The Devil You Know (Nuclear Energy Debate)

If you have been watching the news the past few weeks, you have probably learned a lot of new terminology and information about nuclear energy.  Since I live on the west coast, I have been paying especially close attention to information about the radiation plume that has already arrived on U.S. soil and about the additional radiation that could potentially be heading our way.  My initial gut reaction to this disaster: nuclear energy is a huge mistake!  And during the last week I've read and listened to many folks who do share that sentiment.

But since the initial news of the disaster, I've also listened to several debates about nuclear energy (on public radio, PBS Newshour, and Charlie Rose), and now I'm not so sure what I think of nuclear energy.  I'm no energy expert.  Like most of you, I'm just an ordinary citizen trying to make sense of what's happening, trying to discern what an informed position on energy policy might be.   On the debate I most recently watched, there were 3 commentators, and here is what I took away from this debate on Charlie Rose (full transcript HERE):

Position 1 (Jonathan Schell): We should not use nuclear energy.  Humans (and especially bureaucracies of humans) make mistakes.  When something goes wrong with nuclear energy, it goes very very wrong.  Nuclear energy is too dangerous.

Position 2 (Michael Levi): We need to develop diverse sources of energy, in case any one doesn't work out in the future.  It is true that you cannot plan for every possible scenario and accidents will happen with nuclear energy.  We should learn from the Japanese nuclear accident, and keep nuclear energy on the table.

Position 3 (William Tucker): Everything you two are saying is a moot point.  We may debate about whether nuclear energy is good or bad, but the rest of the developed and developing world has already decided.  Sixty-five new nuclear plants will be built this year (mostly in India and China).  We are simply excluding ourselves from participating in the technology, or from having any control over the nuclear situation worldwide (this is where the nuclear weapons stuff comes up).  30,000 people die from burning coal every year.  Nuclear energy is relatively safe and very clean (no carbon emissions).

I noticed that renewable energy was largely absent from that debate, although it did come up in other debates, such as the Talk of the Nation debate I listened to.

Even as a non-expert listener, what is clear to me is that every source of energy has its costs and benefits. Unfortunately, we don't pay the full cost of our energy, which makes price a poor way to compare which energy is the least "costly."  Coal causes 30,000 premature deaths per year from air pollution (as mentioned above), and is a primary source of the carbon admissions that contribute to global warming.  Natural gas is now being extracted through hydraulic fracturing ("fracking"), which contaminates water supplies.  Nuclear energy may have horrific consequences if an accident occurs, but it has an enormous capacity for energy production with no carbon emissions, and when you think about the consequences of global warming, that is no small potatoes.  Can solar and wind power save us?  I've heard green folks suggest this, but not too many others.  And even renewable energy can have a downside.  I agree that it is a promising technology to pursue, at the very least.

One thing I'm sure of right now: energy efficiency is always a good idea.  We should all be looking for ways to decrease our energy use.  I'm not suggesting this will solve our energy problems, but it can certainly be part of the solution to our energy dilemmas.  Here are some resources for reducing your energy use:

And one more thing I'm sure of:  we should all prepare for an emergency.  It took 5 days for help to reach many of the Japanese survivors. 

What do you think about nuclear energy?  What is your best resource or idea for reduced energy use?  Please share below!

This post is part of the Green Moms Carnival. Check out what some of other Carnival Members' posts at Lisa’s blog Retro Housewife Goes Green.


  1. Thanks for making this big, difficult question, one we can make personal. We all can play a role by being more energy efficient and helping to reduce the incredible demand and thirst we have, as a nation, for energy. Nuclear or not, very difficult, but as we debate the question more than 65 new nuclear power plants are set to open around the world. In them mix of "renewables" and alternative energy sources as we get ourselves off of fossil fuels, I believe nuclear needs to stay in the mix. Thanks for your thoughtful post!

  2. I commend you for bringing this debate to the forefront in layman's terms. Like you, I am not an expert and I too have mixed feelings on the nuclear issue. It is almost as though we are in a "pick your evil" scenario.

    Given the difficult decisions ahead of us as we plan to power the next millennium, the best thing we can do as individuals is learn to conserve and to get by with less. Alas, one must be motivated to pursue this route as our friends and neighbors continue to consume power with abandon. Still, if enough individuals and businesses take on the conservation movement, we will make a difference.

    Thanks again. Gaye

  3. I agree we all should be reducing our own use of energy no matter where it comes from.

    Thanks for also making this debate more understandable.


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