Once an opponent of nuclear power, Stewart Brand is now a big backer. With regard to the safety, cost, waste handling, and weapons potential of nuclear power, Brand writes, “I’ve learned to disbelieve much of what I’ve been told by my fellow environmentalists.” On safety, Brand notes, “year after year, the industry has had no significant accidents” in the operation of the world’s 443 civilian nuclear plants. “Radiation from nuclear energy has not killed a single American,” asserts Brand. He does look at the after-effects of the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant which released a lot of radiation over swathes of northern Europe. He finds that the dire predictions that hundreds of thousands would die of radiation induced cancers turned out to be false. Weighing the safety tradeoffs between nuclear power and man-made global warming, Brand cites this observation from environmentalist Bill McKibben: “Nuclear power is a potential safety threat, if something goes wrong. Coal-fired power is guaranteed destruction, filling the atmosphere with planet-heating carbon when it operates the way it’s supposed to.”

In the anti-nuke corner we have Al Gore, who pointedly cites "the grossly unacceptable economics of the present generation of reactors." He begins his chapter on the nuclear option: "In the world’s debate over how to produce electricity without generating massive quantities of greenhouse gas pollution, there is a radioactive white elephant in the middle of the room: nuclear power." A white elephant is generally an object that costs more to maintain than it is worth. And it turns out that nuclear energy’s excessive cost is one of two the chief arguments that Gore deploys against it. The second is the risk that nuclear fuel might be diverted to produce nuclear weapons. Gore quite rightly acknowledges that nuclear power is safe and that the issue of how to store nuclear waste could be solved.

Gore notes that in the 1960s, the old Atomic Energy Commission predicted that the United States would have 1,000 nuclear power plants operating by the year 2000. That didn’t happen. Instead only 104 plants are currently operating and they generate about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. Construction costs for building a nuclear power plant have increased from $400 million in the 1970s to $4 billion by the 1990s and building times doubled. Gore highlights bottlenecks that could choke any nuclear renaissance, including the fact that critical components such as containment facilities to house reactors are currently being produced by only one Japanese company.

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