08/20/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

We the People: the Nuclear Option

In case anyone asked you, would you say, 'yes, build some nuclear plants to get us our electricity', or would you say, 'no way, I don't want it, I'll take as much wind and solar and geothermal and anything else, I'll even put up with the problems of coal, I'll cut my own electricity use by 50% and I want my neighbors to do the same, anything but nuclear'? Where do you stand? I said, in case anyone asked you. Well, that is really the first thing we need to insist on, isn't it?

You see, in most of the countries where people are reading this, we have a representative form of government. We elect some people to make laws and make decisions, and if we don't like what they have done, we throw the bums out and elect some new bums. So they might feel that given that form of government, which is, as some people have said, not the greatest system but better than all the alternatives, given our representative form of government we should let them get on with deciding whether we need some new nuclear power plants or not, they have all the experts our money can buy, let them make an informed decision and live with the consequences.

And generally I would agree, but not in this case. I think that there are some decisions that are just so different that government has to come to us. In the US we do a lot of that on the state and local level. Every election there are some propositions that are put to us, often about taxation. Well, this decision about building new nuclear is one of those. Except it affects everyone coast to coast. You see, while in the US we have been regulating and making decisions about electricity mostly on a state level, things are becoming more interconnected. Much more. And here we come to that wonderful old phrase, 'with the consent of the governed'. To make this work, government needs our consent.

Let's take the easiest example on nuclear which we haven't been able to deal with yet as a society: radioactive waste. Our government recognized this as a problem, and set about building a repository for the waste in Nevada, at Yucca Mountain. They have spent a load of money on this. Now the waste that was to go into Yucca Mountain is generated all over the United States, wherever there are nuclear power plants. And even if you live in a state without a nuclear plant, it is likely that some of that waste has to pass through your state on a train on the way to Yucca Mountain. So we are all involved in this, pretty much. Some of our representatives, and in particular the people of Nevada, have objected. So far this is not going ahead, and the waste problem is unresolved.

Now isn't this a problem where, since we are all involved, we all need to be asked, and asked in such a way that we can build an informed national consensus? We need a country-wide conversation about this nuclear waste problem, and it will not be acceptable to come up with an answer that 23% are in favor of Yucca Mountain, 22% are opposed, and 50% don't vote. You know the old line, 'which is our biggest problem, ignorance or apathy?' To which the answer is 'I don't know and I don't care'. Well, this is something that is not only going to affect us, it is going to affect every generation for a long time to come. Either way we decide, it affects us in terms of living with a lot of radioactive waste, and it affects us and our children and their children in terms of the consequences of climate change, some of which are likely to be irreversible.

I know this is hard. I know it is without good precedents. But it is important. And if we can have this national conversation, in the US, in the UK, in other countries facing these tough energy decisions, won't we come out stronger for it? That is how we learn, how we do better, by tackling something that is tough and difficult and solving it, or at least coming to an agreement as to how we are going to solve it, and only then telling the engineers and civil servants and our elected government, now this is what we want, get on and do it. Because it is us: We the People.

If you want to hear more about this, listen to the radio program I did on Nuclear Power at, the Green Talk network, which you can get from itunes by following itunes