It’s clean; it’s safe; it’s too cheap to meter.
That’s been the slogan of the nuclear power industry for several years now, aimed at assuaging public skepticism toward a technology more frequently associated with three-eyed fish than any advantages over fossil fuel. That task can only get more difficult following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, where crews are still fighting to minimize damage and radiation leakage at three crippled nuclear reactors. Some of the contaminated air and water has wafted over to New England, where officials are monitoring the situation but stress that there is currently no health risk.
I spoke with USM’s own Dr. Daniel Martinez, professor at the Department of Environmental Science, for some perspective on the renewed debate.
Do you have a personal position on the use of nuclear power?
Well, it’s not going anywhere. When it’s under control, it’s a very safe and effective power source.
And in America, would you say it’s under control?
Absolutely. It’s how we get 20 percent of our electricity.
But isn’t our development of it at a bit of a standstill?
Well, I think when oil prices skyrocketed, there was a lot of legislation between [President George W.] Bush and [President Barack] Obama to begin actually developing nuclear again. We’re in the process of looking at a new generation of reactors. The fact is, since the 1970s or so, nuclear has grown substantially, offsetting coal use. But yes, you’re right, is has plateaued for the last little bit.
There have been disasters involving coal and oil recently, but for some reason, with nuclear power, it seems to prompt a debate over whether we should even be involved with it.
The fact is, if you don’t use nuclear, what’s your alternative? Nuclear power has a low factor of 90 percent — that means it can be on 90 percent of the time. Compare that to a cole power plant, 75 percent, and you go to wind — 30 percent if you’re lucky. So the fact that it can be on so much is very beneficial.
When you don’t have access to fossil fuels like we do in this country, you don’t even have the luxury of talking about potential problems, really. In this country, we can have a conversation, at least, and ask why we need to use nuclear because we have access to these other things. Many other countries don’t have access to those things locally.
Are the safety risks involved really comparable to what you get with oil and coal?
It depends on how you define risk. If, for example, you’re talking about the risk of a magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami that happened in Japan — say there’s about a 100 year risk of that happening. And you have a power plant that’s 40 years old. There are definitely risks associated with it, but you have to compare acute risks versus long-term exposure risks. It’s worth noting that radioactivity in the ash at coal fire plants has about a hundred times more exposure than you get from a controlled nuclear reactor.
But the public perception — it’s still pretty negative. That doesn’t seem to have changed since “The Simpsons” first started satirizing it.
Yes. It’s hard, because you’re talking about a resource that the public’s first exposure was in the form of a weapon. You can start calling it happy, fuzzy energy, but I don’t think you’re ever going to have perceptions be all that different. Unless we became extremely more dependent on nuclear. Once it becomes a backbone of your electricity structure, you start to overcome that skepticism.
Maine shut down its only plant in the 1990s. Do you see the state reversing its course on nuclear?
Well, we get 30 percent of our electricity from Vermont or New Hampshire — we get a good, healthy chunk of our electricity from nuclear. We may not want it in our backyard but — hypocritical is probably too strong of a word. We do need to realize where the energy is coming from now. If you’re exceeding the national rate of usage, you’ve embraced it.