Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Nightly Note

Along the great linear scale of catastrophe, a nuclear meltdown ranks pretty high on the list of terrible calamities. Of course, where one nuclear meltdown is bad, four is well, worse. By a lot. I'm not going to try and say exactly how much worse - four times perhaps. In truth it doesn't really matter much because trying to determine the scale of damage with nuclear meltdowns is a fools errand. There are only varying degrees of really, really bad.

For the people of Japan who've survived so much already, the prospect of adding yet another massive calamity to their already decimated lives must seem both cruel or passe all at once. "Four nuclear meltdowns? Sure why the heck not. I mean, we haven't had a life altering disaster in almost fifteen minutes."

I don't mean to make light of anything that's occurred over there of course. But at some point you simply run out of reasonable methods for expressing regret and sorrow.

Here in the United States there hasn't been a single new nuclear reactor built since 1970, and after the Three Mile Island incident in 1979, new nuclear power plants have rarely made it off the drawing board. Indeed, many states passed moratoriums on the production of such facilities all together, not that business made a huge fuss.

In reality, the business of nuclear power itself was decried loudly and frequently through the 80's and into the 90's, and not just by environmentalists who were concerned over possible catastrophes or waste containment. Business itself looked down upon it as a failed business model. The technology simply proved to be too expensive both to manufacture and to operate. Delays for replacing spent fuel along with the cost of attaining new fuel and doing maintenance, break downs and general unreliability all contributed to a negative perception of the technology within the electric industry. In fact in 1985, business magazine Forbes ran a cover story that opined;
"The failure of the U.S. nuclear power program ranks as the largest managerial disaster in business history, a disaster on a monumental scale … only the blind, or the biased, can now think that the money has been well spent. It is a defeat for the U.S. consumer and for the competitiveness of U.S. industry, for the utilities that undertook the program and for the private enterprise system that made it possible."
That's essentially as damning as any piece can be. It's also true. While essentially everyone knows about the Three Mile Island meltdown, few realize there have been other mammothly expensise accidents over the years. Without taking the 3MI incident into account, there have been another 5 billion dollars worth of failures since 1985. I'm not certain if that's a lot in the electric industry - but it sure seems like a lot to me.

On the whole, nuclear energy might represent perhaps the first and last easily identifiable instance when big business and tree huggers were able to unite in a truly common cause. A modern miracle if you'd like.

However over the past 10-15 years as the United States and other nations have begun to realize the need for cleaner and more easily renewable energy, nuclear power has again moved to the forefront. While nuclear power does generate waste (and the worst kind of it), it doesn't pollute the atmosphere with fossil fuels that eat away at the ozone layer and contribute to global warming. It's an ugly and imperfect tradeoff - nuclear waste buried in a mountain or a concrete bunker that could leak vs green houses gases.

Pick your poison, as they say.

Still over the past ten years, many states have begun lifting their moratoriums on the construction of new reactors. My home state of Minnesota did so overwhelmingly just two months ago to little fanfare. Despite the lifting of these sanctions however, only a couple new power plants have actually gone ahead with construction since then.

It has also reignited the political debate and, as per usual, parties have lined up on their respective and predictable sides. Republicans in favor of the big bad businesses who want to destroy the Earth, and Democrats with the moronic tree huggers who couldn't understand the world in a logical way if their lives depended upon it.

PS: that last sentence was meant to be provocative and ironically humorous, no need to get overly offended. 

It's a battle as old as time. Or at least the past 50 years.

Now that there has been another tragic incident, those opposed to nuclear power have a powerful new weapon of fear in their arsenal. Something to fire back at their oppositions weapons of fear with. The media, predictably, is already starting to run with it. Don't be surprised if this ends up being a meaningful topic of discussion during the next Presidential elections with Democrats likely trying to use it as a chance to portray Republicans and business as reckless and irresponsible.

Logic - like the fact that there hasn't been a single fatality that can be pinned on nuclear power in the US - be damned. While literally hundreds, of deaths can be linked to miners killed extracting coal for use in plants that burn that fuel, it's nuclear energy that kills!

I don't mean to spark a political debate on this blog (and I might even lock the comments to prevent one) - but this is a discussion worth having.

On the one hand, the reactors that are being produced today are significantly safer and more efficient than those that were developed in the late 60s and early 70s, as the most modern US reactors, and the ones in Japan were. It's also worth noting that nuclear fuel is safe enough that it took a disaster of an almost unprecedented scale in order to turn such a scenario into a reality. Anything less than one of the worlds most powerful earthquakes ever wouldn't have been enough to have caused this.

Nuclear fuel is also cleaner than coal, and can produce significantly larger quantities of energy, at a far lower cost, than other existing 'clean' technologies such as wind or wave power. Simply put, there are a lot of reasons to like nuclear power.

There are also legitimate reasons not to support nuclear power though, and not all of them require you to be a "hippie liberal." First of all, you see what can happen in a worst case scenario. But it's also worth noting that while nuclear power is cheaper than it used to be, it's still far more expensive than existing coal technologies and it still has it's set backs. Just last year for example, a plant that was being built in Vermont was shut down when leaking pipes allowed radioactive materials to sink into groundwater supplies. I don't think I need to explain to anyone precisely how bad that is. There also still exists the not so insignificant problem of what exactly you do with the spent fuel.

These are all very real, very legitimate concerns that ultimately effect not only the environment, but also the bottom lines of businesses and state budgets which subsidize these plants construction. There are no easy, or inherently right answers either, both sides in this debate have legitimate gripes.

Hopefully the two sides can come to fair and reasonable compromises that will allow the nation to move forward in one way or another. Of course we know all too well that compromise isn't usually isn't the first order of business within political houses, especially when there is good old fashioned fear available that can be better used to drum up votes.

Corey Ettinger is a Senior Writer for Baseball Digest as well as a proud contributor to both,, and He also provides extensive analysis of the American League Central Division at his own blog, AL Central In Focus. Be sure to follow me on Twitter @Coreyettinger for the latest updates, random thoughts and general tomfoolery.

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