As someone who lived a gentle breeze away from Three Mile Island when its nuclear emergency took place, I have long been concerned about the proliferation of the technology to meet our increasing energy needs.
All of the chemical engineers I have known -- particularly my own brother, who was not a nuclear expert, and my favorite hiking companion, who was -- tried to persuade me that nuking was safe, clean, efficient and, while not perfect, still the best alternative to fossil fuel energy. Their arguments -- particularly regarding improved safety technology since TMI -- were cogent.
Once, atop a mountain in southwest Virginia, my hiking friend and I looked eastward where once treed peaks filled the horizon, and were horrified to see moonscapes of mountaintop removal projects to obtain coal to fuel power plants. At that moment the arguments for nuclear energy seemed particularly compelling. After all, Chernobyl could never happen again. Nor could TMI.
Now, tragically, we know otherwise. We know that something unspeakably terrible can happen even in a technologically advanced society that has employed the best available science to make its nuclear plants safe. Surely our hearts bleed for the people of Japan, on whom we inflicted Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as they now suffer the horrors of a powerful earthquake, a tsunami and new nuclear disaster.
Today we know not how all of this will end. Workers have returned to the Fukushima nuclear plant to attempt to prevent the unspeakable from happening. None of the world's nuclear experts who have been commenting on the disaster in Japan knows if this can be done. Like us, they can only hope.
But this much is clear: Nuclear power is neither safe nor clean. And, as the slogan elsewhere on this page reminds us, "Nature bats last." Our planet has a fiery core; it has fault lines; its thin envelope of compatibility with human life has been tampered with by the very humans it protects. We will have earthquakes; we will have tsunamis; we will have hurricanes; and we will pay the price of our tampering with Nature.
Nuclear plants leak radioactive waste from underground pipes and radioactive waste pools into the ground water at sites all over the world. Science has yet to devise a method for adequately and safely handling long lived radioactive wastes. Nuclear waste disposal was my hiking companion's particular sub-specialty. He spent the twilight of his working career trying to deal with the waste problem at the Hanford site where the first atomic bombs were created.
Despite his faith in technology and his fellow scientists, there is still no safe, satisfactory way to deal with nuclear waste.
Several nuclear plants in this country are sited on, or perilously close to, fault lines. Perhaps that fact alone will prod us away from further nuclear dependency, away from filthy fossil fuels, and toward safe, renewable energy sources. Technically feasible renewable energy sources in the world are capable of producing up to six times more energy than current global demand. Even now, nuclear plants around the globe deliver less energy than renewable sources of power.
Consider the recent coal mining disasters. Consider the cost in money and wars of sucking a finite supply of petroleum out of the earth. Consider the environmental consequences of gas and oil drilling. Consider TMI, Chernobyl, Fukushima.
Wind farms and solar panels do not kill.