Nuclear Power: Hubris or Optimism

March 13, 2011


a highway tipped sidewaysOn March 11th I awoke to the heart wrenching news of the massive earthquake in Japan. The earthquake was soon followed by devastating tsunamis. The death toll is likely to exceed 10,000 people.







The earthquakes not only destroyed homes and infrastructure, it damaged nuclear power plants with at least one and maybe another at risk of suffering a meltdown.  A nuclear situation called the worst since Chernobyl.


About a week ago I heard a talk on the radio given by Helen Caldicott in which she talked of the dangers of radioactivity, nuclear energy and nuclear warheads.  It was the scariest information I’d heard in a long time and reminded me of all the reasons I opposed nuclear power so vocally in the ‘70’s. 

Nuclear power is unacceptably dangerous.  There are intolerable levels of risk related to nuclear waste (from mining, refining, enrichment, and the reactor,) and nuclear proliferation (the plutonium that is created as a function of nuclear fission can be used to make nuclear bombs), human and equipment accidents, and extensive environmental degradation.

Man’s belief that we can handle any and all negative consequences related to nuclear power is either a sign of tremendous optimism or tremendous hubris.  The situation in Japan shows the lie to both. 

Perhaps, somehow, a meltdown of any and all of the nuclear reactors will be averted.  I can only hope this happens.  If a meltdown is averted that does not, however, prove our optimism/hubris was well-placed.  It means only that a catastrophe was averted, this time.

It is  overwhelmingly horrific what has and is occurring in Japan (as I write this a volcano in southern Japan has begun to erupt).  That some good will come from it I hope and even expect.  The world leaders have been proclaiming their willingness to assist in any way possible.  I have no doubt we will be hearing marvelous, uplifting stories of great help and heroism for the months to come.

But will it affect our unwarranted optimism and hubris regarding nuclear power?  German anti-nuclear protestWill this near or eventual reactor meltdown give the world pause before it builds more nuclear power plants or extends the life of others?  In Germany thousands formed a 28 mile long human chain between the Neckarwestheim nuclear plant and the southwestern city of Stuttgart.  The protest against extending the life of Germany’s nuclear power plants had been planned before the earthquake in Japan, but organizers say the disaster gave added focus to the demonstration.

Will there be more anti-nuclear demonstrations.  I hope so.  Would I attend?  In a heartbeat.

Generally, those who agree with me, agree with me, and those who don’t, don’t; and nothing I say here will really change any minds.  [However, for those who have not formed an opinion yet, might I suggest a look at this nuclear power fact sheet.]

Meanwhile, may the Japanese survive, recover, and be somehow better for this terrible spiral of disasters.



  1. As horrifying as nuclear power is, are you aware of the radiation levels released by coal burning plants? They are high and constant. Nobody seems aware of this. This is besides the lung destroying pollutants they emit. Yes, we may be able to scrub some of the toxins, even the CO2 from the stacks, but no good longterm method for disposing of the CO2 has been found.

    What about natural gas? Have you watched GASLAND? I have a new swear word: FRACK. As in What the FRACK? or What a FRACKING MESS. We have a building fracking mess in Pennsylvania, miles from where I live. Meanwhile much of the midwest is a bigger fracking mess, and beef grown on that frack defiled land may end up in my grandchildren’s growing tummies. Or in the bread they eat, made from wheat that grows on fracking fields.

    So what’s left? An exploding population that even with scaled back lifestyles needs a lot of electrical juice. There is no risk-free source of power, not even chopping down trees and burning wood. We must, like it or not, accept risk. IMO, nuclear is the cleanest and safest, despite the current scenario which will only teach us to be even safer.

    • I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree about nuclear power – the costs related to mining, refinining, production, and waste are greater, to me, than the benefits. I am not a fan of coal either. I would like to see expansion of wind, solar, tidal turbines, geothermal, small-scale hydro-electric… the powers that be seem to think that the solution has to be big and massive and all encompassing; I am not convinced.

      Nuclear power is not going to disappear tomorrow, no fear of that. None of the big-scale power production approaches will. Assuming humans survive the next 100 years, I would like, with my limited foresight, to see more sustainable regional and local energy production. How will that happen? With many and increasing little voices over time suggesting it over and over and over and over and over until the hum of our objections to large scale, high risk, pollution generating processes are acknowledged. Sometimes lots of little voices make a quick impact (the dearth of new nuclear power plants over the last several decades, local victories limiting landfill expansion, etc.); sometimes it takes a longer time (finally, hybrids and more energy efficient vehicles -still with plenty of room for improvement).

      thanks for reading and commenting,

      • We can definitely agree on the fact that none of the current mainstream electrical generation technologies is without significant cost to human life and the environment, perhaps even Earth herself.

        Alas, wind power is not currently a large scale option because it isn’t constant enough and natural gas is the only source that powers up and down quickly enough to balance wind power. It also kills bats and birds. Some people dislike having the landscape cluttered with windmills — I find the occasional wind farm a thing of beauty.

        Solar is not currently viable for widespread use due to the extreme cost involved, especially when balanced with low sun ratio in many areas and the large footprint required for widespread use. Roof-top solar panels may be a good option for individual buildings, though building design to maximize solar power without technology is even better.

        Tidal power? Let’s cross our fingers! Research continues. Existing hydropower is controversial, as proponents of tearing out dams in favor of salmon runs will tell you.

        Geo-thermal works great in New Zealand. Most of our country, and probably the world, lacks their extensive resources.

        Agreed: if Planet Earth is still populated in 100 years, tremendous advances will have been made! The good news is that a national task force is currently working on ways to integrate small scale generation such as you mention into the big-scale grid. My brother chairs this task force.

  2. I just heard that it looks like a meltdown in likely now – so scary. There is a nuclear power plant about 20 miles from here. My interest in getting it closed down is renewed.

    • I keep checking the news, one piece sounds positive, the next not so… hoping for the best, expecting the worst.

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