Roy Innis

Transportation safety. Shipping containers are constructed from layers of steel and lead, nearly a foot thick, and carried on trucks or rail cars. (The 25 to 125-ton containers are too heavy to go in airplanes.) They’ve been slammed into concrete walls at 85 mph, dropped 30 feet, burned 30 minutes in 1475-degree fires, and submerged in water for hours. They haven’t broken or leaked.

Over 3,000 shipments of spent fuel have traversed 1.7 million miles, with no injuries, deaths or environmental damage. Only one significant accident occurred. A semi-truck overturned while avoiding a head-on collision, and the trailer and attached container crashed into a ditch. No harmful releases of radioactivity ever occurred.

That hasn’t stopped imaginative writers from saying “catastrophic” accidents could put “millions” of Americans at risk of exposure to “deadly radiation” or even death, especially if an airplane crashed a cargo of nuclear wastes into a city. They’ve been watching too many Hollywood movies, where every car accident becomes a raging inferno.

Theft and terrorism. The notion that spent (or even fresh) power plant fuel could be stolen and turned into a powerful bomb is likewise more Hollywood than reality.

Those pesky little atomic numbers and enrichment levels are confusing, but important. Weapons grade materials are plutonium, uranium 233 and highly enriched (better than 20%) U235. Power plant fuel is slightly enriched (under 4%) U235. Spent fuel is U238, which cannot cause a chain reaction.

Turning spent fuel into a bomb would require sophisticated reprocessing facilities, which terrorists are unlikely to have. Even a “dirty bomb” (radioactive materials around a non-nuclear explosive) would cause more fear than actual damage. And the US nuclear industry’s commitment to safety applies to plant design and management, shipping and storing wastes, and guarding against theft and terrorism.

The bottom line? We need the electricity that nuclear power provides, and we can get it safely. Just try to imagine life without all the things that require electricity. Remember the pain, inconvenience and financial losses you or people you know suffered when storms or blackouts knocked out the electrical power.

Consider the warnings of experts: We are dangerously close to experiencing major brownouts and blackouts in many parts of the United States, especially in our western states, because we haven’t built the power plants and transmission lines we need for a growing population that depends on electricity 24/7/365.

We need to conserve more, install more insulation and better windows, and use more efficient light bulbs, computers, servers, heaters and air-conditioners. We need more wind and solar power, where those sources make economic, practical and environmental sense. But we also need a lot more affordable, reliable electricity from nuclear power plants.

Ponder how far our heating, cooling, communication and other technologies have come in just 100 years – and where we’re likely to be 50 or 100 years from now. However, we’re not there yet.

Futuristic technologies – like solar generators orbiting above the Earth, beaming electrical power to urban receivers – for now are pure science fiction. They’ll be reality about when Scotty beams Captain Kirk back to the Enterprise. We need to work on them. But we need real energy for real people, today.

Otherwise, homes, factories, offices, schools and hospitals will go dark. Bread winners will go jobless. Energy prices will soar even higher. Families won’t have basic necessities, much less luxuries. And poor and minority citizens will see civil rights gains rolled back, because only energy and a vibrant economy can turn constitutionally protected rights into rights we actually enjoy.

Roy Innis

Roy Innis is national chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), one of America’s oldest and most respected civil rights groups, and a life-long advocate of economic development rights for poor families and communities around the world.