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Seeing the Light on Nuclear Energy

If you think that there is plenty of electricity, that the air is clean enough and that nuclear power is a just one among many options for meeting human needs, then you are probably over-focused on the United States or Western Europe. Even then, you’d be wrong.

That’s the idea at the heart of a new book, “Seeing the Light: The Case for Nuclear Power in the 21st Century,” by Scott L. Montgomery, a geoscientist and energy expert, and Thomas Graham Jr., a retired ambassador and arms control expert.

seeing the light the case for nuclear power in the 21st century

Billions of people live in energy poverty, they write, and even those who don’t, those who live in places where there is always an electric outlet or a light switch handy, we need to unmake the last 200 years of energy history, and move to non-carbon sources. Energy is integral to our lives but the authors cite a World Health Organization estimate that more than 6.5 million people die each year from air pollution.  In addition, they say, the global climate is heading for ruinous instability. Energy use has “revolutionized” human life, they write, but continued use of fossil fuels will make life “both more prosperous and at the same time more threatened.”

The solution, according to “Seeing the Light,” is nuclear power. And parts of that solution are already falling into place, as India and China, with the worst air pollution and the fastest-growing power demand, race to build reactors. Countries with rapid urbanization, which brings increased demand, are doing the same. People who look at the market difficulties of nuclear power in America and conclude that the technology is in decline, they write, are too focused on the West. 

Energy is a sprawling topic. When countries make energy decisions, they must take into account their national economies, energy security, energy-using industries, available natural resources, air and water quality, availability of skilled workers and other factors.

There are some factors that are harder to quantify, like psychology. Bad air kills millions annually. But in the West, at least, the focus is often on the potential of harm from nuclear reactors, instead of the observable harm from the alternatives. In fact, the authors argue, there is reason to doubt the whole structure of radiation safety regulation, which is built on an unproven assumption from the 1950s that every dose, no matter how small, increases risk.

Montgomery and Graham do not ignore the obvious, that over the years there have been nuclear accidents. At one of them, Chernobyl, in the Ukraine, radiation exposure was enough to kill dozens of emergency workers brought in from around what was then the Soviet Union. The circumstances were tragic, the engineering errors were reckless, and the public health response was a dangerous denial of reality. But they are unlikely to be repeated; that kind of reactor is not used anywhere else in the world, and it’s hard to imagine a government response as irresponsible as the Soviets’.

Wisdom, they counsel, is to recognize not only risk, but relative risk.

The debate over energy sources sometimes departs from reality and moves into an absolutist realm, they write; there are advocates of solar and wind who like them not because they are carbon-free, but because they are solar and wind. That, they say is “green ideology,” an exercise in absolutism, rather than a realistic effort to serve human needs.

There are two broad categories of emissions-free energy: renewables and nuclear. “To choose one and abandon the other is to amputate an arm from the effort that is needed,” the authors write. Distributed production from the sun and wind are not antithetical to centralized nuclear “any more than are factories and workshops.”

They also consider international politics. What supplier nations would they like to be aligned with for the next eight or ten decades? That is a consideration for potential exporting nations, including the United States, as we consider our future role in the world.

Meanwhile, in the United States we have the luxury of sometimes forgetting the importance of reliable, clean energy. The best solution yet found for poverty, the authors write, is economic development. And Third World economic development is in cities.

“Small may be beautiful, in some estimations, but cities are huge and growing,” the write. They will need big, clean energy sources, the definition of nuclear.

The above is from Matt Wald, senior communications advisor at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

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