Tom Solon, Kerk Motion
Engineers know it all. At parties, after everyone has given their opinion, everyone asks the engineer to tell them the real answer. Engineers deal in facts, data, and probabilities. And engineers are trusted. The public may have lost trust in the medical profession, in our leaders, and in our favorite news reporters. But, though they make jokes about us, engineers are viewed as straight shooters. This trust gives us power. It also carries responsibility.
Our nation, our world, is in a crisis, a crisis of power. Specifically, our dependency on fossil fuels has the world at war. Regardless of one's politics, it is an irrefutable fact that oil drives much of our economy and has fueled many of the recent wars. The sad truth is that we have a solution that we are not using.
Nuclear energy is the answer. Current technology is capable of providing lower cost, safe energy in virtually infinite amounts. And the prospect of commercially viable fusion reactors is closer than most believe. (Read the article on cold fusion in the March 29, 2003 issue of New Scientist for details.) But the public has shut nuclear power down based on myth and fear.
We all know the list: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, The China Syndrome (great movie, bad science), radioactive waste, and worst of all, that link between nuclear power and the atom bomb.
But, fossil fuels, both oil and coal, have killed and continue to kill every day. Coal mine disasters, black lung, acid rain, hydrocarbon emissions, oil spills, poisoned water and land, oil platform disasters, refinery accidents, the Gulf War, and arguably most fighting in the Middle East are directly attributable to our dependence on fossil fuels. Add to this the economic risks of a world economy inextricably linked to oil, and our current concerns about terrorism (think refinery or LNG tanker explosions), and it is hard to understand why we are willing to use oil and gas at all.
Is nuclear energy perfect? Of course not. But let's give it some time. At its worst, it has been much safer and it is in its infancy. The potential is even more hopeful with the possibility of fusion and improved processes. We live in a world of managed risks. If you look at the scorecard, the risks from nuclear power cannot match the real, proven and ever increasing dangers we accept with fossil fuels. But the public's ongoing fear of radioactivity has paralyzed us. For more information, visit the website http://www.ecolo.org.
People willingly inhale concentrated carcinogens (tobacco smoke), ingest poison (alcohol and others), subject themselves to all kinds of electromagnetic radiation (TVs, cell phones, microwave ovens, power lines) and seek out powerful sources of ultraviolet radiation (tanning booths and sunlight). Yet we have managed to shut down the most tightly regulated industry ever to have existed (nuclear power).
It is time to change this. We, as engineers, have the power, the public's trust. We need to tell the world that the emperor is naked! Look at the facts and decide for yourself. Then tell people what you have found. Write letters to your representatives and vote accordingly. Invest in companies that are developing nuclear energy. Explode the myth!
Or don't. But don't complain that you can't change things. Remember that it is your choice, your responsibility. Because you've got the power.
Reach Solon at firstname.lastname@example.org.