Thursday, July 12, 2007

Godzilla, global warming and the confederacy of the easily-freaked

Editor's note: This column was initially published in 2006. I have resurrected the puppy because I think the global warming debate is essentially over so we need to start thinking about real-world solutions instead of charging off in all directions to excoriate The Usual Suspects.

Just one ignorant, chicken-sucking Libertarian's opinion, but that's my story and I'm stickin' to it.

Last year, a couple of features on NPR celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first Godzilla movie. Godzilla was just one of a number of movie monsters created by, awakened by or empowered by atomic energy, usually in the form of an explosive device.

There’s a significant cultural coefficient factor attendant upon the mindset that produced those silly, cheesy flicks, and the NPR features were great fun to listen to. But I didn’t hear anyone mention the real-world downside to the Godzilla myth; the (pardon the expression) fallout of fear in the public imagination having to do with all things nuclear.

Those dratted, unpredictable, mutation-causing atoms! They were, in 1950s pop culture, the hack screenwriter’s catalyst of choice for creation of the new generation of Dr. Frankenstein’s monsters.

And that is unfortunate. Today, with world oil production nearing capacity, world petroleum resources undeniably finite, and formerly-slumbering giants like China and India waking up thirsty, there can be no rational doubt a bridge of fission-powered energy is the only sane way to get to our geothermal, solar and biomass-fueled energy future.

But public perception of nuclear energy has a lot of otherwise reasonable adults freaked out beyond all reason. As a result, no new nuclear power plant has been built in this country in decades.

Let’s talk facts: Coal mining has killed many thousands of times more workers than nuclear power facilities, even after figuring in the deaths from Chernobyl. And that disaster happened on a type of reactor not used in the U.S. … and only after its operators deliberately shut down a large number of built-in safety systems as part of an ill-advised drill.

Chernobyl also occurred in the absence of a free press and under a totalitarian government which didn’t care much about the lives or health of its citizens but was obsessed with catching up to the West at any cost.

In the worst U.S. incident, Three Mile Island, not a single death was recorded. And after all these years, I’ve never heard of any clustering of radiation-linked diseases in or around the areas where the vented, radioactive steam from the damaged reactor drifted. Compared to fatalities over the centuries due to coal mine cave-ins, explosions and the myriad of slow, awful deaths caused by black lung disease, nuclear power is incredibly safe.

The reason Three Mile Island was so scary was, for a couple of days, scientists thought a red-hot radioactive “bubble” was brewing, a bubble which could not be reduced and which might eventually cause an explosion. In the end it turned out their math was flawed; the bubble never existed.

But human memory is selective; no matter how objective we try to be, most of us don’t remember the few minutes of relief so much as the two days of terror that preceded them.

Accordingly, in the wake of the Three Mile Island incident, some highly-principled people staged a number of confrontational rallies aimed at stopping construction and/or startup of every new or proposed nuclear power plant in the country. When power companies decided it wasn't worth the bad publicity to even attempt to build any new ones, victory was complete for a hyperventilating confederacy of the easily-spooked.

Can we blame corporate America for deciding to build, instead of nuclear power plants, coal-fired plants? It’s too bad, since despite all the expensive and highly-effective upgrades in pollution control, worldwide burning of coal still spews tons of toxic heavy metal vapors into the atmosphere annually. Whether or not coal contributes to global warming, the official public record proudly proclaims each medium-sized plant is within state and federal compliance limits as it adds to the air over a dozen pounds of mercury each year. Then there's the lead, the cadmium, the nickel ...

Still, the decision-makers at the energy companies probably figure the coal-fired plants are not really safer, but people perceive them as safer. And who needs a lot of concerned citizens camping out next to a multi-billion dollar construction site, raising Cain in the media? If perception is reality, it must be safer to build and operate the much more harmful coal-fired plants. Of course perception and reality often have gaping, daylight filled gaps between them. But those who buy into the flawed perception/reality diad know what they think and choose to not be confused with facts.

It’s time for America to learn the facts about all the different energy alternatives, hire some French companies to safely dispose of nuclear waste (no fooling, they’re wizards at it, and have been for decades), and get back on the Sane Train.

All the facts on global warming aren't in yet, but if we wait until they are, it could be a little late to fix it. Let’s lay Godzilla and his imaginary friends to rest and turn our collective genius to dealing with the very real possibility of global warming. Godzilla only stomps on little-bitty special-effects buildings; a few dozen continuous years of El Nino would actually kill a lot of people while screwing up large portions of the planet we're trying to save.