Japan Quake Mustn’t Trigger Nuclear-Phobia

Posted March 16, 2011 at 5:18pm

I never agree with Rush Limbaugh about anything, but here’s an exception: The mainstream media habitually spreads panic in the population — right now, about the safety of nuclear power.

The danger of a meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi reactors is real, but the media made it a “crisis” from the get-go. The New York Times said the crisis had “veered toward catastrophe.”

And on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Wednesday, co-host Mika Brzezinski opined it might prove “apocalyptic,” which is to say, world-ending.

In California, alarmed people have started stocking up on potassium iodide to guard against radioactivity-induced cancer even though 5,000 miles of ocean separate them from Japan.

The real threat here is that nuclear-phobia will take hold in the U.S. as happened following the partial meltdown and radioactive release at Three Mile Island in 1979, resulting in no new nuclear plant construction for 30 years.

As Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said in a speech on Monday, “today 104 civilian reactors produce 20 percent of America’s electricity and 70 percent of our clean electricity.

“Without nuclear power, it is hard to imagine how the United States, which uses up 25 percent of all the energy in the world, could produce enough cheap, reliable clean energy to keep our economy going and keep our jobs from going overseas.”

The good news is that the Obama administration is not running away from its support of loan guarantees for new nuclear facilities, and nuclear power has significant Republican support.

It also has been gaining public support, with 62 percent of U.S. adults favoring nuclear power in a 2010 Gallup poll. New polls, post-Japan, should appear shortly.

As Energy Secretary Steven Chu testified this week, the U.S. “naturally” will thoroughly study the lessons of Japan’s experience and try to ensure that existing and planned new plants are safe.

That should especially apply to two California nuclear reactors located near seismic faults.

But opponents of nuclear power are seizing on the disaster in Japan — caused by a gigantic tsunami triggered by the fourth-most-powerful earthquake in recorded history — to stop nuclear power in its tracks.

That would compound the lack of a coherent U.S. energy policy that has resulted from polarized U.S. politics.

Republicans (and some Democrats) are determined to maintain fossil fuels — oil, natural gas and coal — as the mainstays of U.S. energy for as long as possible.

They pooh-pooh evidence that fossil fuels cause global climate change and are trying to defund conservation and alternative energy programs.

Meantime, most Democrats (but hardly any Republicans) think the world is menaced by global warming and are determined to close down the carbon economy and substitute wind, solar and other “renewables” for oil, gas and coal.

The public is confused — and divided — about what to think. According to a March Gallup poll, only 51 percent — down from 66 percent three years ago — are “worried” about global warming.

That includes 72 percent of Democrats (who also think it’s caused by human activity), but only 31 percent of Republicans, two-thirds of whom think (with Limbaugh) that its seriousness is exaggerated by the news media.

Sixty percent favor increasing offshore drilling for oil (83 percent of Republicans, 40 percent of Democrats) while a whopping 83 percent say Congress should pass an energy bill that provides incentives for solar and other alternative energy as a top priority.

Actually, the public may have it right, given $4-a-gallon gasoline and possible oil disruptions in the Mideast. The fact is that, for the foreseeable future, the U.S. will primarily depend on fossil fuels for its energy, so domestic production should be increased.

But longer term, cleaner fuels make sense. Global warming is a fact — the polar ice caps are melting — though it’s debatable whether the consequences will be as dire as worst-casers like Al Gore maintain. A carbon tax would encourage new energy sources.

Clearly, expansion of nuclear power should be part of the solution. Utilities now find it cheaper to use natural gas as fuel, so government loan guarantees — not direct subsidies — are needed to get plants built. They cost, on average, $6 billion.

But once they are built — if they are built — they produce energy at a much cheaper long-run cost than any other fuel. It’s why nuclear accounts for 80 percent of France’s electricity generation and coal-rich China is building 27 new nuclear reactors.

As Alexander said in his Senate speech, “the United States invented nuclear power, but … of the 65 reactors under construction around the world, only one is in the United States,” part of the Tennessee Valley Authority anchored in his state.

He pointed out that “no one has ever died from a nuclear accident at any of our commercial or naval reactors,” including the Three Mile Island incident, which led to vast upgrades in safety oversight.

And, he said, while nuclear energy has risks, “it is also important to remember that we do not abandon highway systems because bridges and overpasses collapse during earthquakes. …

“We cannot stop drilling after a tragic oil spill unless we want to rely more on foreign oil, run up our prices, turn our oil drilling over to a few big companies and all our oil hauling to leaky tankers.”

That’s on the mark. America needs a do-it-all energy policy, and if nuclear isn’t part of it, we will be under-powered.