Is Nuclear Power a 'Bargain with the Devil'?

By Jim Rice 03-16-2011

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson wonders, in the midst of the ongoing horror in Japan, if nuclear power is a "bargain with the devil." The main reason for his concern is that "there is no such thing as a fail-safe system. Stuff happens." And we're seeing the magnitude -- and the unpredictability -- of what can happen in the unfolding crisis in Japan.

Humans have a tendency to assume they can construct technological and other safeguards against catastrophe. Harold Meyerson, also in today's Post, looks at three areas where the experts and insiders promised that "foolproof" systems would be "immune to disaster": the financial system, deep-water oil drilling, and nuclear power plants. It's safe to say that none of the three areas serve as stellar cases for human infallibility.

A few years ago, a Sojourners magazine cover feature asked the question: Is nuclear power the answer? "Is nuclear power the 'alternative' energy of the future, the way out of our destructive reliance on fossil fuels?" The article raised several major areas of concern about nuclear power, from cost and the possibility of accidents to the threat of terrorist attack and other health and safety issues -- including the unanswered question: What to do with the waste?

The article continues:

The choice before us is not between continuing reliance on fossil fuel or turning back to nuclear power. There is a way forward, a way that promises not only to cut greenhouse gases and provide enough energy for an expanding world economy, but does so in a manner that encourages democratization, local empowerment, and sustainability. The way forward is through energy efficiency and renewables, both in local applications and in mass production.

The ongoing disaster in Japan cries out for our prayers and whatever concrete help we can send. It also stands as a vivid, unmistakable warning of the cost of hubris, one that we ignore at our own peril.

Jim Rice is editor of Sojourners magazine.

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