Atomic Humanism: Green Nuclear Evangelism

no nukes 2“’Energy is the ideal thing to empower people,’ Emma Redfoot (nuclear engineer, devout environmentalist and unflinching advocate for nuclear power) told me … ‘Millions of people who lack access to the grid are forced to burn wood, coal, dung or even tires and other garbage for cooking and heating, to the detriment of their health and the planet’s. They need electricity,’ she said, ‘but getting it from fossil fuels merely centralizes the pollution. Wind and solar have problems, too; they are intermittent and require lots of space.’”

“No source of electricity is truly clean or carbon-free. Material for solar panels or batteries must be mined, wind turbines manufactured. Uranium mining, milling and enrichment are energy-intensive, and coal mines and natural gas wells ooze methane. When the entire fuel life cycle is taken into account, however, nuclear is among the most climate-friendly, emitting 100 times less carbon per megawatt-hour than coal and 50 times less than natural gas — even less than photovoltaics. Fission spews none of the nasty air pollutants emitted by burning coal, and only a fraction of the solid waste.”

~ Jonathan Thompson

Among the seemingly overpowering catastrophes the human species faces is the looming threat of climate change. Scientists describe rising sea levels, massive ecological disruption and the decimation of humanity. While we search for answers to this not-quite imminent threat in solar and wind power, conservation and technological miracles, however, our electric cars are primarily powered by coal and natural gas which only delays the inevitable.

And anyway, claim the climate-change deniers, it can’t be human-caused and is probably just a natural cycle that will wipe out humanity anyway. (Why not enjoy ourselves until then? Burn coal, baby, burn!)

We deplore the poor quality of life that effects under-developed countries. Human life and health are tied to the ability to survive weather extremes, find sustenance, keep warm and be secure. We need power to locate, prepare and distribute food and clean water, provide health care and communicate with each other, among many other functions of a safe and healthy society. At the same time, we also need to protect our environment

While we’re fine tuning wind and solar power, we should consider nuclear power, an existing proven technology capable of meeting our needs with significantly less environmental disruption than fossil fuels. We’ve had nuclear power since the 1950’s and it is currently one of the most heavily regulated industries in the world.

The anti-nuclear fear machine has been at work for decades highlighting the scary potential for nuclear disaster and, as a result, public perception is generally less favorable for nukes. From A-bomb test-created giant ants and Godzilla to Chernobyl and Fukushima, the dangers from nuclear incidents have been repeatedly exaggerated. Meanwhile, the impacts of coal and other fossil fuels have been downplayed or ignored. The sixties’ anti-nuclear crowd became a one-trick pony capable of only one message – “No Nukes!”.

In a recent High Country News article about Emma Redpath, Jonathan Thompson observed, “To members of Gen X and their elders — the now-middle-aged baby boomers who grew up under the threat of nuclear annihilation — Redfoot’s path can seem a little jarring. They remember the No Nukes movement, 99 Luftballons, Three Mile Island, War Games and The Day After; in the West, they witnessed firsthand the deadly legacy of uranium mining and milling and nuclear tests. But Redfoot, like much of the self-proclaimed Generation Atomic, was brought up after the Cold War ended and the term ‘mutually assured destruction’ had faded from the lexicon. The alarm over the Chernobyl disaster had ebbed; ‘No Nukes’ was merely a graying relic of her parents’ generation, like the vinyl recordings of its soundtrack.”

It is interesting that the climate-change deniers, the anti-vaxxers and the anti-nuclear lobby all discredit science and engineering. They say scientists and engineers cannot be trusted; governments cannot be trusted; anyone with opinions contrary to ‘mine’ cannot be trusted. As a result, humanity runs the risk of being frozen into inaction by paranoia and extremism. In his book, Collapse, Jared Diamond recounted failing civilizations ignoring their accumulating dangers, and their inhabitants hoping to be ‘the last ones to die.’

We can hope for and seek some magical technological fix to climate change, but maybe in the near term we just need to focus on what we can do. We do need to expand solar, develop more wind power and improve the efficiencies of all power generation and use. And, while we’re at it, let’s go ahead and use the proven capability of nuclear power.

I, personally, am not interested in being the last one to die. Are you?

Additional information:
Jared Diamond, Collapse, 2005
Steve Tarlton, Them!, 07/10/15, www.WritesofNature.com
Jonathan Thompson, Is Nuclear Energy the Key to Saving the Planet? A New Generation of Environmentalists is Learning to Stop Worrying and Love Atomic Power, Dec. 10, 2018, High Country News

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