The nuclear energy debate — a case study in reactionary American liberalism

Former Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham, writing in the Weekly Standard, decries the Obama administration’s unwillingness to embrace nuclear power to meet his energy goals. President Obama says he’s committed to reducing the use of fossil fuels. But Abraham shows that, without using nuclear power, reliance on fossil fuels will almost certainly increase.
At present, nuclear power accounts for about 20 percent of our nation’s power supply, (compared to 80 percent in France). But if no new nuclear plants are built, the percentage of our power supplied by nukes will decline to about 14 percent in the next ten years, as older reactors go off-line.
Meanwhile, renewable sources — wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass — account for three percent of total net electical generation. Thus, even if renewable sources quadurple over the next ten years, the combined production from emission-free sources (nuclear plus renewable) will be only slightly higher than it is today. And, considering that demand will increase sharply during this time, we will likely be using more fossil fuel ten years from now than we are now.
The objection to using nuclear power, to the extent it has any rational basis at all, stems from concerns about safety. But these concerns are founded on events from the late 1970s (Three Mile Island) and mid 1980s (Chernobyl). Since then, Abraham notes, nuclear reactors and the whole nuclear industry have been transformed. Ironically, the old facilities continue to operate, while new, safer ones cannot be built. To borrow and expand on Abraham’s analogy, the position of the critics makes about as much sense as refusing to have heart bypass surgery because the mortality rate associated with this procedure was high during the 1970s, but then having the surgery anyway using the procedures of the 1970s.
President Obama is fond of looking to the views of foreign governments for guidance. He might consider doing so here. Nuclear power accounts for a substantial percentage of the power supply of France, Japan Russia, and South Korea. Moreover, the United Kingdom has recently adopted a nuclear initiative. Abraham emphasizes that it was the Labour party government that pushed the intiiative through. Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown used their office to educate the public and bring many nuclear skeptics around.
Abraham concludes that American needs that same type of leadership today. But unfortunately, the Democratic party and the Democratic president seem to be more hidebound than the British Labour Party.
How to explain this strange role reversal? It may be due in part to the fact that Britain and other European entities siphon off their fringe leftists into third or fourth parties. But it seems also to be the case that mainstream American liberals are now more ideological and less pragmatic than many of their European counterparts.

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