There have been a host of debates this year between the Democratic and Republican candidates for president. Many of these candidates believe that among our top priorities is to address global warming by reducing carbon emissions. All or most seem to agree that decreasing America’s energy dependence is another. Yet few if any of the candidates have mentioned that nuclear energy-or, as I prefer, terrestrial energy-could serve both these ends.
Right now there are 103 operating nuclear reactors in America, but most are owned by utilities (which also own coal plants). The few spin-offs that concentrate mainly on nuclear-Entergy, of Jackson, Mississippi, and Exelon, of Chicago-are relatively small players. As for a nuclear infrastructure, it hardly exists. There is only one steel company in the world today that can cast the reactor vessels (the 42-foot, egg-shaped containers at the core of a reactor): Japan Steel Works. As countries around the world begin to build new reactors, the company is now back-ordered for four years. Unless some enterprising American steel company takes an interest, any new reactor built in America will be cast in Japan.
This is an extraordinary fate for what was once regarded as an American technology. France, China, Russia, Finland, and Japan all perceive the enormous opportunity that nuclear energy promises for reducing carbon emissions and relieving the world’s energy problems as reflected in recent soaring oil prices. Yet in America, we remain trapped in a Three Mile Island mentality, without even a public discussion of the issue. As folk singer Ani Di-Franco puts it, the structure of the atom is so perfect that it is “blasphemy / To use it to make bombs / Or electricity.”
It is time to step back and question whether this prejudice makes sense.
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