The notion that we might need nuclear energy to stave off global warming makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy that began when Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 and promptly removed Jimmy Carter’s solar panels from the White House roof. It was not simply a symbolic act. Reagan also slashed alternative energy funding so deeply that it virtually put the solar industry out of business.
Alternatives are hampered today because Reagan was doing then what Bush is doing now: serving the interests of big oil, which seeks to squeeze out every last drop of profit from fossil fuels. The war in Iraq and other foreign policy actions today continue with that aim.
And nuclear is not unlike oil in that it is a very centralized industry, controlled by a few companies. It will enrich the few and further hamper progress for renewables. A decentralized energy future will be far better for an economy that wants to float all boats (not just yachts) while not having so many energy eggs in one basket. That nuclear might belong in the mix right now is only due to the climate predicament we are in because of our past sins. If undertaken at all, it should only be a bridge (a "necessary evil") to a future powered instead by many forms of safe, clean energy sources.
Much is happening now in that regard, spurred by our almost sudden acceptance that global warming is real. Seattle wants to harness ocean power and provide electricity for 60,000 homes. Similar projects are planned from Alaska to New York. Wind power has quadrupled since 2000 and, though wind is now only one percent of the U.S. power grid, it is poised for a quantum leap; offshore wind projects are in various stages of development in Maryland, Texas, Massachusetts, New York and elsewhere. Hydrogen- and electric-powered cars are also likely to come online more quickly than we imagined even five years ago.
Nuclear has far too many problems, not the least of which is its waste, which will only become a bigger problem if its use proliferates. The waste stays radioactive for thousands of years and has to be buried underground. Even if plans for doing that are ever realized, deadly waste will need to be transported across the country, through communities, subjecting people to unacceptable risks. Nuclear is also still a large accident risk. Industry proponents claim that nuclear is safer today than ever before, but even a small malfunction or leak could have devastating effects. And even if Chernobyl-style meltdowns are not likely, nuclear facilities still emit low-level radiation, a potentially serious public health concern.
And then there is the issue of conservation. Most of the energy debate now presumes that we are to go on consuming energy at the levels we now do, rather than finding ways to use less. The more efficient we get, the less formidable the challenge will be to provide our energy. In much the same way the media avoided the issue of gun control following the Virginia Tech shootings, the conservation issue is the "elephant in the room." This is convenient for a mass media that does the bidding of the moneyed interests that own, control and feed it, but potentially catastrophic for the rest of us.