You Decide

Produced by KQED

image montage: nuclear energy plant and cooling towers, green and red backgroundsImage CreditShould the United States build more nuclear power plants?

Think you know where you stand?

By Chris Raphael

Over the past decade, an overwhelming majority of scientists has arrived at the dire conclusion that greenhouse gases are causing the earth’s temperature to rise. They warn that if we don’t work quickly to reduce carbon emissions, these higher temperatures may threaten human civilization as we know it.

Researchers already estimate that roughly 160,000 people die each year from the effects of global warming. But the worst may be yet to come: According to a 2006 report issued by the British government, if carbon levels continue to increase, as many as 300,000 people could die annually from the effects of global warming. By mid-century, the report warns, up to 40 percent of all species could be in danger of extinction as higher temperatures cause catastrophic flooding, drought, crop damage and malaria over large swaths of the planet.

In light of this grim prognosis, energy experts and even some environmentalists are giving nuclear power a second look. They argue that like coal—which now provides about 50 percent of the country’s electricity—nuclear reactors can economically supply reliable, round-the-clock power. What’s more, nuclear power is relatively safe. Spent fuel can be safely stored, and a good portion of it can be recycled into usable fuel. While other alternative energy sources remain mired in the development stage, we already know how to build nuclear reactors. Best of all, nuclear power plants, which today supply 20 percent of all U.S. energy, have a major edge over coal: They produce carbon-free power.

Nonetheless, the nuclear industry has not built a new nuclear power plant since the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island—and nuclear detractors want to keep it that way. They argue that advertising nuclear power as an environmentally friendly alternative to coal is a disingenuous ploy that ignores the intractable problem of radioactive nuclear waste, which can remain toxic for tens of thousands of years. The horrors of the 1986 nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl in Ukraine have clearly shown that nuclear power is not safe. But even if it were, they argue, building nuclear reactors is a long, difficult and expensive process, the combination of which makes nuclear power an impractical near-term solution.


Think you know where you stand on this issue? During the course of this activity, we will ask you four times: Should the United States build more nuclear power plants? Based on your responses, we will argue the opposite point of view. Only your final vote will count toward the results of this poll.

Should the United States build more nuclear power plants?

Nothing about the issues facing America today is black and white. With these You Decide activities, you can explore both sides of an issue, put your own critical thinking to work, and discuss the pros and cons with others. In the end, perhaps you will ask different — and better — questions than those presented here.


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