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Time to Think Outside the Box and Inside the Nucleus

Friday, 22 November 2002 12:00 AM

Ever since human beings began to suspect that the nuclei of atoms might be good for something besides creating the universe and blowing up the planet, the American understanding of nuclear energy has been, for the most part, at odds with reality.

By the 1970s, early enthusiasm about the potential for limitless nuclear energy had given way to a more rational appreciation of its potential. Nuclear power wasn't as cheap as hoped, but it is clean, available, and a practical way to decrease dependence on foreign oil.

But then the anti-all-things-nuclear movement attacked the industry, via junk science, a virulent fear & smear campaign, and astute politicking and bureaucratic gamesmanship at all levels.

Nuclear energy is neither sin nor salvation. It is, however, an option we need to look at anew, as war with Iraq edges closer and the "Privation Is Virtue" liberals start screaming about "energy independence" once again.

We begin with the obvious. America needs many different kinds of energy. Each kind, from nuclear to geothermal, has its place in the mix. The relevant issues are applicability (nuclear power won't run your car, but then neither will windmills) and cost, both economic and environmental.

Nuclear power deserves a larger place in the mix. But before we can proceed to the obvious reasons why, we need to examine several myths.

The first is unwarranted fear of radiation. For too many decades, too many people have clung to the utterly wrong "no threshold" concept, the disproved idea that any radiation in any amount is very bad for you.

Way back when atmospheric nuclear testing was a (pardon the pun) hot topic, Linus Pauling, an anti-nuclear physician/scientist, concocted the idea that any ionizing radiation, such as gamma or X-rays, does irreparable harm.

Pauling hadn't a shred of data to support his claim, but this idea continues to enjoy considerable currency, despite a growing body of evidence that small doses of radiation may actually be good for you.

Why the persistence of the lie? Fear – a fear abetted by both the anti-nuclear left and the popular media. Fear sells.

The second myth builds on the first. Nuclear reactors don't blow up. But they can melt down and, like all human contrivances, can malfunction. Conventional wisdom holds here that even the smallest chance of a catastrophic release of radioactivity into the atmosphere would be so deadly, especially in urban areas, that it's not worth the risk. As proof, they offer Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

The 1989 Three Mile Island accident, which was effectively contained, released only small amounts of radiation into the air. Only one person we know of died – a motorist, fleeing the scene.

Chernobyl was far more serious, mostly because those reactors lacked many design and safety features required in the United States. Thousands of people did die ... in abortions demanded by panic-stricken mothers, sometimes thousands of miles from the site. The Russian government evacuated thousands of people from areas receiving less radiation than residents of Norway get naturally. In the end, fewer than 100 workers died from heavy dosages; no member of the public was exposed to such levels.

What about terrorists running airplanes into nuclear power plants? Airplanes are not designed to penetrate reinforced concrete up to four feet thick. "All nuclear reactor containment buildings are like bunkers, built of thick, steel-reinforced concrete. Inside the containment building, the reactor is encased in a steel pressure vessel up to a foot thick," according to the Nuclear Energy Institute.

If the United States has forsworn nuclear power for reasons both specious and emotional, other nations have not. In 2000, according to French government sources, nuclear power provided 76 percent of that country's electricity. In contrast, 69 percent of all American power is generated by fossil fuels. Only 20 percent is nuclear.

How did the French do it? By educating the public with facts, not fear. New reactors will be even safer than older models which, for the past 40 years, have been almost totally safe and have done far less environmental damage than oil or coal.

And there's another reason to revive the nuclear option – the coming oil glut. As the Russian petroleum industry revives, as all those central Asian fields come on line, and as (hopefully) a post-Saddam Iraq turns up the spigot, the world will be awash in oil. What better time to drive the price and our dependency further down, than by cutting the use of oil in our generating plants?

How paradoxical (or so think this pair of docs) that ultimately our best offense may be the good defensive use of nuclear power to protect ourselves from the addictions of oil and war.

Michael Arnold Glueck, M.D., is a multiple-award-winning writer who comments on medical-legal issues. Robert J. Cihak, M.D., is a former president of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons.

Contact Drs. Glueck and Cihak by e-mail.

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Ever since human beings began to suspect that the nuclei of atoms might be good for something besides creating the universe and blowing up the planet, the American understanding of nuclear energy has been, for the most part, at odds with reality. By the 1970s, early...
Friday, 22 November 2002 12:00 AM
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