January 01, 1980 News & Features » Cover Story



Mike Town, director of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, discusses energy, the environment and why his group opposes new reactors at Lake Anna.

click to enlarge mike_town_sierra_club_100.jpg

Style: Nuclear proponents have touted the reactors as a way to generate jobs and say the reactors won't be harmful to the environment. Do you agree?

Town: We definitely disagree with that. First of all, nuclear energy is a very expensive way to boil water, which is pretty much what they're doing. Boiling water to create electricity. ... [T]his form of energy is very detrimental to the environment because of its danger. Human accidents do occur at these plants, as has been seen at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, the David-Besse plant in Ohio, which almost had a serious meltdown. And when there is an accident, it has catastrophic consequences, not just to the natural environment, but to the human environment as well.

Those consequences need to be taken into account before we decide to move forward with these types of projects. There [are] cleaner, safer ways that we can use to create the electricity to meet our needs. We should be moving toward those ways first, rather than putting all our eggs into the basket of nuclear and other dirty forms of energy.

Thirty years ago, when you were a child, people were protesting nuclear energy. Today, there's been a shift, and people are applauding its benefits. What has changed?

Well, I think there has been a change, but for the most part I don't think people are applauding their benefits. … Some are, and those people are outspoken. I think that the biggest shift here is that since the people who protested in the '70s were so successful, and then on the heels of Three Mile Island, which I grew up really close to, we haven't seen the advancement of the nuclear industry in the United States for 30 years. That means that the issue has gone away. People aren't educated, people don't know what the impacts are going to be, and it has given the proponents an opportunity to spread mistruths — to make the public more comfortable with new development. However, the one interesting thing is that Wall Street still says that it's a poor investment, and it's very hard for them to move forward with new reactors until they can make sure that it will make money for the company so that they're insurable. It's just that we're not sure that it's going to be possible.

How do you envision the future of energy development in the United States?

[F]irst, we really need to get a grip on how much energy we use. We should be able to turn on our lights when we want to, our cars should get us from point A to point B, and we should be able to do that in a clean, efficient manner.

There are many ways that we could reduce our energy consumption without impacting our way of life. We need to do those things first. It puts money back in your pocket, instead of the CEO's pocket of a big energy company. The second thing is to broaden how we get our electricity. Right now we use coal, oil, natural gas. Especially since these fossil fuels are the main case of global warming, we're going to have to diversify the way we get our electricity. So we need more investments in renewable sources … things like wind, solar, bio energy … other ways that we cannot harm the earth and meet the needs of the future.

Those two steps together, and then allowing us to bridge to a point where we can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and find cleaner ways to produce large-scale energy. We also have to make sure we're keeping in mind, one, our national security; two, the global warming impact and environmental impact; and three, the economic impact on the public.

President Bush has encouraged nuclear development and funding. If you were president, what would you do?

I would take those billions of dollars that they want to spend in creating these huge, dangerous nuclear reactors and I would put them into real energy solutions. Things like energy efficiency to make our cars go further on a gallon of gas, putting some of that responsibility back on the corporate sector so that they can be more responsible stewards. Also, putting our dollars back into ways to reduce the cost of energy and to produce it in an efficient and clean way.

Where, if at all, do environmental protection and energy development intersect common ground?

I think for a long time the environmental community didn't pay enough attention to energy use, and that has changed. I think the reason why is because we have really focused on the fact that our natural environment is all around us. It's not just the beautiful mountains where we go hike, or the Chesapeake Bay where we fish and go for recreation — it's right here in our community. We all use energy and we all consume it for good reason — it allows our economy to move forward. But everything we do, every time we turn on a light, there is a consequence and an environmental impact, whether it's making the air that you breathe dirtier, whether it's making the water that you drink dirtier or whether it's making the earth warmer.

Those impacts not only impact the trees and the fish, they impact our future. So I don't think you can separate the environment and energy, and I think that it's about time the environmental community understood the role that we play in developing a vision of a cleaner and stable energy future for the United States. S

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