Early this month, German citizens gathered in the thousands to protest trains and trucks entering their country from France. The contents of the trains in question was reprocessed nuclear waste. It seems that Germans were upset with their government’s recent decision to extend the life of their 17 nuclear power plants by 12 years. The extension is under fire because it moves Germany further from its original plan for its nuclear power plants — to have all plants phased out by 2021.

Government officials have responded to protests — which have become commonplace in the past few years — by stating that they currently don’t have a solid alternative to nuclear power and shutting down current plants would leave the country without a reliable energy supply. But the protesters aren’t buying this excuse. They seem to believe that the next Chernobyl disaster is right around the corner.

It’s easy to understand the protesters’ concerns. Nuclear plant accidents aren’t exactly something that can be taken care of overnight. The 1986 Chernobyl disaster, for instance, devastated a large region of Europe after a reactor failed and released a large plume of radioactive fallout. It eventually forced more than 350,000 people to relocate because of unsafe levels of radiation. This is obviously an unacceptable result, but that is the most extreme example of a plant failure ever.

Currently, the U.S. has the largest number of nuclear power plants in the world — but it hasn’t constructed a new plant in nearly 37 years. Obama’s cap-and-trade plan includes a provision to set aside $36 billion for the construction of nuclear facilities. But due to our current economic situation, there hasn’t been a push to raise taxes to create new plants. According to a Nov. 11 CNN article, people like Whitney Stanco — an analyst at the Washington Research Group — suggested that using the money as a loan instead of grants could jumpstart the plan, which would reduce our nation’s dependence on fossil fuels.

Even if the $36 billion in federal subsidies is granted to power companies, there’s still reluctance to put more workers and civilians at risk of a major accident like Chernobyl. But Chernobyl should be looked at as an anomaly rather than the norm. Though there have been similar accidents since 1986, no failures have occurred on the same scale as the Chernobyl incident. A properly maintained and managed nuclear power plant offers many solutions to our current energy, environmental and economic problems.

The capital cost associated with nuclear power plants comprises a large majority of total cost. Uranium is a fairly common element in the Earth’s crust. One pound of it has roughly the same energy content as 2 million pounds of coal, meaning we need much less fuel to run a nuclear plant than a coal-fired power plant. Less fuel means lower production costs — even when considering the price of the enrichment process.

The environmental impacts can’t be ignored, either. Coal-fired power plants release large amounts of carbon dioxide, sulfur — resulting in acid rain — and fly ash. On the other hand, the byproducts of nuclear plants include radioactive waste, but this waste is on a much smaller scale than the outputs of coal plants. With recent advancements in technology, scientists and nuclear engineers are finding better ways to reprocess this waste and have the potential to make nuclear plants self-sufficient in terms of fuel.

Nuclear power plants would reduce our dependence on foreign fossil fuels, increasing our nation’s ability to operate on our own terms. In times of turmoil abroad, it’s vital that we become an energy-independent nation.

The German protesters seem to have a “not in my backyard” mentality. What they aren’t grasping is that nuclear energy is one of the most cost-effective and environmentally friendly forms of power. The U.S. should look at the brighter side of this form of energy — lower energy cost, lower carbon footprint and less dependence on foreign fuels.

Using nuclear power seems like a no-brainer when considering all the positive benefits. Though the cons can’t be thrown to the wind, safer practices and new technologies that prevent accidents and reduce radioactive waste justify the risks. Like it or not, nuclear power is going to be a part of our future. It would be best for our country and environment if we embraced it.

Joe Sugiyama can be reached at jmsugi@umich.edu.

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