Nuclear Energy: Let's Not Repeat Our Mistakes

Reader Contribution by Staff
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In the 1970s, America was immersed in an oil crisis. Domestic production had peaked and the severe restrictions on supply imposed by OPEC in 1973 (aimed at forcing us to be more frugal) and the Iranian Oil Embargo in 1979 drove prices through the roof. Oil shot up from $3 per barrel to $34 per barrel.

Americans waited angrily in long lines at the gas pump while inflation reached double digits! Our economy took a serious nose dive. One of America’s brilliant responses to the energy crisis was to build nuclear power plants. I say brilliant, but, of course, that’s tongue in cheek. Building new nuclear power plants to solve the oil crisis was like running out of margarine, then running to the store to buy a dozen eggs. We needed oil stupid, not electricity.

After spending billions on new nuclear plants, America slowly woke up to the folly. Many nuclear power plants went belly up during construction, and lots of people who’d invested in bonds to support the construction of these ill-conceived plants lost a fortune.

I’m afraid we’re doing much the same today. During the Bush Administration, pronuclear interests began using the high price of oil (our newest energy crisis) to justify the construction of new nuclear power plants, and they continue to do so. Their work is paying off!

As in the 1970s and early 1980s, we don’t just need more energy, we need replacements for oil and transportation fuels derived from petroleum. The most economically and environmentally sustainable solution though, I think, is to drive more efficiently, lower speed limits on Interstate highways, to drive much more efficient vehicles, and to walk, bike, or ride the bus or light rail. We should also develop sound, sustainable transportation fuels like biodiesel and ethanol to help meet our needs.

Building new nuclear plants isn’t going to solve the oil crisis. Even if we suddenly converted to electric cars to meet many of our transportation needs, we wouldn’t need new nuclear plants. Studies show that we can easily charge our electric cars at night when demand for electricity from current sources is low. Thus, current electrical generating capacity could very likely meet the new demand. In addition, as the accompanying graphic illustrates, very little oil is currently used to generate electricity.

Frankly, my friends, the nuclear frenzy seems like a devious form of subterfuge by business interests who want to build monstrously expensive power plants and make billions in profit at the expense of our ignorance and cultural stupidity — our penchant for buying eggs when, in fact, what we really need is a few tubs of margarine.

Above: Unit 1 of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station. Chiras notes that building new nuclear plants isn’t going to solve the problem of high oil prices. Photo courtesy of ROWENS27/FLICKR. Graph courtesy of the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Review 2008.