GUEST COLUMN Crises are not opportunities

Nuclear policy should respond to sound science, not political whims

The nuclear crisis in Japan is severe. A reactor core has partially melted, chemical explosions have breached the containment, and radiation has been released into the atmosphere and ocean. Of course, this is a direct consequence of a catastrophic natural disaster of historic, unprecedented proportions. The earthquake and tsunami have utterly devastated Japan, and the magnitude of the total ruin will unfortunately dwarf that of the nuclear component.

Nevertheless, as grave as these circumstances are, it is not the physical disaster that is my principal worry. I don’t fear nuclear meltdowns. I don’t fear any sort of chemical explosions. I don’t even fear widespread radiation sickness, especially not anywhere beyond Japan. The only thing I really fear, if you will excuse a platitude, is fear itself.

You probably recognize this as a reference to Franklin Roosevelt’s timeless words: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The antithesis of this platitude is another that has permeated U.S. political dialogue throughout the past decade: “Never let a crisis go to waste.” The implication of the latter is that for people in power, crises such as this represent rare and precious opportunities to achieve political objectives. In the wake of crises and amidst ensuing media frenzies, there is a dangerous propensity for governments to make rash decisions with respect to long-term policy. People are myopic by nature ­— they tend to lose sight of important long-term goals in favor of whatever peril seems to loom large at the moment.

Although President Obama has displayed his characteristic calm steadiness in affirming his support for increased nuclear energy in the U.S., other nations have succumbed to transitory public fear. Germany has shut down many of its oldest reactors. Italy has instituted a one-year moratorium on the construction of new reactors. China has indefinitely suspended all new reactor approvals. Israeli officials have stated that their nation must rethink its plans to pursue commercial nuclear energy. These decisions were all made less than two weeks after the earthquake, while the crisis was still unfolding and before anyone had time to ascertain — much less digest — what was really happening.

Evidently, people saw opportunities.

Nuclear energy is especially vulnerable to this sort of opportunism, as the word “nuclear” tends to incite an especially feverish reaction in the media as well as the general public. Hollywood-esque memes related to radioactive contamination and weapons proliferation have stoked up widespread fear of the word “nuclear.” This fear, which can exist only within a void of accurate scientific information, has led to a great irony: that many environmentalists — those who care most about a clean energy future — oppose nuclear energy, an essential means to achieve that future. Every unbiased quantitative study of future U.S. energy resources has concluded that we cannot meet our carbon emissions goals without a substantial expansion of nuclear energy. The numbers just don’t add up any other way. Tragically, this fear of a word, nothing more than fear itself, has made foes of should-be friends.

Energy policy must not be fickle; it must be steady. Crises often require quick decisions with respect to short-term policy in order to minimize damage and provide aid. What crises never require, however, are quick decisions with respect to long-term policy. Short-term policy should be based on short-term demands, while long-term policy should be based on long-term demands. It really is that simple. Some might argue that crises, which constitute short-term demands, can sometimes indicate long-term demands. This is true, but determining whether a crisis is an indicator or a fluke takes time. Let us not squander our energy security without ample time and careful reflection. We must root our energy policy in science, not fear.

We scientists and engineers urge all lawmakers of the world to remain steadfast amidst public fear and the clamor of its mongers, the opportunists. The great challenge of statesmanship is to weather the whims and vicissitudes of daily politics while remaining focused on the much longer arc of sound public policy. Lawmakers of the world, we hope you will rise to that challenge.

Mark Reed ’09 is a PhD pre-candidate in Nuclear Science and Engineering.