March 19, 2012

The letter below was written in response to the New York Times Letter to the Editor “Invitation to a Dialogue: Using Nuclear Energy.”  Dr. Joseph submitted his response, but it was not published.

Re: Invitation to a Dialogue: Using Nuclear Energy

Why is it that nuclear proponents always cite our seemingly insatiable demand for more energy while never mentioning its elasticity, the potential for massive improvement in efficiency of use, and the potential for a revolution in production and distribution of clean energy? Posing as “realists” they invariably overstate the arrogant assurances that “this time it will be safe,” the waste can be safely managed, and no bombs will grow stealthily from the fuel stream. Tell that to the Israelis now nervously fingering the safeties on their nukes as Iran, under the guise of wanting clean nuclear electricity, builds its reactors, also known as bomb factories. This world does not need more Plutonium floating around, even with Bin Laden at the bottom of the Indian Ocean.

Each nuclear power plant costs around $10 billion, and counting inevitable cost and time over -runs, takes a decade to build. Oh, has anyone figured out how to take one apart yet? How is that financed? We don’t have that kind of time according to the climate scientists and the IEA, who give us just a few years to get it right. Besides, who wants one one in their neighborhood? Can you imagine in a post-Fukushima world what a new nuke would do to property values over wide area? The Realtors alone would go crazy.

Now that the public is not so naive and gullible about nuclear power’s too-cheap-to-meter amazing benefits, it’s renaissance faces high hurdles without massive public subsidies. If it’s so great, let the “free market” work its magic without government (i.e. public) loan guarantees, and while we’re at it let them pay their own malpractice insurance, like I do, by getting rid of Price-Anderson. Why then not give those subsidies to a nascent industry that actually deserves it so that we –modern civilization — can live like every other creature on this planet: within its energy budget. Spend those billions on renewables, ignite a clean tech revolution in the US before we are eating out of the bowls of the Chinese tech industry.

Given that there is not enough money in the universe to build enough nukes to make a serious dent in carbon emissions, the real choice is between nukes and energy efficiency/renewable investments to stimulate rapid deployment of distributed clean energy production. I vote for clean and green, and if I have to reduce my consumption, well, after Pearl Harbor Americans did so willingly to support the war effort. Apparently that felt good according to folk lore. This IS war. It’s a war on carbon. A war for  survival of civilization as we’ve come to know it. Let’s not let our great civilization become too lazy to fail.

Put a steadily rising price on carbon, refund the money to households, get rid of subsidies to fossil industries and unleash the massive amounts of corporate cash just waiting for the Next Big Thing. The old nukes are just not ready for their come back. Try again when their next generation is ready for prime time.  Locate the first one on The National Mall and the second in Central Park. Then we shall see who’s the fairest of them all.

Peter G. Joseph, M.D.
San Anselmo, CA