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Essay lands Riley on Japanese TV

When Kent Riley submitted an essay on nuclear power to a web site on the topic this past April, he had no idea that his opinions would land him on Japanese TV.

About a month after Mr. Riley, a graduate student in the Department of Nuclear Engineering, contributed his essay, he got a call from NHK, Japan's National Public Broadcasting network. NHK had developed the web site, called Nuclear Power and the Human Race, to serve as the basis for a documentary on nuclear power scheduled to air this month. The documentary, which consists of two 70-minute broadcasts and two five-minute versions, incorporates profiles of individuals who participated in the site.

"The aim of this broadcast is to foster a global debate on the topic, presenting international points of view in a very personal and human manner," wrote Anna Geddes, the NHK representative who contacted Mr. Riley, in a letter to the MIT News Office. The network received several hundred submissions to its web site; they selected about 50 of the authors to interview for the documentary.

So on June 19 Mr. Riley, who originally learned of the NHK web site via an e-mail message passed along from department headquarters, spent about two hours with an NHK film crew. Among other things, he gave them a tour of the Nuclear Reactor Laboratory where he works on a potential treatment for brain and other cancers called boron neutron capture therapy.

The crew also interviewed him for about 45 minutes about his essay and responses to it. (The web site was interactive, so people who read an essay could write back to NHK about it.) "A few people took exception to my assertion that nuclear power can be cost-effective, that it can compete on a cost basis with other forms of generating electricity," Mr. Riley said. "I also think people have a hard time accepting that nuclear power can be an environmentally safe form of generating energy.

"Over the course of the interview, we discussed these issues and I answered them to my satisfaction, though maybe not to the initial questioners' satisfaction," he said.

NHK will be sending Mr. Riley a copy of the final program, which brings him to his only disappointment. He won't be able to understand it. Although the web site was available in English and Japanese, the program itself doesn't have an English version. "They'll dub whatever I said in Japanese."

Although the Nuclear Power and the Human Race web site is now closed to new submissions, visitors can read a wealth of information on nuclear power that accompanies the site, and read the essays contributed. Mr. Riley's is reprinted at right.

NHK produced a web site ast year on the topic of nuclear weapons that also resulted in two 70-minute broadcasts. The theme of NHK's next on-line discussion is "Manipulation of Life," with discussions of topics including egg and sperm donation, surrogate motherhood, genetic testing, euthanasia and using tissues from aborted fetuses or brain-dead patients.

Why I support nuclear power

Following is the essay on nuclear power that Kent Riley submitted to NHK's web site. (See accompanying article.) The Japanese TV network asked visitors to the site to respond to the statement, "Do you agree or disagree with the necessity of nuclear power energy?"

First, I would like to ask NHK why there is no option to "Absolutely Agree" with the statement. Does NHK presume that no one will absolutely agree with the necessity of nuclear power?

I strongly feel that nuclear power, and the technology that has spawned from it, is extremely important to humankind.

I do not feel that nuclear power should serve as a sole source of power for the entire world, nor do I see nuclear power as the "final solution" for generating energy. Energy generation should be provided by a rational mix of the many generation modes, which will vary from country to country and region to region.

Nuclear power is an excellent supply of baseload electricity (i.e., high capacity at constant rates for long periods of time), while other technologies are suitable for peak use and high demand. Though I strongly support the use and development of "alternative" energy supplies, I feel that the only realistic, large-scale supply of energy must come from coal, gas or nuclear power. Similarly, I feel that energy efficiency and conservation strategies should be greatly increased, but such strategies will probably only reduce the growth in consumption and cannot hope to replace nuclear power.

I feel that nuclear power is much more environmentally sound than coal or gas power. Great concern is raised about the safe storage of nuclear waste, and justifiably so. However, it seems illogical to argue about waste that is (comparatively) small in volume and readily confined, when waste from other generation modes (including waste generated from production of solar cells) is not confined at all and is routinely inhaled by the general public.

The longevity of nuclear waste is of great concern. Admittedly, it is impossible to design a container that can be guaranteed not to fail until all of the radioactivity has decayed. Humans, however, have the ability to monitor nuclear waste and the containers it is stored in. Actions can be taken if the integrity of a container is suspect. Nuclear waste, I'm quite certain, will not be forgotten about. This containment and monitoring ability, I might add, is something we do not enjoy with the emissions from other power generation techniques; their waste vanishes into thin air.

Nuclear power also has an excellent safety record, even considering the tragedy at Chernobyl. "Incidents" at nuclear plants are magnified in the media because the technology is foreign to the general public. Incidents like gas pipeline explosions are, however, not given much thought because at least there is no radiation involved. In fact, the accidental death rate is lower in the US nuclear industry than in nearly any other US industry.

Exposure to ionizing radiation is a legitimate concern, but I feel that the risk associated with exposure from nuclear power is orders of magnitude less than the risk associated with the toxins spewed into the air by other generation techniques. Even the most conservative estimates of cancer induction from radiation show that the risk of cancer induction from radiation is much less than other risks which are readily accepted by the public every day.

In spite of my strong support for nuclear power, I cannot entirely blame those that have a negative perception of nuclear power. Nuclear technology was introduced under the cloud of two terrible bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and for many years was shrouded in the secrecy of the US government. However, I hope that skeptics will take another fair and honest look at the tremendous good that is done by nuclear technology, not just nuclear power. Radiation and nuclear technology have revolutionized medicine as well as other commercial applications. Though the world may someday be rid of nuclear power, the nuclear technology that has developed from it will undoubtedly persist.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 16, 1998.

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