Nuclear energy is the solution to U.S., world’s problems

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

The United States has the power to break its nasty dependence on foreign oil and save the planet, all in 20 years.

Sound crazy? Try this out: The solution to this problem already exists. In fact, it celebrated its 50th anniversary on May 26. The solution has quietly been pumping out hundreds of billions of kilowatt hours of energy for years and has been sailing around the ocean — and under its surface — on America’s warships and submarines for even longer.

The solution to all of our energy troubles and environmental woes is nuclear energy.

Already, the United States’ 104 nuclear reactors provide 19.4 percent of the country’s electricity, according to the World Nuclear Association. Around the world, there are 439 nuclear reactors in 30 countries (from the U.S. and Canada to Brazil to France to Armenia and Russia to China, South Korea, and Japan) that provide about 14 percent of the world’s electricity. China and Russia alone plan on building a total of over 100 new nuclear power plants in the near future.

If the U.S. continues to rely on fossil fuels, how can the country legitimately remain the leader of the planet if it is the main culprit behind the greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming?

Americans are wise to the value of nuclear power; a September Nuclear Energy Institute poll showed a record-high 74 percent of Americans supporting it.

The problem is, nuclear energy gets a bad rap. A new plant hasn’t been built in the United States in 30 years, while the country’s competitors, China and Russia, are building nuclear power plants as fast as they can.

However, Republican presidential candidate John McCain says he will build 45 new plants by 2030. He hopes to eventually construct 100 new plants.

Many environmentalists, though, oppose nuclear energy for a variety of reasons. But environmentalists have a problem with every type of energy, and they’re correct because there is no perfect energy that doesn’t have some downside. Wind power’s downside is that birds and bats are going to fly into the turbines and be shredded to pieces. Solar power uses lead-acid batteries that need to be disposed of somehow.

With nuclear power, the downside is nuclear waste, which remains dangerous and toxic for thousands of years. There are various methods for storing nuclear waste that minimize the radiation leakage. After that, it’s just a matter of building and managing a facility to store the waste while it decays.

The waste is a drawback, but with the current energy crisis and the erosion of the ozone layer, we can’t keep waiting for the perfect solution. In fact, the perfect solution probably doesn’t even exist, even if Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama does try to throw $150 billion over the next 10 years to research. Besides, let’s compare: Where do we store all of those greenhouse gases we produce now? In our atmosphere, in our lungs, and in our drinking water (acid rain).

Even environmentalists, though, are realizing that the pros of nuclear energy outweigh the cons. There are no scientific barriers to nuclear power, just policy questions that we must stop debating while we are being baked alive.

Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, said in November 2007, “I think people haven’t caught up with the fact that climate change has changed the whole climate of the environmental debate on this planet. The one technology that is contributing most to reducing greenhouse gases in America today is nuclear energy, and we could do a tremendous amount to increase that.”

However, Obama isn’t particularly keen on nuclear energy. Aside from nuclear waste, Obama raises other issues: He is nervous about the security of nuclear waste at home and abroad. He is concerned, as many are, that terrorists will get their hands on the waste and build dirty bombs (conventional bombs that explode and release radioactive material). But a dirty bomb isn’t a nuclear bomb, and wouldn’t have an effect much greater than the conventional explosives themselves.

The U.S. can’t do much about nuclear waste abroad, anyway. This country can’t stop China and Russia from building another 100 nuclear power plants or regulate the more than 300 power plants outside of its borders. The U.S. can’t tell Russia how to dispose of its waste any more than the country can tell it not to attack Georgia.

Moreover, there is a strong international organization for dealing with nuclear waste: the International Atomic Energy Agency.

This country can only take care of its own waste, which it should be able to do easily enough. If waste hasn’t been stolen from relatively backward countries like Armenia and Hungary, corrupt ones like Russia, or environmentally indifferent ones like China, what are the chances it’s going to be stolen from the United States?

It would also be rather difficult to attack a nuclear power plant. Since 9/11, there has been a full-scale study of the safety of such plants, and most nuclear power plants have armed guards patrolling the grounds. These plants are like medieval castles and, yes, some do have moats. And if you’re worried about a civilian power plant being attacked, why aren’t you more nervous about the reactors on the submarines and aircraft carriers, which the U.S. does expect to be attacked?

Obama is also worried about proliferation, as nuclear power plants can be used to provide materials for nuclear weapons. North Korea and Iran both want nuclear power plants, and who can deny them the energy? But can we let them have reactors without them building weapons?

It’s an important question, but why does that even affect how many plants the United States has, especially since we already have 104?

Nuclear power is the key to weaning the U.S. off foreign oil and cutting greenhouse gas emissions. When Election Day comes around, if you want an energy policy that’s going to accomplish that, your options are McCain and nuclear energy or Obama and vague research plans when we’ve got the solution we need right under our noses.