Suppose you had a theory that a disaster of some type might someday cause a release of radiation at a U.S. nuclear power plant, leading to thousands of deaths. But suppose you also had a historical record showing that similar disasters had not caused deadly releases of radiation.
Which should you trust? The theory or the actual history?
As a rule, it's wiser to go with history.
Well, the historical record of nuclear power in the United States shows that it has been produced safely and responsibly. So we believe that TVA's plan to complete an idled reactor at Bellefonte Nuclear Plant, near Scottsboro, Ala., southeast of Chattanooga, is sensible.
Assuming TVA gets approval for the project, the Bellefonte reactor will generate enough power to supply 750,000 homes. In addition, it will produce none of the "greenhouse gases" that environmental activists blame for global warming. That's important in a time when heavy federal regulation is restricting our nation's ability to use coal - which releases greenhouse gases - to make electricity.
Nevertheless, we understand the fears some people have about nuclear power. It produces radioactive waste that must be safely stored long term.
Because of those and other legitimate concerns, no one need apologize for insisting that nuclear power generation be closely monitored to ensure its safety.
But looking at the long track record of safe nuclear energy production by TVA and by other utilities around the country, we do not see indications that TVA will be unable to operate Bellefonte safely. The United States' worst nuclear "disaster" was at Three Mile Island in 1979 - but no one died or was seriously hurt in that incident.
Some have raised issues surrounding the nuclear facility in Japan that was damaged by an incredibly powerful earthquake and tsunami in March. Those worries are understandable. But often left out of the discussion on the disaster in Japan is the fact that not a single person has died from radiation as a result. The quake and the tsunami tragically claimed thousands of lives, but radiation from the damaged plant hasn't claimed one.
Far from being a reason to drop nuclear power, the events in Japan suggest that nuclear power can be a safe, reasonable means to meet a country's energy needs.
In fact, Japan was on track to produce more than half its electricity with nuclear power by 2030. But regrettably, Japan's prime minister is now pushing for his country to drop construction of nuclear power plants and eventually to eliminate all nuclear power production there. That seems like a gross overreaction, since radiation didn't kill anyone in the wake of Japan's tsunami and quake.
And how Japan will be able to meet its energy needs without nuclear power is unclear. When Germany recently took some of its nuclear plants off-line in response to the problems in Japan, Germany immediately became a net importer, rather than a net exporter, of energy. Its energy exports to the Netherlands and Switzerland stopped, and imports of electricity from France doubled. That means higher energy costs for German individuals and businesses.
Japan and Germany obviously are entitled to set their own policies on nuclear energy production. But it would be extremely ill advised for the United States to follow their lead by slow-walking - much less abandoning - the production of reliable, plentiful nuclear power.