Nuclear-mania or nuclear-phobia?

di Dario Fazzi,

Our society is constantly demanding more and more energy to sustain our development and satisfy our increasing necessities. Today, energy needs are at the top of social, economic, and also political agendas. During the last century, human beings have progressively established their relations upon several limited resources: oil for transportations; electric power for communication systems. Thus, it became a matter of concern to find new sources and methods to produce the energy that the new society strongly needs to preserve its growth. From the second half of the 20th century, nuclear power seemed to be – or it was initially supposed to be – the right answer.

From a very limited amount of material, it became possible to produce an apparently unlimited amount of energy, immediately available for the nourishment of the global society. The military use of this new source of energy for a long time led the main world powers to measure their political strength in terms of nuclear arsenals, without taking into account the risk of a global annihilation. Apart from this, the civilian use of the energy released by atomic fission was rarely questioned. Although activists and organizations, especially in the U.S. and in the U.K., fiercely opposed nuclear contamination and fallout, they did not rationally express dissent towards the production of nuclear power for civil purposes. Not before nuclear accidents occurred. When they happened, the consciousness about the need to protect the human environment against the risk of nuclear contamination was already developed and consolidated. The Three Mile Island accident revealed the ghost of radioactive water to the American people; with Chernobyl, Europe dramatically faced the danger of the rapid and inescapable nuclear pollution. Fukushima seems a reminder for contemporary and future generations that complete nuclear security is still yet to come.

The security of nuclear power is a particularly important issue in the United States, where in 2009 «104 nuclear reactors produced 799 billion kWh, over 20% of total electrical output»[1]. By 2020, it is expected that 4-6 new units may come on line in that country. Shortly before his election, Obama tried to counter the problem of the world’s dependence on oil and nuclear power, launching «a $150 billion “Apollo project” to grant the U.S. jobs and energy security through a new alternative energy economy». That was not only an instrument of political propaganda?. Obama firmly believed that a new clean-energy economy could be the engine of the future economy «in the same way the computer was the engine for economic growth over the last couple of decades»[2]. A few days after his election, the president remarked his position by stating that the new administration «will mark a new chapter in America’s leadership on climate change»[3]. Such a commitment could not be easily ignored. When the Congress approved the stimulus plan of $800 billion in January 2009, that program allotted at least $100 billion to green energy grids, solar and wind power, clean coal and other so-called green technologies. Other $2 additional billions were allocated by president Obama to be used for solar plant construction in January 2010. In the 2011 State of the Union speech, the president stressed the importance of government investments in clean energy and in eliminating oil subsidies[4].

However, the transition to a greener economy cannot be treated simply as a question of rhetoric. It needs steps toward a regulation of nuclear power in order to make America less dependent from this source of energy. In this case, the Obama administration also faced the extreme sensitiveness of the public upon this issue. On February 2010, Obama announced more than $8 billion U.S. in loan guarantees to build two new nuclear plants in Georgia. In his words, this move toward nuclear power had to be made to meet America’s energy needs and reduce greenhouse gases. According to the president, nuclear power could not be a sclerotic question centered upon the division «between left and right, between environmentalists and entrepreneurs», because it would affect the future of the nation and the world[5]. That announcement anticipated the decision to add $36 billion in new federal loan guarantees for nuclear facilities in 2011 — on top of $18.5 billion already budgeted until 2010 but not yet spent.

The Japanese earthquake of March 2011 and its consequences on the nuclear plant of Fukushima suddenly broke this apparent monolithic support for the use of nuclear power as a clean source of energy. The American public was again scared by the images coming from the out-of-control Japanese reactors, and the contamination of the Ocean produced by a natural disaster imposed a revision of the administration nuclear policy. In the aftermath of the Fukushima accident, Obama administration’s officials had to call for a freeze on new U.S. nuclear power development, and sought to reassure the public that the U.S. nuclear facilities were safe and that the threat of harmful radiation reaching U.S. soil from Japan was minimal[6]. The president himself publicly said that nuclear plants in the U.S. were closely monitored, even though they were supposed to have been built to withstand earthquakes. The efforts of the proponents of nuclear power to win over the public and save their industry were abruptly crushed by the tremendous disaster in Japan[7]. Gregory Jaczko, the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in an attempt to prevent full-scale panic about the dangers of U.S. nuclear plants, reassured that the Fukushima accident would not produce any immediate changes on U.S. nuclear plants[8].

In spite of these attempts, the efforts made by the Obama administration to revamp U.S. energy policy were paralyzed by the Japanese tsunami. The president’s call for the government to back the construction of new generation nuclear plants as part of his clean-energy agenda, was challenged by public opposition, which made it «more difficult to get support for additional subsidies in Congress». Several Democrats of the House Energy and Commerce Committee immediately asked for an investigation on U.S. nuclear safety. The idea that nuclear power plants can never be safe enough started to regain popular appeal[9]. With a dramatic accidental combination, year 2011 saw the U.S. face several natural disasters, such as tornados and hurricanes, which tested the efficiency of American nuclear plants. The security system of a plant in Alabama, which had lost power after violent thunderstorms, worked as designed to prevent a partial meltdown. In spite of this, public fear never ceased to grow[10]. Public support to nuclear power plant fell down from 59% in 2009 to 42% in April 2011; 58% of the population opposed the expansion of nuclear power in the U.S., and 73% did not think taxpayers should «take on the risk for the construction of new nuclear power reactors» with federal loan guarantees[11]. As reported by the New York Times, the 2011 polls «found that nearly 7 in 10 Americans think that nuclear power plants in the United States are generally safe. But nearly two-thirds of those polled said they were concerned that a major nuclear accident might occur in this country — including 3 in 10 who said they were “very concerned” by such a possibility. Fifty-eight percent of those polled said they did not think the federal government was adequately prepared to deal with a major nuclear accident»[12]. These figures show that American people are demanding for a new approach to nuclear power. The administration seems to be forced to an «act-today-as-you’ll-live-tomorrow» method, which could allow to overcome the consequences of an all but clean and safe nuclear energy. President Obama said: «the transition to clean energy has the potential to grow our economy and create millions of jobs – but only if we accelerate that transition. Only if we seize the moment. And only if we rally together and act as one nation – workers and entrepreneurs; scientists and citizens; the public and private sectors.»[13]. It is time to find a tradeoff between the nuclear-mania and the nuclear-phobia, but until radioactive wastes, along with potential out-of-control meltdowns, accidents, fallout and contaminations will threaten human beings, the search for nuclear-alternatives still remains the most rational choice.

[5] Obama added that «What I hope is that, with this announcement, we’re underscoring both our seriousness in meeting the energy challenge and our willingness to look at this challenge, not as a partisan issue , but as a matter that’s far more important than politics because the choices we make will affect not just the next generation but many generations to come», in

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