RALEIGH – Call me a nuclear-power nut if you want to, but I continue to believe that a new wave of private investment in nuclear energy is coming and essential. And call me a starry-eyed optimist, but I think the reason why America is going to do the right thing, finally, is that public understanding of radiation isn’t as appalling as it used to be.

The biggest reason why we don’t already derive half or more of our energy from nuclear plants is, well, big in a literal sense – the parade of gigantic, irradiated creatures and bulging-biceps superheroes who have roamed the popular imagination since the 1950s. The reality is far less entertaining, but undeniable: modern nuclear plants present negligible health and safety risks.

One of the best graphics I’ve seen on the issue recently can be found in a Heritage Foundation briefing paper by Jack Spencer and Nicolas Loris. It presented comparisons of radiation exposures by millirems.

• One year of radon exposure in an average household: 200.
• One year of living with a plutonium-powered pacemaker: 100.
• One year of living with the natural radioactivity in the human body: 40.
• One year of living with average exposure to cosmic rays: 31.
• A mammogram: 30.
• One year of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day: 20.
• A chest or dental x-ray: 10.
• A year of using natural gas in the home: 9.
• An airplane trip or series of trips totally 2,000 miles: 1.
• One year of living near a nuclear plant: 1.

As you can readily see, the increased risk of radiation exposure from a nuclear plant is so low that it is insignificant when compared to background radiation and the dosages we receive from routine actions such as air flights or trips to the dentist. As I’ve written about before, if there is one thing that virtually every physical scientist I know agrees on, it is the relative merits and minimal risks associated with shifting energy production to nuclear.

There remains an important objection, one voiced not just by anti-nuke activists but also by fiscal conservatives of my acquaintance. It is that the cost of building a nuclear plant is so high that it will never make economic sense without a government subsidy. I was sympathetic to this argument myself at one point, before I came to understand more clearly how much of the up-front costs are themselves the unfortunate consequence of past scientific illiteracy. “In the past,” write Spencer and Loris, “opponents of nuclear power have successfully used the regulations to raise construction costs by filing legal challenges, not based on any underlying safety issue, but simply because they oppose nuclear power.”

In a perfect world, the solution would be to sweep those pointless regulations away and replace them with a rational, science-based process for permitting new plants. In the interim, however, other policies are required. By giving into irrational fears and irresponsible interest groups, government regulators killed investor confidence in the industry. It’s not enough to withdraw the knife and hope the wound heals in time to meet the country’s growing demand for abundant, environmentally benign energy production. “Until new plants have been constructed and are in operation, thereby proving that regulatory obstacles have been mitigated both financially and legally,” Spencer and Loris conclude, “the burden of proof will remain on government regulators.”

It’s time for the environmental extremists to get serious. Do they really want to see large reductions in carbon-dioxide emissions without handicapping the economy and whacking consumers in the pocketbook or leaving them shivering in the dark? Nuclear has to be a major part of any reasonable response to those policy demands. For the irrational energy policies of the past, we need to see The Beginning of the End.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.