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Nuclear power: The end, or a new beginning?

March 14, 2011 | 12:55 pm

San Onofre

You can stick a fork in it. The future of nuclear power in America, that is.

There's nothing quite like seeing the words "Japan battles to avert nuclear meltdown" on your TV screen or "Risk of meltdown increases at Japan nuclear reactor" in your newspaper to focus the mind, is there? 

For example, The Times on Monday ran this headline: "Japan's crisis may have already derailed 'nuclear renaissance.' " 

Ya think?

Nuclear power plants have one fatal flaw: To be totally safe, nothing must go wrong -– ever. And, from Three Mile Island, to Chernobyl, to Japan -– heck, to the Titanic -– something always goes wrong with the stuff we build.

From that one problem comes many. Not the least of which is, nuclear plants have to be built somewhere, and somewhere is always someone’s backyard. And in today’s United States, "not in my backyard" is the new "don’t tread on me."

But it's strange relationship, Americans and risk. For example, what if I said the lesson of the Sendai quake is that it shows we should build nuclear plants?

Lock up the loony guy, right?

Sure, OK. But first, answer this: How many people have died so far in Japan's nuclear crisis? That's right: None that we know of.

But how many people died last year from coal-produced energy? Hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions: the miners killed in accidents, or from lung disease; the people in surrounding areas who've died from diseases caused by the pollution spewed by the plants; and then there are those of us at risk from the global warming caused by the burning of a fossil fuel.

So why do we vilify nuclear power?

Perhaps for the same reason we demand so many safety measures in air travel, yet we willingly accept that thousands more of us will die each year in auto accidents than in air crashes.

Nonsense, you say: Nuclear power just isn't safe. We can't build new plants. Learn from Japan.

OK. Nuclear power isn't safe. So go shut down San Onofre right now. And Diablo Canyon. And all the other nuclear plants in the U.S.

Oh, we can't do that. We need that electricity. Our rates would go through the roof. We'd have rolling blackouts, or worse.

And then there's our military. Remember, we have nuclear power plants on board our aircraft carriers and submarines. We've put dangerous propulsion systems on ships that, if a war breaks out, the enemy will try to blow up and sink. And yet we built and launched the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush -– nuclear powered, of course -– in 2009. Where was the furor then?

So, new nuclear power is dangerous, but the nuclear power we already have is, uh, OK then?

As for lessons of the Japan crisis, one of them is this: An aging plant built with 1960s technology has -– so far -– endured the worst possible natural disaster and, though badly damaged, has survived.

Imagine how much better we could build such a plant today. After all, when the 1906 great quake destroyed San Francisco, everyone didn’t leave the Bay Area. We took the lessons from it, and from other quakes, and we built smarter and better.

Nuclear power may not be the future. Personally, I prefer solar, wind and other such sources.

But the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico didn't stop us from drilling for oil. And the disaster in Japan shouldn't stop us from a reasonable discussion of nuclear power.

RELATED:

Economy: The other fallout from Japan

Will Angelenos learn from the Japan quake?

As Cuba explores for oil, U.S. embargo could hurt both countries

--Paul Whitefield

Photo: The San Onofre nuclear power plant in northern San Diego County, south of San Clemente. Credit: David McNew/Getty Images

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