I received general absolution at the Church of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Middletown, Pa., on the Sunday after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. It was April Fool's Day, but everyone was as serious as sin when the priest stood on the altar and, with the authority granted by William H. Keeler — then the bishop of Harrisburg, later the cardinal of Baltimore — absolved all contrite Catholics within his gaze.
At that moment, three days after the accident, no one could guarantee that the nuclear reactor down the road would not blow up. So, with our souls at risk, the priest absolved us of sin — just in case he wasn't around to hear our confessions before we all succumbed. General absolution is what priests give to soldiers before they go into battle. When there is not enough time to hear individual confessions and death is believed to be imminent, a mass absolution is allowed.
That was 32 years ago. Three Mile Island was the most serious accident in U.S. nuclear power-generation history; some radioactive gas was released into the air, some contaminated water released into the Susquehanna River. But no one died.
And yet, in all the time since then — a span of six U.S. presidents — no new nuclear power plant has come on line in the United States, and in the wake of the Fukushima crisis in Japan, a CBS News poll indicates that public support of nuclear power has dropped quickly to post-Three Mile Island levels.
Conducting such an on-the-heels-of-news poll is, of course, what we in the news media do. (Potential meltdown at a reactor in Japan? Children exposed to radiation? Let's run out and see if people think we should build more reactors in the United States. … And what do you know? They don't!)
Gwyneth Cravens, author of "Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy," went from being an opponent of nuclear power to a bold proponent — after she spent hundreds of hours studying it. One of her major conclusions is that the news media overreacts to reports of nuclear plant problems, stoking the irrational fears of Americans. While very few deaths have been associated with nuclear power generation in the United States, over the last decade about 40,000 people died annually in motor vehicle-related accidents. Ms. Cravens estimates that coal pollution is related to about 24,000 deaths per year, and "hundreds of thousands more people suffer from lung and heart disease" related to coal pollution.
It's our use of fossil fuels, particularly for the generation of electricity, that moved Ms. Cravens to the side of nuclear energy. Among the facts she relates in her book and in interviews: "A lifetime of getting all your electricity from coal-fired plants would make a single person's share of solid waste (in the United States) 68 tons, which would require six 12-ton railroad cars to haul away. Your share of CO2 would be 77 tons." That is simply unsustainable without dire consequence to human health and to the climate of the Earth. Nuclear power, on the other hand, provides electricity without contributing more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
For those of us who live in Maryland, this new debate about nuclear power, sparked by Fukushima, comes at a time when a French company wants government assistance to build a third reactor at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear compound; energy companies want to drill in the Marcellus shale formation in the western part of the state to extract natural gas through a controversial process called "fracking"; and the governor of Maryland wants to see an investment in offshore wind turbines.
Maybe we need all of it — plus solar, plus geothermal, plus biofuels.
But through all the debates about the cost-effectiveness of this and the environmental consequence of that, logic should bring reasonable people back to nuclear power and the need to expand it with the highest level of safety our brightest engineers and scientists can attain. "Nuclear power," Ms. Cravens writes, "is the only large-scale, non-greenhouse-gas emitting electricity source that can be considerably expanded while maintaining only a small environmental footprint."
Almost every time I get into a discussion with peers, wondering about our children's future and how we're going to sustain life as we know it without killing the planet, we end up concluding that we've overreacted —way overreacted — to Three Mile Island. We can't make the same mistake because of Fukushima.
Dan Rodricks' column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. He hosts Midday, Mondays through Fridays, on WYPR. His e-mail is email@example.com.