04/04/2011 02:37 pm ET Updated Jun 04, 2011

Nuclear Vs. Coal: A No-Win Ethical Dilemma

Workers at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant are rightfully being hailed as heroes. A glimpse into their lives shows the high price they are paying to stave off a nuclear catastrophe -- 12 hour shifts, very little food, deplorable sleeping conditions and an expectation that some of or all of them will soon die. It's heartbreaking and telling that industry insiders refer to them as "glow boys" despite their immense sacrifice.

The fallout from the Fukushima nuclear disaster is spreading and we need to get prepared for the consequences. I'm not referring in this case to the contaminated particles that have seeped into the land and sea surrounding the crippled plant, but fallout of a less radioactive and far more political variety.

In the German state of Baden-Württemberg, the anti-nuclear Green party won a stunning upset victory over Angela Merkel's Christian Democrat Union on March 27, despite Ms. Merkel's last-ditch effort to win voters by announcing the temporary closure of some of the country's oldest reactors. China temporarily suspended approvals for new nuclear plants, and announced that it would likely scale back its nuclear ambitions, decreasing the proposed share of nuclear power from 5% to 3% of the total power supply by 2020. In the UK, Deputy Prime Minister Clegg suggested the government may be rethinking its plans to build a new generation of reactors:

We have always said there are two conditions for the future of nuclear power: [new plants] have to be safe, and we cannot let the taxpayer be ripped off," he said. "We could be in a situation now where the potential liabilities are higher, which makes it more unlikely to find private investment.

That sounds like the understatement of the year. Governments and investors must be starting to realize that the smartest money is on clean energy. New research by the Pew Environment Group is backing this assumption:

The clean energy sector is emerging as one of the most dynamic and competitive in the world, witnessing 630 percent growth in finance and investments since 2004," said Phyllis Cuttino, director, Pew Clean Energy Program. "In 2010, worldwide finance and investment grew 30 percent to a record $243 billion.

The biggest risk right now is that governments will look to high carbon energy sources such as coal, shale, or tar sands to warm their cold nuclear feet. But the urgency of climate change suggests this is no time to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire.

It's also worth remembering the ongoing devastation wrought by the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill, whose one-year anniversary is coming up in April. BP set up a $20 billion fund, of which $4 billion has already been paid, to settle claims by businesses and individuals. This is on top of the actual costs to BP itself (and its insurers). Moreover, US authorities are considering prosecuting BP managers for manslaughter due to their cost-cutting measures which compromised safety.

And let's not forget the thousands of coal miners who die each year, or those who die of respiratory illnesses linked to air pollution spewed out by coal-powered plants. A report by Sierra Club puts the death toll at 4,000 per year in just the Northeastern region of the U.S. alone (PDF).

As governments grapple with the implications of Fukushima, we have a window of opportunity to fill the nuclear vacuum with safe, reliable renewable sources of energy. Japan is already thinking along these lines. As reported by Kyodo News:

Pursuit of solar power, bioenergy and other clean energy sources will be a key pillar of the government's reconstruction strategy to be drawn up for areas hit by a massive quake and tsunami following the country's worst nuclear accident, top government spokesman Yukio Edano said Tuesday.

Just last week, yet another study was published showing that we can make the transition to a completely renewable energy infrastructure, in this scenario by 2030.

But some low-carbon advocates, normally friendly to the environmental camp, have environmentalists stretching their heads. Rather than leveraging the crises at hand to help accelerate the shift to renewables, they are running a rearguard action to promote the benefits of nuclear power.

This brings to mind an old joke about the absurdity of tunnelvision. Three guys are shipwrecked on a remote desert island. One day a bottle washes ashore and out pops a genie who grants them three wishes. The first guy says, "I want to be home, enjoying a home-cooked feast with all of my friends," and poof, he's gone. The second guy says, "I wish I were home, making love to my beautiful wife," and poof he disappears as well. The third guy looks around and says, "Gee, it's kind of lonely around here... I wish those other guys were back here on the island."

But choosing our energy future is no joke. Given the 30-50 year lifespan of a power plant built today, we owe it to our children and grandchildren to get it right. Quite apart from the long-term risks from climate change, I propose we throw down the gauntlet to anyone advocating expansion of nuclear, coal, petroleum-based or other hazardous energy technologies: would you send your son or daughter to work in the coal mines or to clean up after an accident at a nuclear power plant? Would you accept the siting of such a facility in your neighborhood? Would you accept an oil rig off your nearest shore?

If not, then what moral right do you have to ask others to make such sacrifices?