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Our Column

En español
A Remedy Worse Than the Illness
By Javier Sierra

We humans occasionally behave more like stubborn mules than like rational beings. And the terrifying resurgence of nuclear power is a very good example of this.

Let's start by making clear that not only the US but the entire human race faces a historic challenge: how to stop global warming at the same time we meet the energy needs of a global population of more than 6 billion souls.

With the world's dwindling oil reserves, the highest crude prices in history and the world's richest oil producing region, the Middle East, up in flames, we all agree that we must end our oil addiction. In short, we must find alternative sources of energy.

The problem worsens when we see that the remedy the Bush administration, among others, proposes is worse than the illness. The White House, allegedly to fight the environmental dangers posed by coal-fired plants, insists the solution is building more nuclear plants.

"Switching from dirty coal plants to dangerous nuclear power is like giving up cigarettes and taking up crack," says Dan Becker, Director of the Sierra Club's Global Warming Program.

The potential for accidents in these facilities -and in the US we have 104 of them- is enormous. And we don't need to limit ourselves to the example of Chernobyl, in the Ukraine, where more than 20 years ago the worst nuclear catastrophe in history took place. Just three years ago, a nuclear reactor in Ohio was only one fifth of an inch of stainless steel from a rupture that could have led to a disaster. Also, after the partial meltdown of one of the reactors in the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, in Pennsylvania, the cleanup took 14 years and cost almost one billion dollars.

Moreover, these plants are tempting targets for terrorist attacks. For instance, if an emergency took place in the Indian Point plant, in New York -which one of the planes hijacked on 9-11 flew directly over- everybody in a 50-mile radius would have to be evacuated; that is 20 million people. Keep in mind Al Qaeda operatives inspected nuclear plants before 9-11 for potential targets.

Also, nuclear plants generate enormous amounts of radioactive waste, one of the most toxic substances known to humankind. Each nuclear plant in the US produces 20 tons of waste a year, multiplied by 104 plants, we get a grand total of 2,080 tons every year. In big doses nuclear waste can be lethal; in little doses, it causes cancer and birth defects. Also, it stays toxic for 200,000 years.

Yucca Mountain, in Nevada, was chosen to store 77,000 tons of nuclear waste in underground chambers. The project, however, has been suspended because, among other reasons, the place is geologically much more unstable than originally thought. Also consider that Nevada would take nuclear waste shipments from 41 states, which would pass through thousands of cities and towns, perhaps your city or your town.

This energy source, moreover, is considered the most expensive in the world. Its existence would be impossible without the extravagant subsidies from the federal government, $66 billion from 1948 to 1998. Last year, thanks to the disastrous Energy Policy Act, this industry received an additional $13 billion in subsidies.

All this nonsense becomes even harder to explain if we consider that there exist other energy sources that are much cleaner, cheaper and safer. Had those $13 billion in subsidies been invested in building wind turbines, more than 20,000 would have been installed throughout the country.

Detroit already has the technology necessary to build all its cars and light trucks to yield at least 40 miles per gallon. If this would be implemented now that we have the highest gas prices in history, in 10 years we would save all the oil we import from the Persian Gulf.

All our electric needs would be met with a combination of better energy efficiency, wind and solar power, high-efficiency natural gas turbines and clean coal plants. And we would reduce our emissions of global-warming-causing gases by at least 70 percent to boot.

The remedies are there. But before, we need to take care of a condition called stubbornness.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. For more information, please visit

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