Friday, February 16, 2007

Choose Your Poison

Regarding Jamison Colburn’s post on Thursday regarding nuclear power ('Who Can We Blame?' Is Always A Game Played Best From Afar), I think the lesser-of-evils question in energy production is one of the most difficult questions we face. Nuclear power is undeniably a very dangerous way to produce energy. Yet it is also true that not using nukes means we use more fossil fuels, which without question causes death and disease (as well as economic damage) on a tragic scale.

Still, I have always been convinced that even the less-than-certain catastrophes that can only be associated with nukes (meltdowns, theft of deadly materials, unsafe disposal of waste) are simply too horrible to risk. An article in Harper's many years ago made the further point that nuclear power plants themselves have finite lives, meaning that we ultimately have to worry about how to mothball what amounts to a huge chunk of radioactive concrete. Too dangerous to disassemble and move, they present us with the engineering challenge of creating a mausoleum on site that is impermeable and cannot be vandalized. Perhaps it is now possible to keep plants running forever. I haven't kept up with that debate; but at the very least, the difficulties of doing so safely and economically must be added to the anti-nuclear side of the ledger.

Now that global warming's risks are better known and understood, though, it's possible that the calculus has changed enough to tip the balance. It’s no longer a matter of weighing a statistically certain number of lung- and heart-disease-related deaths every year against a statistically uncertain nuclear catastrophe that could kill millions (or the entire planet). Use of fossil fuels now also at least increases the possibility of the deaths of millions of people living in coastal areas along with the longer-term disruption of entire eco-systems. How to choose between that and possible nuclear Armageddon? Happily, conservation is still an option. What an easy choice!