What do the Italians know that we don't

May 24th, 2008
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Nuclear Power PlantThe Italians are resuming nuclear power as a way to deal with the energy crisis.  They had given it up by referendum 20 years ago, but now they’re back, driven by the high price of fossil fuel, much higher there than here.  And they’re joined by a number of other countries in Europe, a dramatic sign of changing times.

How far behind are we?  How long will it be before the combination of recession, the loss of airline seats, the deterioration of our hospitality industry and the consumer inflation of escalating shipping costs, push our economy over the side, sending our citizens to live on the beach and our remaining progeny to live on the mainland.

What great ideas we have – biofuels, hydrogen, solar heat and light, geothermal, ocean thermal, ocean energy and wind.  All visionary but not yet really happening in Hawaii for so many reasons rooted in political diffusion and lack of public understanding about the realities and the options.  Progress is sporadic at best, despite universal rhetoric.

Talk is cheap.  There is no substitute for action and with the technologies of the 21st Century.  Yes, there are transformational things we can do.  There are ways we can implement working solutions in time for them to be useful.  Now, not 50 theoretical years from now.  Is there really a choice about this?

Section 8 of Article XI of our State Constitution (adopted after the 1978 Constitutional Convention) provides that “[n]o nuclear fission power plant shall be constructed or radioactive material disposed of in the State without the prior approval by a two-thirds vote in each house of the legislature.”  One way or the other, this can be changed.

France has used nuclear power for some time.  If Italy as well as Holland, Belgium, Sweden, Germany and Bulgaria for that matter, can find a way to implement nuclear power, we might want to consider it too.  First step, then, all we need to do is strike that provision and get about the business of building a plant.  If they can do it, so can we.

Challenges could be daunting, including environmental resistance (perhaps we’d prefer fossil fuels and climate change), safety (“fourth-generation” nuclear plant technology is designed to be safer and minimize waste), NIMBY and the need for a margin of land around the plant (location, location, location and maybe a little condemnation too), costs (wouldn’t this be more important to us than a limited rail system), the risk of terrorism (as in Europe, one has to balance this against a lack of energy security), and so on.  We can get there from here, and perhaps we must.

In the end, oil is going to get more expensive at a faster rate than the conventional new energy technologies get ironed out, sorted out and scaled up.  Unless we do something, the lights and the economy could in fact go out.  Nuclear energy must be considered, not after the fact, but now, as we proceed, hopefully, to a Constitutional Convention. 

I’m going to be covering this subject in greater detail in my column in the Sunday Business Section in the next few weeks, so stay tuned.

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