The Nuclear Option
When it comes to nuclear power for U.S.
energy needs, the media take a ‘No Nukes’ approach that’s heavy on
scares, light on facts.
By Amy Menefee
Free Market Project
Feb. 8, 2006
Â Â Â Â Broadcasters’ queries have often taken a negative look
at the industry when they have discussed it at all. Those questions
included Jim Axelrod on the February 1 “CBS Evening News”: “Could
you imagine a bigger target for terrorists?” and Brian Williams on
the June 22, 2005, “NBC Nightly News”: “to a lot of Americans of a
certain generation, the mere mention of a nuclear power plant for
some dredges up images of disaster and danger.”
Â Â Â Â
ABC News did a series of stories in October 2005 called “Loose Nukes
on Main Street,” implying that terrorists could easily gain access
to nuclear reactors in the United States – and the Nuclear Energy
Institute (NEI), which represents the nuclear power industry,
exposed multiple flaws in that series.
Â Â Â Â Although Axelrod’s recent report included the facts
that nuclear power is an attractive emissions-free alternative to
much-maligned fossil fuels, and that plants are fortified to
withstand all sorts of external disasters, most media accounts have
centered on the scary unknowns – which will remain scary as long as
the media leave so many questions unanswered.
‘Not In My Backyard’?
Â Â Â Â On the April 27, 2005, “World News Tonight,” ABC’s
Charles Gibson and Betsy Stark were discussing the “NIMBY,” or
“not-in-my-backyard,” problem of locating new oil refineries. The
conversation about the president’s energy initiatives then turned to
nuclear power and its similarity to oil refining – that no new
plants have been built in a long time. Stark said, “The problem is
still the public. While the Chinese and Europeans are getting used
to nuclear power as a source of electricity, in the United States
ever since Three Mile Island, Americans have been afraid of it.”
Â Â Â Â Though that
was Stark’s impression, it turns out that the vast majority of
people who live near nuclear plants aren’t so afraid, according to
August 2005 survey of more than 1,000 adults living within 10
miles of each of the 64 U.S. plants. The NEI-commissioned study,
which excluded employees of the electric companies, found that 85
percent of residents gave their local plants a “high” safety rating,
and 84 percent agreed that the company was doing “a good job of
protecting the environment.” Also, 76 percent said they would be
willing to have a new reactor built near them.
The World Goes Nuclear
Â Â Â Â Nuclear power provides about 20 percent of U.S.
electricity, and other countries depend on it much more. According
to the United Nations’
International Atomic Energy Agency, “At least five countries,
including France, Sweden and Belgium, rely on nuclear power for more
than 50% of their total electrical supplies. Another ten countries,
including Finland, Japan, Republic of Korea, Spain and Switzerland
rely on nuclear plants to provide 30% or more of their total
Â Â Â Â
Energy-hungry China is also moving ahead with its nuclear power
plans, and its government takes a different approach to public
relations about the plants – it discourages opposition. “Towns with
reactors advertise them as though they were national treasures,”
Sarah Schafer for Newsweek International in the February 6
issue. Schafer’s article detailed the Chinese attempt to “leapfrog”
ahead with the newest and safest technology to build more plants.
Â Â Â Â Nuclear’s emissions-free nature has brought some
prominent environmentalists to its side, including Greenpeace
co-founder Patrick Moore. Moore now heads Greenspirit Strategies
Ltd., a Canadian environmental consulting firm. In a rare, balanced
report, the February 1 “CBS Evening News” highlighted Moore’s new
activism, encouraging the United States to build more reactors.
CBS’s Axelrod pointed out that no new plants had been ordered for
construction in America since the 1979 radiation leak at Three Mile
Island. But Axelrod later said, “You’re telling me the reason we
don’t build nuclear power plants in the United States any more is
because of a psychology that isn’t supported by the facts.” Moore
replied, “That’s correct.”
But What about the Terrorists?
Â Â Â Â Naturally, terrorists and nuclear material are a
combination plant operators want to avoid. Since 9/11, the U.S.
nuclear industry has spent more than $1.2 billion on additional
security measures, said Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the NEI. That
included a 60-percent increase in armed security guards.
Â Â Â Â “Given the fact that nuclear power plants are so
fortified and well-defended … anyone who’s looking to do damage …
isn’t going to go after hardened targets first,” Kerekes said.
“They’re going to go after softer targets.”
Â Â Â Â Kerekes said lessons from accidents at plants in the
past served to improve the industry’s practices, including better
sharing of information. The industry created the
Institute of Nuclear Power Operations in order to go above and
beyond required standards, Kerekes said.
Â Â Â Â The Christian Science Monitor addressed the question of
terrorist threats in a February 6 article entitled “America Warms Up
to Nuclear Power.” David R. Francis cited Patrick Moore, explaining
the fortification of nuclear reactors:
succeed in crashing an airplane into a nuclear plant. But a modern
containment structure is unlikely to be penetrated. It consists of
six feet of reinforced concrete, with one-inch steel plates on
both sides. Even if such a suicide mission succeeded in
penetrating the dome, the plant would not explode. Radiation might
be spread, but most of it would weaken rapidly and is less
dangerous than many think, says Moore.”
New Technologies, New Plants, Old
Â Â Â Â The 2005 energy bill included tax breaks targeting
construction of new nuclear plants. Technology has advanced since
the last plants were built, said Heritage Foundation energy analyst
Ben Lieberman, and new plants would be even safer than they have in
Â Â Â Â “All the risks … there’s truth to those, but they can
be dealt with,” Lieberman said. Still, environmental regulations
keep the process mired in years and years of hoop-jumping, he said.
And the same problem – limited infrastructure – affects U.S. energy
resources from oil refining to nuclear power.
Â Â Â Â “We just sort of got complacent when energy was cheap
in the 1990s,” he said.
Â Â Â Â But environmentalists’ urging that Americans should
simply reduce their demand for energy is unrealistic. “We can’t diet
our way out of a famine,” Lieberman said. “We have a growing
economy, and that means more energy use.”
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