Monday, April 18, 2011

Looking for Nuances in the Nuclear Debate

The must frustrating thing about politics in America is that every issue becomes a debate between black and white, right and wrong, Democrat and Republican.  Or maybe it's blue and red.

The fact is that most Americans are far more nuanced in their views on almost any subject.  And most solutions to our biggest problems are not binary.  The solutions are not either/or, yes/no.  The problems are far too complex for such simplistic thinking.

Take nuclear power.  It offers an abundant, low-carbon source of electricity without using up acres upon acres of land.  It can reduce our dependence on dirty fuels such as coal and oil.  It could make us energy self-sufficient at a time of great global unrest and uncertainty.

The question is how to we keep it safe?  More to the point, how do we keep it safe at a time when the debate in America is over which party will impose deeper cuts in government regulations and spending?

At least with nuclear power, we cannot have it both ways.  Nuclear power is not financially viable without government subsidies, guarantees, and/or free insurance in the form of liability limitations.  And nuclear power can turn catastrophic without vigorous safety regulations and enforcement.

If we want nuclear power, then we need to accept that it is sui generis (Latin, meaning unique in its characteristics).  We cannot just lump it into the overall black and white debate over the size and role of government in society.  Whatever we do with any other program or policy, we need a more nuanced approach with nuclear power.  Because if we're not willing to create unique solutions to the unique and potentially catastrophic risks of nuclear power, then we shouldn't go there at all.

John Howley

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