August 20, 2010

by Thomas B. Newman, MD, MPH, FAAP

Over the last several weeks I have been watching with disgust as black crude oil has gushed into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the wildlife, beaches, livelihoods and culture of the residents of the entire Gulf Coast. BP has been running full-page ads in the New York Times, promising, “We will get it done. We will make this right,” a disingenuous promise because it is a physical, ecological, and financial impossibility.

To try to feel something besides despair and helpless rage, I comfort myself by believing that we can learn something important from this disaster. The enormous ecologic and financial cost of this spill provides a clear example of market failure – how the price we have been paying for gasoline has not reflected its actual cost. Before the current oil spill the true cost of gasoline was estimated to be about $15 per gallon in 20091 if tax subsidies, military costs of protecting oil supplies, and the costs associated with climate change are included. If it were not for the “externalizing” of these costs of fossil fuels (ie, getting someone else to pay them), the market would long ago have driven us to more clean, renewable sources such as solar and wind energy, whose true cost is much less.

The fossil fuel market failure and the harmful consequences of externalizing ecologic costs and risks are particularly relevant when considering whether nuclear power is a viable alternative to fossil fuels. Nuclear power creates deadly radioactive wastes, many lasting thousands of years. Proponents of nuclear power promise us that it is safe. But when our elected officials consider providing billions of dollars in subsidies to resurrect the US nuclear power industry, it might be wise for them to imagine themselves faced with the impossible clean-up task that would result from a serious reactor meltdown or an attack by terrorists on vast, poorly protected nuclear waste storage facilities. Unfortunately, as the oil spill illustrates, our technology for making messes has far surpassed our technology for cleaning them up.

Mistakes can be painful, but as we teach our trainees, they can also be learning experiences. Let’s make sure this painful experience at least teaches us something. As fossil fuels run out they will only become more difficult and hazardous to extract. Nuclear energy is dirty, dangerous and expensive. It is time for a dramatic shift to clean, renewable energy sources.


  1. Brown, LR.  Plan B 4.0. Mobilizing To Save Civilization. New York: WW Norton; 2009:17. The book (highly recommended) is available for free download at

Reprinted with permission of the author. Published in American Academy of Pediatrics, Grand Rounds, 2010; 24(2): p. 28