Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

Mar 15, 2011

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson discusses his recent columns and the latest news.

Hello, everyone, and welcome to our weekly discussion. Not much to joke about today, with the horrifying events taking place in Japan. The scenes of devastation are shocking. The loss of human life is beyond tragic. And the nuclear crisis is frightening -- in my view, because whatever you think about nuclear power, it's clearly a Faustian bargain.  Let's get started.

One thing not frequently mentioned in the discussion of new nuclear power is that it is *shockingly* expensive. Studies put the cost of new nuclear at 3x current electricity prices, and 5x to 20x the cost (on a kWh basis) of energy efficiency improvements. Furthermore, no nuclear power plant in the U.S. has EVER been completed on budget, and the failure rate of such projects is estimated at over 50%. This is only ONE of the very many issues that make the continued promotion and subsidization of nuclear power completely absurd. Thanks.

This should be factored into the debate. Nuclear power plants won't get built without subsidies. The allure of carbon-free emissions is powerful, though. But I wonder what would happen if we subsidized, say, solar energy to that extent? I'll bet the technology would be further along.

Why claim "nuclear is toxic" when only FISSION reactions have radioactive byproducts and, when we work it out, nuclear FUSION byproducts are breathable?

If you read today's column, you see that I wrote: "...nuclear fission is an inherently and uniquely toxic technology." Nuclear fusion would be clean and its fuel is inexhaustible. The only problem is that we're a long, long way from working it out. Attempts to do fusion on even an experimental scale have been disappointing, so far. I hope we figure it out someday.

Mr. Robinson, There's a big issue with your column today. You are a non-technical person addressing technical issues. True nuclear energy is not fail-safe. Neither is any other kind of energy. Including hydro, geothermal, solar and wind. They've all got issues, 'Green' energy that is supported by many as 'better' have little to no studies to look at their long term ecological impact. It's unfair to make blanket statements about nuclear power, how about a thesis along the lines of "putting nuclear power plants around the 'ring of fire' or dangerous hotspots is a bad thing"? Fact is that energy can not be created only converted. And we must be wise in what we do going forward.

I know that no energy source is 100 percent safe. But the consequences of system failure in any nuclear power plant are of a different magnitude, and I think we should acknowledge that, even if we decide to go ahead and build a new generation of nuclear plants. We can't even decide where to put the waste products of our existing nuclear plants -- and they have to be entombed, basically forever. I wonder if our descendants, a hundred years from now, won't look back at our nuclear phase and say, "What the hell were they thinking?"

Gene: Any source of power carries risks. If we stop building nuclear power plants do we do more strip mining for coal? Deep water oil drilling? As a country we are not good at evaluating the probability of risks and the tradeoffs involved. It is too easy to demagogue or belittle like a former VP who said "conservation is for wimps." How can we have a rational discussion?

I think we have had a pretty rational discussion. When Three Mile Island happened, we essentially stopped building nuclear plants. Was that irrational? What it reflected was public unease at the prospect of an uncontrolled release of radiation. This is what I mean when I say that nuclear fission is uniquely toxic. The nuclear power industry has an excellent safety record -- but the implications of one bad accident would be unthinkable. I don't claim to have all the answers, but it's not necessarily irrational to come to a "safety first" conclusion after weighing the risks.

Eugene, I am an biologist and I am in the environmental management field. Yes, nuclear power is toxic, but the other forms of power generation are too. Solar cells are made using toxic metals, hydroelectric power blocks fish migration routes, windmills supposedly kill bats and birds, natural gas has problems with the fracking, and coal emits all sorts of nasty chemicals. Coal plants have permits permitting them to emit TONS of toxic chemicals yearly. That is what the permit is. It permits them to pollute. Every single day. Nuclear power only emits heat and of course radiation if there is an accident. We have to weigh the risks involved and make intelligent decisions if we want to continue to function using energy. I would take my chances living close to a nuclear power plant before I would next to a coal-fired plant emitting the daily dose of NOx, SOx, heavy metals, Mercury, etc. I think we are stuck with all of the generating processes above but we must control them utilizing the best technology available. Do you agree?

You make a very good point, especially about coal-fired plants. But there's another way of looking at the choice. Theoretically, the emissisons levels at that coal-fired plant have been set according to health studies. Imagine that the operator of that plant has a bad day and those limits are grossly violated for 24 hours. Now imagine that the operator of a nuclear plant has a bad day and your neighborhood is flooded with radiation. I'd take my chances with the NOx and SOx.

As can be seen with this latest tragedy, the radiation levels outside of the reactor climbed, then dropped down again. If you believe the authorities, there are no health risks due to the radiation levels (and I read this in the Washington Post, so it must be true). The reactors will probably never operate again, but it sounds like the design of the system was, well, fail-safe. No lives were lost by the reactor going super-critical, because it didn't. I expect that more people have died in the coal and oil industry than in providing nuclear power. If we turn our backs to nuclear power, because you think it is not safe, then where do we turn? Every form of power generation has its cost. Coal spews garbage into the atmosphere; hydroelectric ruins the local ecosystem; solar doesn't provide enough power and requires too high of an initiail investment; and the list goes on. What form of power generation are you proposing that will be widely available and acceptable to the widest audience, and still meet your fail-safe criterion?

I'd spend a decade pouring the kind of money into solar energy that we've poured into nuclear power over the years, and then I'd make my choice. Maybe we wouldn't find ways to generate more electricity from solar, but I bet we would.

The scientists knew the conditions that they were working under: Big Earthquakes. You know that big earthquakes causes big tsunamis. Big tsunamis will flood your plants. You know that under the these specific conditions that water will not turn to wine but would be converted to hydrogen and oxygen. Kids now that the combination is likely to explode. without a heavy mixture of inert gasses. What happen in the nuclear plant was probable. Do you think there was a big gap between intelligence and attitude in allowing this tragedy to happen?

There was one clear design flaw in the plant, as I understand it -- the generators that would have provided backup power to the cooling pumps were situated below grade, and thus got flooded by the tsunami. Your point is well taken, in that the coast of Japan -- right next to one of the most active earthquake faults in the world -- doesn't seem like the idea place for a nuclear plant. Authorities there say the plant was designed to survive a 7.9 quake, and of course Friday's quake was a 9. And there seems to have been a general miscalculation in Japan about how big and powerful a tsunami could be.

I saw you on Morning Joe this morning - you suggested the government could take the billions of dollars they're planning for nuclear energy and invest them in solar energy (or other renewable/sustainable source) instead. I think this is a good suggestion and would like to know: Why do you think this suggestion is not taken seriously? What is holding us back from investing fully in so-called "alternative" energy sources?!

Beats me. A cynic would say it's because sunlight is free. But of course I'm not cynical.

I know that this is a relevant issue and as a columnist it's important to get in a word on this issue now, but I think the public would be better served if you and Ms. Applebaum and several others would wait to see the results of this crisis before passing judgment on nuclear power. If this crisis is contained and controlled, and no significant radiation leakage occurs, even in the face of a thousand year earthquake and a massive tsunami, it would tend to demonstrate the inherent safety and reliability of the system. If, however, there is a significant radiation leakage or the crisis is not quickly maintained, it would tend to indicate that perhaps we should rethink our ideas about the safety and reliability of the system. Either way, I think we should wait and see before jumping on this disaster as purported "evidence" that nuclear power is "toxic".

My assessment that nuclear fission is an inherently and uniquely toxic technology should not be controversial, I believe. The fuel is toxic, the waste products are toxic... I also believe it's noncontroversial to point out that we cannot envision every possible geological, meteorological or human-caused event that could imperil any nuclear system. We take risks every day, especially when we get into our cars and drive to work. But we have the right to decide which risks are acceptable and which are not.

You make some good points, but every power supply technology has its risks and downsides. For instance, what if the Grand Coulee Dam were to burst? The main thing about nuclear power is that catastrophic failire is so rapid and potentially widespread, as opposed to fossil fuels, whose negative effects are so long-term that an industry has sprung up that denies that these effects even exist. At least with nuclear power, everyone recognizes the risks and it is therefore (potentially) possible to forsee them and make plans to avoid them. Finally, all nuclear plants are not all created equal. Some technologies are safer than others, but that leads to another conundrum: what do you o with the more dangerous installations? It's not as simple as turning a switch.

Again, it's true that every power source has risks. If the dam were to burst, a lot of people would be killed and a big area would be devastated. We would mourn those who were lost, clean up the mess and begin to rebuild. At Chernobyl, by contrast, hundreds of square miles are still off limits to human beings because of the continuing risk from radiation, and we're still years from knowing the final human toll, as new cancers continue to develop. My point is that not all risks are the same.

I haven't heard much about the status of the radioactive waste which is stored at the reactor site. How secure is the waste storage? Was it damaged by the tremor or flooding? This stuff is a big hidden cost of nuclear power. You've got to keep it safe and secure, and you've got to keep it that way for a very very very long time.

At Fukushima, reactor #4 was not operational but the spent fuel rods -- kept in a pool in the same containment structure as the reactor -- apparently became uncovered, heated up and caused a fire that led to a significant release of radiation. Long-term storage of nuclear waste is a huge issue.

Yucca Mountain is where it was decided to put waste. But Harry Reid didn't like it and Obama sees the issue as a way to put the brakes on nuclear power so after spending billions of dollars, it was "decided" not to do it (a decision, by the way, that some claim with legitimacy was illegally made). Thanks, Democrats.

Republican Sen. John Ensign is also an implacable opponent of the Yucca Mountain site -- as is, basically, anyone who hopes to get elected to anything in Nevada. If that indeed is the best site, then neither party has covered itself with glory.

You may be right about future historical views of nuclear energy, but I have to believe they will certainly be saying that about coal-fueled power plants (and other fossil fuel-burning engines). We need to find something that is cleaner than both of these.

There's a great big old sun up there that continuously bathes the Earth in energy. I'm just saying.

Think of all the downsides of our dependence on petroleum. There are immediate environmental problems, of course (think of the Gulf of Mexico). But there are also geopolitical issues. How much US military spending is related in one way or another to our need to keep the oil supply lines open? And remember, horrible though the situation is Japan is, so far nobody has been killed as a direct result of the problems at the nuclear plants. You can't say the same about fossil fuels over the last year. You make valid points in your column, and I, too, hope that wind or solar energy can play a bigger role. But we're not there yet.

Can we at least TRY to get there?

can someone describe what risks are inherent to solar and wind power? The dangers are obvious with things like nuclear and mining. While the "green" alternatives may have as-yet-undetermined ecological impact, do we know of any risks to human health? thank you.

The risks from solar power would essentially be those involved in manufacturing the solar panels -- if you had to use particularly noxious substances, for example. I've read that wind turbines might, or perhaps do, disrupt the flight patterns of some birds; and of course birds or bats could fly straight into the blades, I suppose. I don't know of any other risks.

How is solar energy unsafe (short of falling off the roof while installing it)?

A cynic would say, "Ask John Boehner." But of course I'm not cynical.

"I'd spend a decade pouring the kind of money into solar energy that we've poured into nuclear power over the years, and then I'd make my choice. Maybe we wouldn't find ways to generate more electricity from solar, but I bet we would." Fair enough, but can we wait that long for an answer that may or may not be satisfactory and, furthermore, what other alternative energy do we use while we wait, if not petroleum? Must we wait at least a decade of cost, feasibilty and safety analyses for each energy source, as you suggested, also?

If we start green-lighting new nuclear plants now, it's going to take that long for them to come online anyway, right?

My time is up for today, folks. Thanks for participating, and I'll see you again next week.

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
Archive of Eugene Robinson's columns
Recent Chats
  • Next: