The Adult Conversation About Nuclear Power Needs to Start

The earthquake and resulting tsunami in Japan shocked us this weekend as we watched with horrified fascination as walls of water destroyed thousands of homes and killed countless people.  In a country that experiences dozens of earthquakes a year, this particular disaster was beyond any scale ever contemplated by the compulsively disciplined and always prepared Japanese people, but they never lost their stoic presence and seemingly unlimited patience even as their well ordered lives and basic services disappeared before their eyes.  That stoicism, though, has begun to fade as the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant continues for a a sixth day.  Evacuations of the area around the plant have now spread to 20 kilometers with warnings out to 30 kilometers.  As the reality of the unfolding disaster became apparent, many people fled as far as Tokyo to escape the still developing crisis.  Panic began to creep into Tokyo, 150 miles south of the stricken plant, as increased radiation levels were detected yesterday.  Flights out of Japan are now jammed as people have begun to flee the country over radiation fears and collapsing infrastructure.  It’s the doomsday scenario many have feared for ages.

There’s nothing like a natural disaster such as an earthquake or hurricane to make us realize that we really aren’t in control of our own personal destiny.  These events also cause us to reflect on how our own decisions as a society may actually exacerbate the long term effects of a disaster (such as building a city below sea level, then not properly protecting it against storm surges).  In the case of this particular disaster, serious reflection has begun as questions are once again being raised about the wisdom of the use of nuclear power to generate base load electricity in many countries around the world, especially those in quake zones.  It’s now all over the media; some dismiss the concerns as hyperbole and others cry that it’s the end of the world; however, many serious people are having that tough discussion about how we fuel our energy future if we don’t use nuclear power.

Here’s our particular problem:  The United States, through weak leadership, short sightedness caused by our 2 year re-election cycle and the influence of corporate money, has utterly failed to establish a long term vision for our energy future.  Band aid solutions, special interest legislation, and poor judgement have taken us into the 21st century with 60 to 100 year old technology and energy sources, and no one has the courage to call this insanity, well, insanity.  The result is predictable, clearly demonstrating that our dependence on foreign oil from countries who hate us is suicidal.  The ongoing unrest in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and even Saudi Arabia has highlighted this risk.  Our dependence on oil has driven us into the deepwater of the Gulf of Mexico and into the Arctic to feed our gluttony.  At the same time, de-regulation and industry complacency led to the inevitable result of the blowout of the BP Macondo well and the ongoing environmental catastrophe that the media and politicians are happy to ignore.  Speaking of ignorance, we are also willfully oblivious to the very obvious signs of limited worldwide oil reserves as well as the damage that we are doing to our own environment by our huge carbon footprint.  Elected representatives, looking for cheap political points, give lip service to climate change, renewables, conservation, and sustainable energy sources while taking money from oil companies and actually doing nothing, except for allowing the same old policies that got us here in the first place to continue.

Which brings us to nuclear power.  This is really the only non-carbon energy source that has any hope of stemming the tide of oil and coal consumption.  But it has its obvious inherent dangers.  Why does Japan use nuclear power?  The answer is simple: they have to.  Japan has no significant sources of hydrocarbon energy, so must use nuclear to avoid dependence on other countries for oil, gas, or coal.  However, the problem is that the whole damn country is an earthquake zone, not the best environment for a technology that doesn’t react well (no pun intended) when it’s shaken around a bit and flooded with seawater.  These same issues are faced by many nuclear powered countries, including us.

So what do we do?  This is where being an adult comes into play.  As adults, we need to consider that our world has limited resources, limited atmosphere, and limited space.  And it’s getting more crowded and dirty.  Hydrocarbons simply can’t fill all of our energy need.  Renewables can’t fill enough of our energy need.  Natural gas, which is becoming more abundant, has become a great answer for a lot of our needs, but for the long run we still need non-carbon based energy to make our hydrocarbon resources last longer and be more environment friendly.   Nuclear fills that place, but clearly we’re not to the point where it is fool-proof safe.  It’s time that we all assess our own personal uses of carbon based fuels, and pressure our elected representatives to do something besides bashing the other side to get re-elected.  It’s also time that we demand they they also act like adults and responsibly address the issues around nuclear power design, construction, and operation, as well as the safety of that and other energy technologies.

Call your Congressperson, your Senator, your Governor, and your mayor.  Tell them you want a comprehensive energy policy that’s neither Drill, Baby, Drill, or sticking their heads in the sand.  Only when pressure from the People is unrelenting will they perhaps get off their collective backside do something courageous.  They won’t do it by themselves.

Bob Cavnar, a 30-year veteran of the oil and gas industry, is the author of Disaster on the Horizon: High Stakes, High Risks, and the Story Behind the Deepwater Well Blowout. He is CEO of Luca Technologies.



  1. Deward Bowles says

    I have to agree with your observations for the most part.
    I do believe nuclear power is part of the the long term solution just like oil, natural gas and other sources of energy.
    It is important to realize that nobody can contemplate a magnitude 9 earthquake and the one that hit just off Japan is one of the strongest ever recorded.
    It is terrible but there will always be risk, be it pollution or disaster, from any energy source.
    I hope that a viable comprehensive plan to transition into renewable energy sources is soon implemented.

  2. Bobo Amerigo says

    Yes, I agree with much of you wrote, but the American public deserves a lot of blame, too. It’s as if we turn our brains off two seconds after the price goes down at the pump.
    But I don’t want any more nuclear power. I don’t trust the technology. I don’t trust the people who build the plants. I don’t trust the people who maintain the plants. I don’t trust the economists who tell us the cost/price of the energy produced by the plants. I don’t trust the waste security system.
    Rather than spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a new plant, let’s spend that money on solar systems for every rooftop in Texas and then see what our energy needs are.

  3. carguy says

    Japan building nucleur plants IN JAPAN, and, ON/NEAR their East cost, was probably not a really good idea. But, I see no reasonable alternative to their current predicament.
    Seems like these days as soon as we “get over” one crisis, another one pops up. OTOH, according to Glenn Beck, the Japanese brought this on themselves by being non-Christian heathens.
    That guy just breaks me up.

  4. doug says

    These are incredibly vexing problems, and we need a whole range of solutions. I frankly would support us enacting a one child policy for families. Less people would cut down on the need for so much energy, as well as the need for food production. But this is not a very popular idea in the U.S.
    I completely agree with you Bob, that we are not going to get anywhere if people do not get active. We must stop complaining and start doing something about our extremely serious predicament. I’ve advocated for political action, but also for speaking with powerful people in industry. The people that hold the purse strings are the ones we need to be influencing. Not just politicians.
    I think what we really need to be doing as well is funding research and development into green technologies at levels that warrant the need to do this. That would mean an effort greater that what we managed to do as a nation with the Apollo program, combined with the Marshall plan, combined with Los Alamos, combined with New Deal.
    We really are talking about the survival of the species, and as you said, our current energy policy is insane……
    We WILL wake up. The question is will we, before we’re forced to. We’re very quickly running out of time…..

  5. WindorSolarPlease says

    Japan has some brave people who are putting their lives at risk. I’m sorry this happened.
    With the name I use, you know I have to
    There is a chance nuclear power will be used all over in our Country. I can see the points into why people want this.
    I’m not sure why they like to built them by fault lines? I would like them to shut down all the existing nuclear power plants.
    Nuclear Energy is out of my comfort zone. One Mistake, One Accident can cause such devastation.
    We know what happened/is happening with oil companies and our officials. How can we trust that there will be, the utmost safety regulations in place with Nuclear Energy?
    Why would it be any different with this?
    They are doing cut backs in many areas, eventually would they be cutting back on the plants safety operations?
    The ones who would put this in place have the ability to build a nuclear shelter for them and their families, or they are able to fly somewhere safe, the average or poor person doesn’t have this.
    We should be looking into alternative sources of energy instead of relying on oil, nuclear and coal. There has to be other ways to create a non devastating energy.
    If using simple every day nature to create energy, can any big money be made on it?
    Mining uranium, doesn’t sound safe to the environment.
    Can Nuclear Energy be 100 percent safe and if not, can they supply everyone with a nuclear bomb shelter..No of coarse not, it’s not cost efficient.
    I admit that I don’t know anything Nuclear Energy. However, I know the destruction it can cause.
    Am I against Nuclear Energy,
    I am most definitely against it.
    The Risk is To Great.

  6. lomamonster says

    If I were in charge of the United States, I would specify that the new “moon race” is really the attainment of successful commercial fusion reactor technology.
    Fission reactors should be shut down and de-commissioned with no new permits. The race to fusion energy is the future of mankind, and any thing less is just way too dangerous to continue to use.
    To that end, alienHunter and I have embarked on a mining vessel to the moon to secure the necessary helium 3 fuel for the reactors. We are writing this from our mobil unit which we cannot disclose at present.

  7. Bill W. says

    I support nuclear and believe it can be safely done. Strange words coming from a progressive but I’m leaning that way.
    Currently in Texas the alternative is more and more high emmission coal-powered plants. I see our Republican dominated legislature using this disaster in Japan as an excus to push through current plants llike White Stallion in Matagorda County and proposing even more. The results will be devastating.
    Let’s not forget the company running 17 of the nuclear plants in Japan had to shut them down in 2003 due to faulty maintenance. An earthquake zone is probably not the ideal location to put a nuclear plant.

  8. alienHunter says

    Hi Loma,
    I’m glad you didn’t expose any of the classified mission info. Incidentally, Obama campaigned on your premises, but the Repubtilians insist on making any progress on those issues…non-issues. I’m telling you those people are flat out crazy AND stupid. They will end us and themselves if left to their own devices.

  9. alienHunter says

    Hey Bobo,
    As humans everything we do is fraught with mistakes. I certainly agree with your lack of trust but like the Space program, it can be done. The inherent risk is that a counter-productive ‘culture’ might settle in, perhaps induced by self-satisfaction, complacency, egoism, and lest we forget, sociopathic personalities.

  10. alienHunter says

    Today, I’m afraid to even comment on the thoughts that have been rattling around in my brain regarding Beck and Rushbo. I fear they may both roast in hell (if there is one).

  11. alienHunter says

    Hey Doug,
    American fertility rates are declining without the need for government intervention…really. We have an aging population, many anglo-americans. The younger population who are within the child bearing age are a much more diverse group and is the source of much of middle American angst.
    That always leads me back to the reality of it…There will always be a hard core group of readily identifiable ‘others’ while the larger population melds into the familiar and recognizable anglo paradigm. I always use my grand-nephews as an example…most of them are blond and blue-eyed little creatures and not very scary at all.

  12. carguy says

    aH wrote: “…larger population melds into the familiar and recognizable anglo paradigm.”
    First, I didn’t knowe HAD a “paradigm”. OTOH, I missed the last meeting. Maybe somebody could send me the minutes???
    “B”, you guys have not been out to west and southwest Houston, Sharpstow & Alief. They ain’t hardly no anglos out here no more. Nor any paradigms. I think they all moved to Sugar Land and Katy.

  13. Bobo Amerigo says

    hey AH,
    From the sciguy blog over at the chron:
    “They focused on ways to instill a psychological dread, something that would suggest DANGER no matter what language had become. They thought of things like structures that would emit moaning sounds from the wind. Or carving images of weapons.”
    And this just to keep future-future-future generations away from nuclear waste sites. That’s what I have, though: psychological dread. And I trust it.
    I sincerely wish you and loma success in your fusion goals. It’s the way we should have gone initially.

  14. FantasyLand says

    The adult thing to do would be to realize that fission is far to dangerous and polluting. The only real nuclear solution is fusion. Pretending that fission energy is some sort of solution is insanity.
    Nuclear waste stays at dangerous levels of emission for more than 5 thousand years. I am sorry but the amount of fission energy needed to cover our dependence on coal would only shift the problem somewhere else.
    Fusion is being stifled right now. Scientist have stated that cold fusion is possible, and have made good progress.
    These guys claim that they are months away from commercial production of a cold fusion reactor. Lets be adult and look at serious options that don’t involve producing deadly waste that last thousands of years.

  15. alienHunter says

    Hey Carguy,
    that might be the perception. We still live in a country that has more McDonald’s than taco street vendors. I suspect we always will, as long as I keep buying daily meals at McDougal’s.
    Kiss me, I’m Irish!

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