Extracting fossil fuels from ever-more-difficult environments is a dangerous business, a truth underlined spectacularly by the explosion at the Massey mine in April that killed 29 miners or the Deepwater Horizon spill that has left the Louisiana coast a blackened brackish mess.
Not in decades has the nuclear option looked more attractive. Earlier this year, the government extended funding to build two new reactors at the Vogtle plant in Georgia, likely the first reactors to go online since 1996, and a lot more may be in the works. Oil and coal disasters like Massey and Deepwater Horizon may be some of the best arguments for nuclear power.
They may also be some of the best arguments against it. Disasters like Deepwater Horizon highlight troubling truths about natural resources. But they also point to some equally troubling truths about accidents and worst-case scenarios.
If you think that the lesson of the gulf disaster is that we have been racing too fast to drill for oil without adequate equipment or safety protocols, then you may conclude that we should slow down the search for fossil fuels — and perhaps turn toward nuclear. But if you think that the story of the spill is not mainly a story about fossil fuels but about how many levels of "fail-safe" mechanisms fail, it is likely to make you more skeptical of the nuclear option.
That last sentence is not what I set out to write when I started thinking about this story. My first impulse was to think that Deepwater Horizon was self-evidently an argument for nuclear power. What, after all, could be a better advertisement for nuclear than the oil-soaked pelicans? Say what you will about it, but nuclear power doesn't turn the beaches black.
Nuclear does not pollute the air. It does not leave the United States dependent on foreign energy. As global warming has become a more pressing concern, the case for nuclear has gotten even stronger. It's by far the most viable source of electricity that does not release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It has worked well for years. (In France, where nuclear provides about four-fifths of electricity, reactors are still being actively built — the newest started up in 2002.)
With all this in the background, you would think that a giant oil-related accident would be another point against fossil fuels and for nuclear, and in some ways it is. In one very important way, however, it is not. The most visceral concern about nuclear power comes down to, "What if something goes wrong?" Deepwater Horizon is a compelling reminder that things go wrong, in unexpected ways, at unexpected times, to catastrophic effect.
New York Times writer David Leonhardt very aptly and quickly caught what you might think of as the intellectual implications of the disaster in a New York Times Magazine essay about our propensity to underestimate the chances of "low probability, high cost events." That's something that has been discussed for a while among economists. When it comes to nuclear failure, the cost of failure really is incalculable. Bad as the Deepwater Horizon spill is, it is nothing next to the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown, which has left close to 1,100 square miles surrounding the Chernobyl reactor uninhabitable to this day.
The near meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant did a lot to sour Americans on nuclear power, but Three Mile Island was a disaster that didn't happen. The safety systems and protocols worked. The plant shut down.
On the Deepwater Horizon well, the safety systems didn't work. The same high-pressure conditions that made the well fail made the blind shear ram that was supposed to cut the pipe fail as well. This is the problem of the last-resort fail-safe plan: It has to work in the least likely and most overwhelming conditions. In other words, it has to anticipate the conditions most likely to lead to disaster.
Accidents — as British Petroleum is finding out with great pain — turn out not only to be likelier than lay people think, but more expensive and serious than the accountants budget for.
For all the attractions of nuclear, there remains the looming question of what happens if things go wrong. Nuclear power suffers from what you can think of as a paradox of catastrophe: The worst-case scenario is so terrible that we are actually less able to quantify it and consider its ramifications than we are with other potential disasters. The truth is that the costs of that would be so great that we simply put it in the category of those near-inconceivables we don't want to consider. Which is all the more reason to consider it.