Friday, April 22, 2011

Nuclear power and the Easter Bunny


Americans love fiction. And with enough effort, we can come to believe that fiction is fact.

Take nuclear power. Even with radioactive releases from the quake- and tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear power plants in Japan turning from a trickle to a tide, a recent Gallup poll found that 7 in 10 Americans still believe that nuclear power plants are safe.

What in the world can 70 percent of us be thinking?

Perhaps it's the old "it'll never happen to me" idea run amok—the protective mechanism that allows most of us to get out of bed and go out into a dangerous world every day.

Or is it some kind of cultural superiority that causes us to believe that nuclear plants in the U.S. are stronger, safer and naturally more reliable that those in other countries? With the exception of Three Mile Island in 1979, of course, which we can dismiss as ancient history.

Perhaps it's a peculiar kind of Pollyannaism that is always certain that the future will be better than the present, no matter what, that is driving us to believe that nuclear power is safe.

After all, if nuclear energy were safe, it could solve a lot of gnarly problems.

It could supplant power now produced by fossil fuels derived from blasting the tops off mountains. It could stop us from pouring clouds of pollution into the air we breathe and acidifying rivers, streams and even oceans to the extent that some scientists predict that they will corrode the fish and aquatic vegetation they now support.

We could quit racking our brains and raiding our wallets in the quest to figure out what to do with nuclear waste stored in the stainless steel casks piling up around commercial nuclear plants in the U.S. because there's no other place to store them for the hundreds of years it takes for levels of radioactivity to fall to safe levels.

If nuclear energy were safe and endlessly abundant, we wouldn't have to give a thought to bigger houses, multiplying electrical devices and the gigantic energy-guzzling server farms that support them, or to developing the pinnacle of earth-friendly transportation, electric cars.

We wouldn't have to experience that unnerving and niggling doubt when we hear reports that trace amounts of radioactivity from Japan's collapsed nuclear plants have been detected in Boise, Idaho.

Seventy percent is a big number in a democracy. It swings elections, influences policies and shapes life—in good ways, and bad.

It's a number that would make the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus breathe a sigh of relief.

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