SustainAbility: Reaction to nuclear column

The only thing certain about Japan’s recent nuclear emergency is that assessments of the situation keep changing. The same could be said about our attitudes toward nuclear sources of electricity.

Several readers responded to the invitation in my March 19 column for comments about nuclear energy. Replies ran the gamut of viewpoints and sometimes contained conflicting information.

Carol Inglis wrote, “I wish you would look at the arguments for making thorium nuclear plants, as opposed to uranium.

“Maybe you saw the letter to the editor in the Sentinel a week or so ago. If the author was correct, thorium puts out much less nuclear waste, is less likely to have a meltdown, and can’t be related to nuclear weapons.”

The letter to the editor Inglis refers to was written by Susan and Paul Deininger.

A cursory look at thorium revealed a viable alternative to nuclear energy utilizing a process that can actually consume old radioactive waste.

As with any new technology, there are detractors and drawbacks. China and India are planning to build power plants fueled by thorium.

The Thorium Energy Alliance has an informative video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eU3cUssuz-U.

Paul Harshman, a “reformed naysayer” of nuclear energy, is working on a degree in environmental geology.

He wrote, “I have friends who have been environmental scientists for over 20 years, dealing with various types of hazardous waste and reclamation. They have no qualms with moving toward nuclear power in light of the waste and carbon emissions from coal and oil.”

Harshman provided links and quotes from experts to support his position.

A paper titled “The Nuclear Energy Option” by Bernard Cohen explains the nuclear waste from a plant for one year of operation would “fit under an ordinary card table with room to spare.”

Cohen contends the large amounts of waste from a coal-burning power plant are much greater and pose more of a health threat.

However, an Associated Press article published last week had a different perspective stating the United States has 71,862 tons of nuclear waste with no place to put it.

Harshman also cited James Lovelock, known for his Gaia hypothesis, who ridicules the obsession with nuclear waste by pointing out the abundance of wild plants and animals on land previously contaminated by radiation.

David Cale wrote a passionate email on the other side of the issue, calling nuclear energy a “ticking time bomb.”

“There is nothing ‘clean’ (whether talking about the land, air, water, human health) about nuclear, from the mining and milling to the final unsolved disposal issues. There is nothing cheap and nothing safe about nuclear when compared to wind, solar, hydro, and geothermal,” Cale wrote.

He advocated applying a concentrated national effort to developing alternative energy comparable to the quest to reach the moon. “I think we would be surprised at the outcome,” he wrote.

Cale also shared “Our Silent Spring,” an op-ed column by James Carroll from The Boston Globe, written after the tragedy in Japan. You can read the commentary at http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2011/03/21/our_silent_spring/.

Joel Prudhomme had a distinctive appraisal of nuclear energy, describing it as “history’s biggest pork barrel industry.”

“Maybe the anti-governmental spending/budget deficit hawks might become opponents of nuclear power if they realized the huge taxpayer and ratepayer subsidies that have been lavished on this dirty industry for decades,” he explained.

Prudhomme went on to detail the monetary support system that props up the industry every step of the way. “If the nuclear power industry didn’t have all these aforementioned taxpayer and ratepayer handouts, the cost of electricity they generated would far exceed the approximate 7 1/2 cents per kilowatt hour of many of the advanced renewable power industries. If the solar power industry was asking for all the taxpayer funds mentioned above, people would tell solar proponents they were nuts.”

One thing all of the readers agreed upon was the worthwhile nature of dialogue on the important and divisive issue of nuclear power.

Do the risks associated with producing nuclear energy outweigh the benefits?

I’m still not sure, but any pursuit of nuclear power should be done slowly and carefully.

Adele Israel is a Grand Junction writer who has been involved in sustainability efforts for some 20 years. Have a question or column idea for Adele? E-mail her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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