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March 31, 2011

Time for Humility

For three weeks now, the world has watched as the Japanese people struggled with a nuclear crisis that threatened to prove more catastrophic than the natural disasters that triggered it. Not surprisingly, activists, average citizens, and world leaders from Washington to Beijing are questioning the wisdom of an energy source that can pose such a global health threat.  

At the Sierra Club, we're used to challenging nuclear power in the abstract, technical terms used by policy wonks.  We can talk all day about reactor safety, nuclear proliferation, the lack of a solution for long-term waste disposal, exorbitant cost, and the vast subsidies (including a public assumption of financial risk) without which the nuclear industry would not exist. Those are the issues, after all.

Based on just those issues, the case against nuclear power is more than damning. Now we are all watching the more urgent argument -- one that a dry, factual policy debate can't do full justice. Now the issue has regained a moral dimension that transcends wonky facts.

High-level nuclear waste currently remains lethal for more than 100,000 years. Take a deep breath, close your eyes, and think about how long that is. Storing that poison safely requires consistent technical proficiency for millennium after millennium, despite the rise and fall of empires, war, pestilence, acts of God, technical proficiency of terrorists, and simple human error. Can we even begin to imagine 100,000 years, as members of a society and culture that are only 2,011 years past the birth of Christ?

Anyone who would commit us to a "nuclear renaissance," and assert that all of these factors can be accounted for over that stretch of time, has succumbed to either myopia or arrogance. We would be committing our children, our grandchildren, and all of our descendants, for as far into the future as our imaginations can conceive, to watch over an ever larger cache of lethal waste that must be protected from release, no matter the cost or the sacrifice, to safeguard human life.

Nuclear power has been in operation for less than 60 years, and in that time three serious incidents have now meaningfully endangered the public and/or caused a loss of human life. At that rate, we can expect more than 1,600 nuclear accidents in the next 100,000 years. Yes, these are nonsensical numbers to play with -- but committing ourselves to taking care of nuclear reactors and nuclear waste for that time period perverts common sense.  

The same people who accuse us of wearing rose-colored glasses -- and yes, the nuclear industry lobby overlaps with oil, coal, and other dangerous fuels --  have been known to smirk and say, "we'll figure out a technical fix for the nuclear waste."  But putting faith in an imaginary silver bullet for a danger so huge is the ultimate in fanciful thinking.

Prefer hard-nosed economic pragmatism? Then watch the costs of ever-more-innovative clean-energy technologies fall day by day, while increasing numbers of workers strap on tool belts to build and maintain solar farms and wind generators. I guarantee those workers will never stand before white-suited nurses with Geiger counters to find out whether they're likely to live or die.

As I watched this crisis begin to unfold, I hoped and prayed that Japan's nuclear reactors would prove to be less vulnerable than many of us had feared.  I'd have liked nothing better than to have to shrug off the insinuation that we were fear-mongers about the dangers of nuclear power. Instead, radioactive water is spilling into the ocean, and we still don't know when or how the reactors will be stabilized.

Environmentalists are used to being called names. But before labeling us as alarmists for warning that some humility might be in order when trying to domesticate the forces that leveled Hiroshima, think about the nuclear-plant workers who are only allowed 15 minutes of exposure at a time as they try to bring the situation under control. Look closely at the frightened eyes of Tokyo's citizens, who now have radiation in their vegetables, milk, and tap water. Then, if you must, call us dreamers for suggesting a future based on renewable energy and efficient technologies that will never, ever -- not in a million years -- threaten to spread a cloud of lethal poison over the globe.


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Michael Brune

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