Commentary: Will Japan's nuclear crisis change our energy strategy?

The Lexington Herald-LeaderMarch 27, 2011 

If we can learn anything from recent headlines, it is that powering our economy and lifestyle will only get more difficult and expensive, at least in the near future.

Japan is struggling to avert catastrophe from an earthquake-damaged nuclear power plant. The crisis has the rest of the world taking a second look at the safety of its nuclear systems.

Kentucky outlawed nuclear power in 1984 until the federal government came up with a plan for storing spent fuel, which it has yet to do. The ban was prompted by a leaking radioactive dump in Fleming County that took years to contain. The state Senate voted last month to repeal the ban, but the bill died in the House.

Should Kentucky reconsider nuclear power, which now provides 20 percent of this nation's electricity? Maybe so. We're in no position to ignore any source of energy. But Japan's disaster reminds us nuclear power is an imperfect, unforgiving technology that can be dangerous and costly.

I spent the early years of my career covering another example, much closer to home.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, which provides electricity to parts of Kentucky and six other states, narrowly averted a nuclear accident in 1975 when one of its reactors in Alabama caught fire.

By the time I started covering TVA in 1981, the utility was raising electricity rates and writing off billions of dollars in investment because officials realized the agency was building too many nuclear reactors.

Then, in 1985, TVA shut down all its reactors after its own nuclear engineers secretly came to me and other reporters with evidence that raised questions about whether those plants had been built safely. That led to years of repairs and billions in additional cost.

Coal provides half the nation's power and more than 90 percent of Kentucky's power. Electricity has been cheap in this state, because many of the health and environmental costs of mining and burning coal have been ignored. That is changing, because it must.

The Environmental Protection Agency last week proposed tighter rules for how much mercury, other toxic substances and particle pollution coal-fired power plants can release into the air. The EPA claims the rules will save 17,000 lives a year, and the $10 billion cost of making plants cleaner would produce $100 billion worth of health and environmental benefits.

Utilities will fight the new rules, just as they fought many previous rules that made coal-fired plants much cleaner and safer. Expect opposition, too, from many politicians, especially those in the pockets of industries that fund their campaigns.

They will say we "can't afford" to protect public health or the environment, and higher standards will "kill jobs." Change is inevitable, though, because research shows that pollution and climate change are killing a lot more than jobs.

Many of those same politicians have fought against fuel-economy standards for vehicles, leaving us all the more vulnerable to political instability in the Middle East and rising demand for oil in developing nations such as China and India.

Increasing domestic oil production in ways that harm the environment isn't the answer, because that would barely make a dent in the price or supply of what is now a globally traded commodity.

So what is the answer? There isn't one, but many.

We must invest in research and technology to mine, drill and burn coal and oil more cleanly and efficiently. We must incorporate whatever lessons are learned from Japan's crisis to make nuclear power safer.

We must develop renewable energy sources — solar, wind and biomass — that will be able to sustain civilization long after coal and oil are gone. Government must play a significant role in this research where private industry cannot or will not.

Perhaps more than anything, we must get serious about designing buildings, vehicles and gadgets to use less energy. Conservation isn't as difficult as many people think. Take, for example, Kentucky's many new energy-efficient school buildings, including one in Warren County that will generate as much power as it uses.

We have a choice: ignore the headlines and fight inevitable change, or learn from them and get serious about balancing our needs and desires with those of future generations. Anyone who thinks we can maintain our energy status quo is a dim bulb.

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