radioactive waste for thousands of years and the scale tips further away from humanity being able to manage nuclear power safely and economically in the long run.

Admittedly, it's doubtful that the revived MUSE shows (which, by the way, feature some, er, millennial-type stars) will tip the nuclear scale in any direction -- but they might well educate some more people, including even younger ones, and will be sending proceeds to disaster relief in Japan, a very good thing and I hope nobody would think that, at least, to be "misguided."

But what else is to be done (beyond perhaps invoking widespread cultural traditions urging people to "respect your elders")? The task before our species is huge -- a radical decrease in energy consumption, re-design of how and where we live, and yes, an eventual decrease in human population. Leaders in Europe are realizing that nuclear energy is a Faustian bargain that does not fit into that equation -- Germany has decided to phase out nuclear plants altogether. In Japan, of course, the story gets worse with each new revelation of technological and human shortcomings, with the highest officials recently resigning in shame and scandal.

It's silly, even immature, to try to divide people on this crucial technological and ecological issue based on arbitrary age categories. For in fact we're all in this together, and radiation can hurt you -- no matter how old you are.