Assessing and Reducing the Risks of Energy

03/15/2011 01:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Steven Cohen Executive Director, Columbia University's Earth Institute

The nuclear catastrophe in Japan is reopening the discussion of the safety of nuclear power, and advocates and opponents of nuclear power are working overtime to articulate their perspective in the media. While I agree with Barry Commoner's decades old argument that nuclear power is a "....complicated way to boil water," there is no denying that we are dependent on this form of technology. I think that in the long term, the risks of nuclear power outweigh the benefits. I think that is also true of deep sea drilling for oil, mountain top removal for coal and hydrofracking for natural gas. The issue is not the probability of risk, which is quite low, but the intensity of risk and the relative irreversibility of damage should disaster strike. The short term problem is that the risk of danger to the environment must be weighed against the certainty of economic damage and political instability from the immediate elimination of these forms of energy technology.

We are all energy junkies and the alternative to scoring our energy fix is too painful to contemplate. We can't shut off the power, but we need to do a better job of understanding the risks involved and of spending money to reduce them. The energy and nuclear industries are far too blasé about environmental risks and can't be counted on to ensure safety or manage the transition to a less risky energy base for our economy. Before we adopt any technology, we need to analyze the potential impact of its failure. Instead, we get treated to Senator Lamar Alexander's tortured logic on the floor of the Congress:

"Nuclear power provides about 15% of the world's electricity today and while there are always risks with every form of energy, it is important that we are clear about the risks each type of energy poses. We don't abandon highway systems because bridges and overpasses collapse during earthquakes. The 1.6 million of us who fly daily would not stop flying after a tragic airplane crash. We would find out what happened and do our best to make it safe. We cannot simply stop drilling after a tragic oil spill unless we want to rely more on foreign oil, run up our prices, turn our oil drilling over to a few big oil companies, and all our oil hauling over to more leaky tankers. 34,000 people die in motor vehicle crashes each year but we don't stop driving because we have to get our children to school and go to work. In all these cases we do our best to examine the tragedies and make our continued operation as safe as possible."

Senator Alexander is absolutely correct that auto and air accidents are tragic, but the long term impacts of crashes on innocent bystanders and surrounding ecosystems are relatively slight and simply cannot compare to a nuclear melt down. Recovery from oil spills like the one in the Gulf of Mexico will take years and billions of dollars. A toxic release into New York City's water supply from hydrofracking would cost many billions of dollars and affect the health and well-being of millions of people. The ecological damage from mountain top removal will last for centuries. The persistence of radioactive contamination is far greater than that. We need a more sophisticated discussion of risk untainted by the ideology, greed and self-interest that frequently characterizes these debates.

As Japan is teaching us every day, nuclear risks are orders of magnitude greater than other risks. Arguing that we must live with risk misses the point. Yes, we must live with risk, but there is no reason we can't work harder to create an economy that is based on safer, less risky forms of energy. While we can't afford to shut down these plants, let's certainly not build any more. And if we must build plants that use fossil fuels, let's regulate their emissions to reduce risk and encourage the development of safer forms of energy.

It is true that we are stuck with the environmentally destructive and risky energy technologies we now rely on. Catastrophes like the one in Japan today and the Gulf Oil spill last year are no longer rare events. We need to begin the transition to a renewable energy economy. We need to start now. We need public policy that:

  • Encourages energy efficiency.
  • Funds research into low cost, smaller, more efficient solar cells and battery technology.
  • Funds research on nuclear power that is safe and waste free.
  • Builds a smart grid and facilitates smaller scale, more widely distributed generation of electricity.

While our homes and offices use more and more technology that requires electricity, there is no reason that we cannot make energy efficiency a design parameter for these devices. When engineers started to make air conditioners and refrigerators that were more energy efficient, the savings were impressive. Our homes can be better insulated, and yes, we can switch to more energy efficient light bulbs without destroying freedom here in America.

In order to turn the corner on energy policy, our government must take a more active role. American government needs to spend money on R & D and infrastructure, and it must regulate the generation and use of energy. It also must develop a real partnership with American industry to create a renewable energy economy. In this Tea Party dominated political moment, a more active energy policy is quite unlikely. When the Tea Party's moment finally ends, the risks of our environmentally destructive energy economy will remain. Human biology requires air, food and water. That means that the environment must be treated as a necessity rather than a luxury. If we destroy that environment, we destroy ourselves. Electricity is nice, but you can't eat, drink or breathe it.