Making nuclear better is still best

For 40 years I've written about nuclear power, defended it and believed, as I still do, that it offers the best signpost to a great future, to what Winston Churchill called the "sunlit uplands" — in short, utopia.

I regard electricity as one of mankind's great achievements, saving people from the drudgery that marks daily existence without it. Growing up in Africa, I'd see men and women walking miles, many miles, barefoot across the savanna, looking for a few pieces of wood to burn for cooking and hot water.

Electricity, I've believed for these four decades, is assured for thousands of years through nuclear. The alternative is to burn up the earth, fossil fuel by fossil fuel, until we are searching, like the people of the African savanna, for something that is left to burn.

Wind and solar are defined by their geography and limited by their scattered nature. Their place at the table is assured but not dominant. Industrial societies need large, centralized energy sources.

Yet a nuclear tragedy of almost immeasurable proportions is unfolding in Japan. The sum of all the fears about nuclear is being realized. Do disasters, like the Japanese nuclear one, really kill technologies? Mostly, obsolescence does that, but their demise can be accelerated by a last huge mishap. While the Hindenburg disaster at Lakehurst, N.J., in 1937 didn't end lighter-than-air aircraft for passenger travel, it drew the curtains: Fixed-wing airplanes were doing a better job.

Conversely, Titanic's sinking in 1912 didn't put an end to ocean liners: They got safer. Throughout the 19th century, boilers were constantly blowing up. Technology got better. Bad technologies are replaced by safer ones, and good ones with flaws were improved.

That is the history of boats, cars, planes and, yes, of nuclear power. The opponents of nuclear power have their footwear on and are ready to dance on the grave of nuclear. They might want to unlace and take a seat: Nuclear power does not have an alternative.

Big demand for new energy (ideally carbon-free energy) around the globe, and especially in India and China, can't be satisfied without nuclear. Abundance of natural gas in the United States already has reduced the demand for new nuclear reactors to four or five plants. We'll be okay for a while.

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of "White House Chronicle" on PBS.

Making nuclear better is still best 03/19/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 19, 2011 5:31am]

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