Nuclear power the safest energy there is: until it isn’t

Sometimes, I have to take off my jester's cap

Mostly I try to use this space in the newspaper to amuse you folks. If I can find something funny in the headlines and give it a spin until it does a pratfall or a face plant, that’s what I’ll do.

But sometimes the news coughs up something that is so deeply unfunny it moves me to take off my jester’s hat in favour of something more appropriate.

Like a HazMat suit.

I’m thinking particularly of a front-page story written by Doug Saunders, the Globe and Mail’s Chief European correspondent.  It took up the entire front page of Saturday Globe a few weeks back, when Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant was approaching full melt-down. The gist of Saunders’ commentary: what a shame that this catastrophe should occur just when we need to build more nuclear plants.

He argues nuclear power is far cleaner, and hence more beneficial for the planet, than coal-fired power.  And he’s not alone. He quotes George Monbiot, a world class environmental activist who is greener than the Jolly, verdantly-hued Giant and who writes “Even when nuclear power plants go horribly wrong, they do less damage to the planet and its people than coal-burning stations operating normally.”

To which I can only respond: Gimme a break.

We haven’t seen ‘horribly wrong’ yet. Three-Mile Island?  A hiccup. Chernobyl? A belch.  Fukushima? Well, we don’t know yet, but pundits are already declaring that the global alarm and arm waving was ridiculously hysterical and over the top. 

Our tech boys can handle this stuff. Always have.

Of course, ‘always’ is a relative term. Spent nuclear fuel — of which we already have 250,000 tons tucked out of sight around the planet — will remain poisonously radioactive for the next 100,000 years. How long is that? Well, 100,000 years ago your relatives and mine were crouched behind boulders throwing rocks and jabbing pointed sticks at ground sloths. 

Try to fathom for a moment the colossal arrogance of anyone confidently making plans to deal with containment of the deadliest of poisons that will remain toxic for the next three thousand generations of humankind.

What could go wrong in a hundred thousand years — I mean aside from earthquakes, tsunamis, world wars, terrorist attacks, empire collapses, plagues, meteor strikes …

Well, there’s always polar shift. There is a theory out there that from time to time the earth’s crust suddenly shifts, like the skin of an apple moving around the core. It is, as I say, a theory and not a widely-held one because there’s no real proof. Still it would go some distance to explaining the discovery of mammoth carcasses in Siberia perfectly preserved — flash-frozen, as it were — their mouths and bellies full of grasses and buttercups never known to grow in Siberia.

Somebody thought well enough of scientist Charles Hapgood’s 1954 book Earth’s Shifting Crust to write an enthusiastic foreword.

Chap named Albert Einstein.

Time is the problem. We have a planet that  unfolds in epochs, politicians that think in four-year cycles and pundits that salivate to 24 hour deadlines.

Einstein got it. His most famous contribution boils down to three words: time is relative.

Perhaps Einstein’s friend Erwin Schrodinger had the best handle on it: “Love a girl with all your heart,” he advised, “and kiss her on the mouth: then time will stop and space will cease to exist.”

Sure beats dodging abandoned nuclear fuel rods.

Mind you, Doug Saunders, George Monbiot, and all the other nuclear power cheerleaders are absolutely right — nuclear power really is the safest, cleanest, most reliable energy source we’ve got.

Until it isn’t.