Editor’s Note: The nuclear crisis in Japan has reminded the world of the truth underscored by “The Simpsons” – when Homer was working in the control room of Springfield’s nuclear power plant: It’s impossible to make anything entirely fool-proof.

That proved to be the case even in the traditionally cautious Japan where the simple mistake of putting emergency generators too close to ground level made them vulnerable to a tsunami powerful enough to breach protective barriers and flood the plants, thus raising concerns about the safety of other nuclear generators around the world, as Jesse Laird notes in this guest essay:

Increasingly, nuclear power has in the United States been presented as a green alternative to power plants that run on coal and other fossil fuels, which contribute huge quantities of greenhouse gases.

Stewart Brand, an admired environmentalist and futurist known for founding the Whole Earth Catalog in 1968, went on the record for nuclear power in 2005. James Lovelock, the scientist who created the Gaia Hypothesis, and Patrick Moore, the founder of Greenpeace, are among other noted public intellectuals who have pushed nuclear power, which itself does not contribute much greenhouse gases.

Politicians, including President Barak Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, have presented nuclear power as safe and predictable. According to Boehner’s website, nuclear power “has proven itself as a safe, carbon-free and environmentally friendly alternative.”

Despite this growing consensus among elites, the earthquake in Japan has revealed that nuclear power is less predictable and less green than we thought. Radioactive material has already escaped from Japanese reactors, and it is possible that the environmental contamination will increase exponentially.

We simply do not know what is going to happen in Japan, and to what extent it will impact the United States (if at all).

In contrast to the emerging elite consensus, many ordinary people have reached an opposing conclusion about nuclear power: that we simply do not know enough about it, and that the stakes with nuclear energy are too high to use it in a state of ignorance.

In 1977, for example, more than a thousand Americans were arrested for nonviolently occupying the site of a (then) future nuclear power plant in Seabrook, New Hampshire. They thought that nuclear power might be unsafe, might be used to make weapons, and that the stakes of failure were too high.
In fact, all across the United States and Europe, ordinary citizens have opposed nuclear power on the grounds that it poses too many unknowns.  

That the present system of energy production in the United States is unsustainable, because of climate change and/or dependence on foreign oil, is a bipartisan position. Many leaders have presented nuclear energy as the quick, easy response, because of its potential to make large amounts of energy with minimal greenhouse gas emissions.

An opposing view, driven by a proper recognition of human limits, sees nuclear energy as a high stakes gamble. It is consistent with this opposing view to consider a portfolio of solar, wind, geothermal and hydroelectric power, along with lifestyle changes and conservation, as a response to climate change.

This combination of alternatives has its own drawbacks, but they are not radioactive ones.

The unfolding situation in Japan supports the perspective reached by many ordinary people who, in spite of the assurances of intelligentsia and politicians, recognize that nuclear energy still has the power to surprise, and that the consequences of failure can come fast and unannounced.

So, let us have courage to act on the information that we have, and the courage also to admit when we do not know what we are doing.

Jesse Laird is human rights activist from Portland, Oregon.   

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