In a special section aptly titled, “The Business of Green” (April 22, 2010), the New York Times gave itself over this week to a story on the resurgence of nuclear power and the “many thousands” of new jobs shortly to be created as the country’s 104 existing nuclear power plants and 27 proposed new facilities gear up for a “nuclear renaissance” (“The New Jobs in Atomic Energy,” by Steve Lohr). We read that community colleges are playing a big role in the production of this new workforce, with the Nuclear Energy Institute (an industry group) setting up partnerships with 52 schools to train nuclear technicians, some of whom will find jobs with starting salaries of $50,000. Skilled, well-paying jobs, in a growing industry: All good, right?
Well, let’s think about it. Job creation is a good thing, and a two-year degree can be a wonderful gateway into a STEM career. But the uncritical views of the educators, civic planners, and nuclear industry reps recorded in this piece suggest that concerns about the huge environmental and safety risks of nuclear energy are not just fading in America, but that they were never very deeply held. Lohr summarizes that nuclear power, “so long anathema to environmentalists,” is “increasingly seen as clean energy.” He does not make clear that in most cases, the folks who currently see nuclear options as clean (the NEI’s subtitle is “Clean Air Energy) are not the same ones who have long studied and worried about these technologies.
The National Resources Defense Council, for example, points out that while nuclear power brings lower emissions than carbon and other combustion- related air pollutants, nuclear plants still involve huge efforts at heat dissipation, the challenge of safely depositing spent fuels, and other processes that are extraordinarily burdensome on the environment. Residential sprawl near nuclear plants, increased risks of terrorist acts, and other recent developments make some long-standing worries of environmentalists more compelling than ever. And beyond our shores, uranium mining and milling in other countries (where the bulk of the uranium we need is found) are often conducted with very high health and safety risks to workers and those who live near these operations. Oddly, another article in the same section of the Times that day, (Edging Back to Nuclear Power, by Matthew L. Wald) even mentions some of these anxieties.
I think Lohr’s labeling of the skills now needed by nuclear technicians as “computer-age” (as the plants shift from older analog “levers and switches” to digital control systems) makes the whole idea of new nuclear jobs seem even rosier, reaffirming Americans’ persistent sense that where high-tech goes, safety and reliability will follow. The article’s quotes from those who have found new jobs in the nuclear industry, or who are training now for such jobs, are moving: That a family can finally afford to buy a home is gratifying. That young people will get technical training for lifelong employment? Also wonderful. But why in nuclear, rather than in solar, wind and other sustainable and far less risky technologies? That question is suppressed, not answered, when we focus only on the number of jobs nuclear plants might produce. And, yes, we can “have it all”: jobs AND sustainability, safety, and even industrial profits…as long as we openly and honestly assess the benefits and risks of the energy and employment choices before us.