Paul Andersen: Fair Game | AspenTimes.com

Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
Aspen CO, Colorado

“Drill-baby-drill!” is an absurd mantra, a simplistic rant from fossil fools, but it’s what the gas and oil industry hopes echoes true for most Americans. To take this anti-environment high school smear as a serious energy policy confirms that mob mentality rules the noisy chorus of the Republican Party.

But drilling is not the scariest note coming from the recalcitrant Right. When asked about his energy strategy, John McCain chants “nuclear” as if it’s a happy panacea. He’s hoping the “drill-baby-drill” crowd will keep shouting hurrahs so their communities can each house a nuclear plant.

Not on your life. The chanting will abate, the hosannas will fade, the enthusiasm will dim. Building nuclear power plants will be a hard sell on the home front. Memories of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are still fresh enough to elicit at least mild concerns about nukes proliferating on the American landscape, and for good reason.

If you believe that all the kinks have been worked out of nuclear power, think again.

There’s more potential for serious trouble with these time bombs than for the alarming specter of a Sarah Palin presidency should McCain, if elected, collapse in a paroxysm of patriotism during his acceptance speech.

Let’s get real on nuclear power. The plants cost billions of dollars and take years to build. They are fueled by concentrated uranium pellets in hollow zirconium-alloy rods that generate tremendous heat, vaporize water and propel steam turbines. Nuclear waste is hot with radioactivity. It accumulates worldwide each year by about 13,000 tons. It is impossible to guarantee safe storage in perpetuity. In the case of an explosion at a nuke plant, the toxic fallout (cesium-137 and strontium-90) has a half life of 30 years.

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If a nuke plant is evacuated, suffers a power failure, a water cut-off, or is struck by terrorists, the implications are huge. If there’s a human error, either in construction or in daily operations, the risks are enormous.

When a reactor building at Chernobyl blew up from a steam explosion in 1986, a radioactive plume spread from Russia to Scandinavia. Leakage contaminated local groundwater and created a “Zone of Alienation” across a 30-kilometer radius surrounding the plant. The cause? Human error.

Rain that fell shortly after the blast contaminated farmland 100 miles away.

Scandinavian reindeer were sacrificed rather than eaten. Estimates of deaths from cancer or blood and respiratory diseases were between 4,000 (nuke industry guesstimate) and 100,000 (public health and cancer research centers).

Granted, this is a bad-case scenario. But with nukes, the bad-case scenario has to be at the forefront. Taking a gamble on the perfect operation of a nuclear power plant is like assuming that the levees will hold in New Orleans or that America will win the war on terrorism. Wishful thinking has a way of morphing into deep regret.

If John McCain and Sarah Palin are elected, America will be pushed and cajoled into nuclear power. The arguments will be compelling, coming from industry and government, but they must be seriously challenged. There are better solutions for a national energy policy.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that only 7 percent of the total 2007 energy use in the United States came from renewable energy, mostly from biomass and hydro. We haven’t even begun to tap solar and wind, not to mention innovations in energy efficiency and energy conservation.

Before any new nukes are built, we must boost renewables through tax credits, renewable energy portfolio standards for utilities, and new markets for renewable energy credits. John McCain missed eight votes on alternative energy tax credits in the Senate this year, obviously favoring nukes and the “drill-baby-drill” chorus over more sensible options.

McCain’s energy platform is driven by dismissive science and industry ties that run deep in Republican circles. McCain missed eight votes on alternative energy tax credits, and now he’s missing something more important still ” sound judgment on the nuclear threat he’s recklessly promoting in America.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.

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