Japan Disaster Reignites U.S. Nuclear Energy Debate

Will the nuclear episode in Japan cause us to fundamentally change our energy-use habits?

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The tragedy in Japan has given new life to the anti-nuclear movement, as many Americans who had not thought about a potential nuclear disaster in decades have started to worry about the effects of radiation from a nuclear accident (not to mention the question of where to store the spent fuel rods). The question is, will the episode cause us to fundamentally change our energy-use habits?

Ironically, it was a segment of the environmental movement that helped derail the antinuke movement so popular on college campuses in the late ‘70s and ‘80s. Back then, the exhaust fumes from cars made us worry about air pollution, but we weren’t really focusing on global warming. The specter of a nuclear disaster was so much more disturbing, and the Three Mile Island accident of 1979 rattled many of us even more. Global warming, back then, was somehow more theoretical, more amorphous, and seemed less immediate than thwarting the immediate and long-term deaths (not to mention environmental damage) a large-scale nuclear accident could cause. [Read the U.S. News debate: Does the United States need more nuclear power?]

Fast-forward to the late 20th century and early 21st century, and global warming emerged as a far more serious and long-term danger. An Inconvenient Truth supplanted The China Syndrome as the prevailing environmental theme. Nuclear energy seemed less scary, although it’s worth noting that a new nuclear plant has not been built in the United States in decades.

The recent events in Japan are sure to raise, again, the specter of a nuclear accident here. But still, there’s been little discussion of how we limit our energy use; the dialogue has focused on how we will get the energy to power our cars and houses and gadgets. [Take the U.S. News poll: Should the U.S. put a hold on building new nuclear power plants?]

Whatever happened to conservation? Those of us of a certain age remember former President Jimmy Carter sitting in his cardigan sweater and urging Americans to turn down their thermostats. President Obama would surely be ridiculed for suggesting now that Americans lower their thermostats, or worse—turn down the air conditioning. True, there have been tremendous advancements in energy-saving technology, and that goes a long way toward limiting energy overuse. But despite the specter of global warming (and now, a nuclear accident), so many of us have grown re-entitled to using energy at will, without regard to its impact on the environment. Conservation alone cannot solve our energy conundrum. But it’s a solid step in the right direction.

  • See a slide show of a reality check on U.S. energy sources.
  • See photos of the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and resulting tsunami.
  • Read 10 things you didn't know about the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.