by Austin Bay
September 2, 2008
"Das Leben Wahlen -- Stop Kernenergie" the sticker reads in German.
Choose Life. Stop Nuclear Energy.
The sticker is an artifact from a visit to Germany in the early 1980s.
Das Leben Wahlen is printed in German Green Party green, with a very
beautiful leaf. Stop Kernenergie appears in stark black and white, with a huge X
over a nuclear power plant whose etched alien detachment is ironically
reminiscent of Gort the enforcer robot, the real star of the sci-fi classic "The
Day the Earth Stood Still."
Power from nuclear plants was Death with a capital D -- that was the
propaganda action line. Reject nuclear energy and you are -- to pinch another
label from a divisive American social issue -- Pro-Life.
Attending an anti-nuclear power march was a hip afternoon for many
students in school in Germany. Trust I didn't participate. I supported building
nuclear power plants.
That view wasn't a popular one among American students, either. In 1982,
a fellow graduate student at Columbia (the guy's hair always smelled of
cigarette smoke) told me I wanted to destroy the Earth. I remember the moment
well -- tea time in Philosophy Hall, and supporting nuclear power plants is
condemned as infinitely benighted and probably more dangerous than supporting
Back in Texas around 1990, I got into a verbal tussle on a softball
diamond because I thought the City of Austin was smart to participate in the
South Texas Nuclear Project. Supporting the STNP was a tough position to take in
Travis County four or five years after Russia's Chernobyl disaster, and arguing
that the United States isn't Russia and our safety standards are high made no
impression on an outfielder from South Austin who basically thought the United
States and Soviet Union were moral equivalents.
I also pointed out that France was pursuing nuclear power, but that
produced an angry, "So what?"
The structural, impersonal answer to the Deep Left Fielder's "So what?"
-- some 18 years later -- is around 35 percent of the energy France consumes
comes from nuclear power. You'll see higher figures (like 78 percent), but those
usually reflect the percentage of French electricity generated by nukes.
Four dollars a gallon gasoline has provided a moment of clarity -- no,
not for Deep Left Fielders who cling to their anti-nuclear religion, but for
people able to rationally evaluate risks.
The world will continue to rely on oil and gas as its primary source of
energy for at least another three to four decades -- with supplies increasingly
squeezed by growing demand from "emerging economies" like those of China and
India. Beijing and New Delhi recognize that the oil and gas squeeze will affect
their prosperity, so they are both pursuing nuclear energy as part of an "energy
Reliance on one or only a handful of energy sources is a bad idea --
which is why solar, geothermal, tidal, wind, conservation and increased energy
efficiency are part of any sound strategic energy policy. Run a house on solar,
and take the home off the grid. Industry requires power, however, lots of power
-- and it needs reliable power.
For three decades, the anti-nuclear lobby has blunted U.S. nuclear energy
efforts -- not stopped, but blunted. The United States gets roughly 20 percent
of its electricity from nuclear plants -- but it should be getting at least
twice that much.
Unfortunately, it takes at a minimum of five to seven years to bring a
new nuclear power plant on line.
Nuclear power provided an easy partisan political demon, one with an
emotional component that frustrated rational discussion. Indeed, nuclear energy
has risks, but burning wood in a fire pit pollutes -- it can irritate your lungs
with potentially carcinogenic smoke.
I can hear the fear-mongering ancestor of the Deep Left Fielder in a
cave, oh, 60,000 years ago. "Don't burn that log, Bay. You will anger the tree
nymphs, and they will destroy us."