Across party lines, politicians in recent elections have agreed on one thing: We have an “energy issue.” What precisely that issue is has been more difficult to define, but whether the motivation arises from geopolitics, environmental concerns or technological forecasts, the widely accepted consensus is that we, as a nation, simply cannot stay the course when it comes to fuel.

Last November, Michigan voters struck down a ballot proposal that would have mandated that 25 percent of the state’s energy usage be supplied from renewable sources. Scientifically, it was a feasible goal, although the outcome of the vote shed light on a more complex reality. The roadblock to reaching a solution to our “energy problem” isn’t technological, but political. If Michigan is serious about being a leader in addressing the energy concerns, we must be serious about supporting alternative fuels. The most economically, technologically and geopolitically sustainable way to do this is to advocate for the continued growth of nuclear energy throughout Michigan and the rest of the country.

Opposition to alternative energy often comes from an economic standpoint. Fossil fuels provide more energy output per unit than many other types of fuel and are easily deliverable to consumers given current infrastructure.

For many Americans, the price at the pump is the measure for whether or not we have an “energy problem” worthy of political action. We expect our fuel to be cheap, consistent and available. If the costs are too high, there’s an issue. But, currently, we don’t have another choice besides literally buying into the problem.

The technology required to achieve independent, sustainable energy already exists. If the United States undertook a massive overhaul of our current electrical grid and replaced all power stations with breeder nuclear reactors, we’d be able to meet our energy needs at the current consumption rate for up to five billion years. France already gets almost 80 percent of its electric power from nuclear sources compared with Michigan’s 22 percent and the United States’ 19 percent.

So why don’t we “go nuclear?” Simply put, the technological switch to more sustainable fuel sources is being held back by a society that has adapted to fossil fuels. Even if the infrastructure of our current power grid were taken out of the equation, many examples of societal rejection of energy alternatives would still exist. From the long-established coal mining communities of the eastern United States to the powerful anti-nuclear lobbies, the energy issue isn’t played out in research labs, but in political campaigns.

Fear is also a strong motivator against change. Although there are legitimate concerns about what the United States would do with its nuclear waste, the issues raised about the safety of nuclear power are largely misconstrued. Nuclear power is statistically the safest form of energy currently available. When assessed by the number of deaths per terawatt hour of energy produced from each commercially viable power source, nuclear energy is at the very bottom of the list. Coal and oil combined are responsible for almost 5,000 percent more deaths than nuclear power. More people have had fatal accidents falling off their roofs installing solar panels than have ever died by nuclear incidents.

Despite these statistics, the fact that nuclear power was first introduced to the world as the atomic bomb — a devastating source of destruction — continues to have lasting effects. Following the Fukushima Daiichi disaster of 2011, public support for nuclear power dropped to 43 percent, though public support for hydroelectric power has remained fairly consistent over the years, even in the wake of the dam failure in China that killed an estimated 171,000 people. If we’re to fairly address energy issues, we must present the facts accurately and encourage a culture in popular media and schools that leans away from an anti-nuclear bias.

Michigan’s rejected ballot proposal represents a crossroads that the United States must contemplate. Have we reached the point in our society where we perceive the limitations of our fossil-fuel-dependent infrastructure to finally overshadow the costs that overhauling the system would incur? Or do we still perceive our economic and societal situation as one where the opportunity cost of devoting significant effort and resources to this kind of overhaul would be too great? At this point, the limiting factor in preventing a solution to our “energy problem” isn’t technological, but rather political and ultimately, societal — a problem that we can and must change through education, policy and politics.

Julia Zarina can be reached at jumilton@umich.edu.

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