Duck and cover! That is what we practiced in grade school in Los Angeles in case of a nuclear attack. I remember it well. When the bomb hit, we were to get under our desks, cover our heads and wait for…what we were waiting for? Fortunately, it never happened, but many fellow 'boomers' and I grew up in that kind of environment.
A short while after that, we had nuclear power plants popping up like mushrooms. There was one about 50 miles from where I grew up. From our perspective, there was no good reason for this. It seemed like we were just messing with nature. If nuclear power was safe, why were we putting a gigantic concrete dome around it? Then, two events occurred almost simultaneously–the movie, “The China Syndrome,” and the close call at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility. The outcry was immediate: forget about it, nuclear power is power from the devil. Shut them all down. And most of the nuclear power plants in the United States were shut down.
Why am I telling you all this? Because I am still a strong advocate of nuclear power as a major source of energy in the United States even after all of this. Unfortunately, the fear of nuclear power lingers. This is hard to overcome, and the only solution is education and awareness. These fears come from three concerns: safety, nuclear waste and concern about nuclear weapons.
Today's modern nuclear power plants are very safe. We have learned from our previous mistakes and have much better technology. However, we’ve done a very poor job of alleviating the fears of our citizens. What about all that nuclear waste? Arguably, radioactive waste is no more or no less dangerous than the waste from other means of producing energy, such as fossil fuels. In fact, radioactive waste will eventually become harmless while the waste produced from the burning of coal is dangerous forever. Finally, with respect to nuclear weapons, most of the developed world has embraced nuclear technology to generate electricity. So the nuclear technology is out there already that would enable the weapons to be produced if they have the right components. The United States turning to nuclear power plants will not further any nuclear weapons agenda for any country. Plus, the way I see it, any reduction in the dependency of oil in the Middle East is bound to keep tensions down and ensure global stability.
What about the benefits? Simple. Nuclear power is very clean and very cheap. You can build it where it is needed. You can create a well-trained workforce (not Homer Simpson) with careers that pay well. TEEX is currently working with Texas A&M's Nuclear Power Institute to create the workforce development programs that will serve the nuclear industry. Nuclear power is not perfect and has its associated risks. But when you weigh it against other energy sources, it fares very well.
Gary Sera is director of the Texas Engineering Extension Service and former chairman of the Executive Council of the Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center.