A Friend's Path to Nuclear Power

Over a decade ago, I held opinions about nuclear energy similar to those of many Friends. I worked against nuclear weapons, but made a distinction between weapons and nuclear power plants—with the latter being a lighter concern. Later, after Three Mile Island, I became more aware of nuclear power risks. In the early days, however, I saw no reason to believe nuclear energy was any better or worse than other sources of electricity, including coal power. I knew from newspapers at the time that 2,000 miners died every year, mostly from black lung disease, and I assumed the dangers of nuclear waste were about equally bad.

Then, in 1995, for a class at University of California Extension, I chose to write a paper comparing coal and nuclear power. My training in math and physics led me to notice that all the authors who shared my initial position on the dangers of nuclear power got the physics and/or numbers wrong. Those who challenged my assumptions—arguing that nuclear energy is far less harmful to human health and the environment than coal power—checked out as reliable and compelling. (One antinuclear writer, Amory Lovins, argued, among other things, not that nuclear waste was dangerous, but that nuclear power costs a tad more than coal power. He did not speak to my concern: which source of energy costs the most in human lives?)

I searched without success for scientifically reliable sources to support claims that nuclear energy was too dangerous to be worth the risk. Rather, the story of coal—and the myriad ways it kills—began to look like the real disaster we were visiting on ourselves and our children, while the story of nuclear energy—the improved ventilation of mines beginning in 1959 that removed the major cause of miner death, the comparatively far lower risk of radiation from nuclear waste than was generally understood, the absence of air pollution—began to sound like a far safer energy source than coal could ever be.
I had two options at this point: maintain my beliefs without justification, or give them up.

For me, as a Friend, the Testimony on Integrity—to be honest and truthful in word and deed—pointed the way then, as it does today. Initially, I looked at all sorts of books, articles, and websites, from believable to bizarre. I wanted to base my ministry only on

Karen Street

Karen Street, a member of Berkeley (Calif.) Meeting, began working on energy and environmental issues in 1995, with an early focus on climate change. Her interest groups and weekend retreats cover a range of issues: understanding the science and impacts of climate change, examining our own greenhouse gas emissions and motivations for change, energy policy and technology updates, nuclear power, corporate response to climate change, and informed activism.