Like most spokesmen on both sides of the nuclear debate, George Wald takes the liberty of addressing only those segments of the issues that support his arguments. He employs the nuclear opponents’ tactic of couching ideas in emotional terms, as well as using the purely technical arguments preferred by the supporters of nuclear energy. Both sides are wrong in that they address themselves to the symptoms rather than the origins of the energy problem.
Nuclear energy, according to Wald, poses three life-threatening situations: the uninsurability of nuclear power plants, the toxicity of plutonium, the dilemma of waste disposal.
Wald claims that nuclear energy is such a bad risk that the insurance companies won’t touch it. That is not entirely true. The Price-Anderson Act of 1954 provides that $560 million insurance and indemnity protection will be available to nuclear power plants. The owners of the nuclear plants currently provide $140 million of the $560 million through insurance companies. If a nuclear accident exceeds with the $140 million primary coverage, then each nuclear plant licensee can be assessed a premium of up to $5 million per operating reactor. With the number of commercial reactors as of mid-1978, these retroactive premiums would total an additional $340 million. Thus, total coverage of the owners of nuclear plants is $480 million of the $560 million provided by the Price-Anderson Act. We, the taxpayers, pick up the balance of $80 million, which is not four-fifths of the bill as Wald proposes. Guess where the coverage of the owners comes from? Yes, we, the utility customers, pay in monthly installments for our insurance against nuclear accidents. But at least we are guaranteed some financial protection in the event of a nuclear mishap. If a hydroelectric dam comes tumbling down, there is no Price-Anderson Act to cover the damage. We pay for the convenience of electricity with the increased risk of a man-made catastrophe, whether it is generated by a nuclear power plant or a hydroelectric dam.
Second, waste disposal. We do have the technology to deal with radioactive waste, but the nuclear industry is waiting for the federal government to decide on a fuel reprocessing policy. There is considerable re-usable fuel in the spent fuel rods, and the industrial opinion is that the government will eventually start reprocessing this. As for the final resting place for the wastes, nobody wants them. Why not bury our radioactive feces in the radioactive after-birth of the Nuclear Age — the White Sands Proving Grounds?
Third, plutonium. It is true that plutonium is very toxic. That electrical outlet in the wall is very toxic also, and the chances of dying of exposure to electricity are substantially greater than those of breathing plutonium. The sulfur-dioxide produced by coal-fired power plants is toxic also. Ask the limestone statues who are being dissolved by the sulfuric acid in the air we breathe. Ask the coal miners about the toxicity of coal dust and black lung disease. Our electric blankets and blow dryers and electric woks all demand a price, and we are paying it in the damage to our health, our earth, and our souls. Plutonium is toxic . . . but so is our standard of living.
When Professor Wald says, “This country is our home, not your business,” he provides the cause and cure for most of the energy dilemma. Why do North Americans prefer energy expensive automobiles to public transportation? Why are appliances manufactured that perform a very specific task, such as cooking hotdogs or opening cans? Not only do these “time savers” consume electricity in their operation, they require energy for their manufacture. And what do we do with the time we save? Plus, we have the added bonus of planned obsolescence — now an economic and cultural fact of life.
If our present rate of consumption of energy and raw materials continues, we will have to have nuclear energy. There is no choice. When the industrial types tell us the alternative energy sources will not solve the problems, they are right. Our junkie need for energy can’t be satisfied with solar, geothermal or any other soft energy source. We need the hard stuff.
Attacking nuclear energy is not the solution. Our efforts should be directed at the cause of the problem rather than a symptom. If there were not a need for electricity greater than the present generating capacity, there would not be additional power plants built, nuclear or otherwise.