Why Should Friends be Concerned
by Karen Street
published in Friends Bulletin
Sometimes, a seemingly minor turn in the path leads to one’s life road.
This happened to me about three years ago. After losing much of my
hearing, I could no longer teach high school physics, and so enrolled
in writing classes, hoping to become a science writer. As the topic for
one paper, I chose nuclear vs fossil fuel, curious how they would
compare. After all, I knew, no matter how much energy we save through
increased efficiency and conservation (and we can and should save
substantially), and no matter how rapidly we shift to renewable energy
sources (and we can and should shift), fossil fuels and nuclear fuel
will provide the great majority of our electricity for some time to
come. What I learned changed me as a Friend.
I had heard the anti-nuclear arguments for years, about the dangers
from nuclear power plant accidents and the dangers of nuclear waste.The
concerns about nuclear power tend to be non-quantitative. Numbers of
curies (decay rates) and lengths of half-lives are included, but
neglected are bottom-line considerations—how will health and the
environment be affected by Western use of nuclear power? The bottom
line numbers are these: no one has died from commercial nuclear power
plant accidents or the use of nuclear power in the U.S., though the
technology is new, and the probability of an accident is very small,
and even smaller with the next generation of reactors. Two thousand
reactor years of nuclear waste may kill some 1 1/2 people each decade,
some 1500 over the next 10,000 years. But, we’d “rather bear those ills
we have than fly to others that we know not of” (Hamlet, Act III Scene
The real environmental concern, it turns out, is the overuse of fossil
fuels. This and overpopulation (we may already have exceeded the
carrying capacity of the Earth) are arguably the two most serious and
intractable environmental issues.
In the U.S. alone, tens of thousands of Americans each year, millions
over the next century, will die from pollution from fossil fuel use.
These short-term pollution problems (from particulates, aerosols, NOx,
SOx, CO, ozone, benzene) kill some 60,000+ Americans each year,
primarily due to lung diseases and cancers, kill many more worldwide,
and have major environmental repercussions (water and soil pollution;
and harm to crops, forests, and ecosystems). Additionally, global
climate change, a consequence of adding carbon dioxide to the
atmosphere, promises an even bleaker future.
Our queries ask us about stewardship: we are facing global
environmental catastrophes from our use of fossil fuel. Our testimonies
tell us to take away the occasions that lead to war: energy and water
are expected to be the two main causes of war in the immediate future.
Our testimonies speak of equality: oil production will peak in the next
10 to 15 years while 4% of the world’s population uses about 25% of the
world’s oil. Our testimony says that we will not fight with outward
weapons, yet our lifestyle itself is killing large numbers.
Our concern about these issues led some members of Berkeley Meeting to
begin Friends Energy Project. Our interest is not to promote nuclear
over fossil fuel, but to try to understand all of the issues in U.S.
energy policy and energy use, and then to do the work that we feel
called as Friends to do as a consequence of that understanding.
are some major issues in U.S. energy policy?
• The U.S. has no agency whose responsibility it is to ask which energy
sources are best, answer that question, and implement policy based on
the answer. What we do have is federal/state disagreements,
disagreements between different departments within the federal
government, and rapid changes of administration, all of which
contribute to delays, increase bureaucracy, and produce conflicting
Our public debate is over poorly phrased questions: we ask about the
health and environmental effects of building this dam or that nuclear
power plant. We don’t ask about the effects of failing to build them,
thereby automatically selecting fossil fuel sources.
The U.S. should substantially increase funding for research in improved
efficiency, and create the political and economic structures needed so
that the results of efficiency research are rapidly and widely used.
Research on non-fossil fuel energy sources should be funded. We should
consider how we subsidize and promote one energy source over another,
and find a more equitable method that subsidizes the fossil fuels less
generously. Fossil fuel research should be funded, and the results
used, to decrease the dangers from fossil fuels.
• The U.S. does not include the total costs of energy in the prices.
The military subsidizes our transportation fuels. The costs of energy
are also paid by those people and environments harmed, and by increased
insurance costs and costs of building maintenance. These costs, called
externalities of the fuel cycle, are external (not included in the
price) subsidies of energy, especially of the fossil fuels. The
European Community created ExternE,
an organization of scientists, to calculate the health and
environmental parts of these costs. ExternE neglects military costs and
the cost of future scarcity. ExternE recommends that the prices of
electricity be increased, from less than 0.5 American cent per kWh for
wind, solar, and nuclear power to as much as 19 cents per kWh for coal.
These costs include the total fuel cycle uranium and extend to 10,000
years into the future.
For transportation fuels, prices are even more subsidized. ExternE
finds that European costs exceed European prices by a minimum of $0.60
per gallon for gasoline (rural) up to $4 per gallon in Paris. For
diesel, costs exceed prices by a minimum of $1.75 per gallon (rural) up
to $30 per gallon in Paris.
• In the U.S., transportation policies are chaotic, all in some degree
of crisis, according to the 1997 report of
the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology on US
are the major issues in U.S. energy use?
• We use large amounts of oil per capita, more than any other country.
We take frequent trips by car and airplane, drive low mileage cars, and
live in the suburbs where buses and trains are of less benefit. We
attach words like independence and freedom to car ownership and use.
• We insulate poorly and use energy inefficient appliances.
• We consume too much. We live in large houses with many possessions.
Global climate change is occurring because of the addition of carbon
dioxide to the atmosphere, the greenhouse effect. The Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was created to study this. Global
climate change is considered by the consensus of people studying the
issue to be a major environmental danger, perhaps Earth’s most
devastating. There is no serious opposition to this assertion in the
scientific community. Unfortunately, U.S. media interview people from
“both sides”, allowing Americans to think scientists disagree.
These are the findings of IPCC (you can get more information from your
daily newspaper or our web site):
• “the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on
• “climate change is likely to have wide-ranging and mostly adverse
impacts on human health with significant loss of life”;
• “climate change and the resulting sea-level rise can have a number of
negative impacts on ... cultural systems and values”.
can we begin? What do we do?
The first step is the most difficult. We must begin to look at the
issues. In doing this, we acknowledge our faith that much can be done.
Begin with threshing sessions and interest groups: What are the issues
in energy policy? What are my concerns about energy policy? How am I
living my life? How should I be living my life?
Acknowledge the complexity of the issues, and that solutions will be
both difficult and partial.
Make individual and corporate small steps. One Friend does not drive on
the first Friday of the month, nor does she invite people to drive to
her. Another is setting up a data base for carpooling. Pick a small
local or national project to help with.
Answers will emerge from individual and corporate wisdom.
Friends Energy Project has
been set up to facilitate discussion among Friends on energy issues and
related issues such as population. We would like to help people with
similar interests work together. We are available to visit your
Please visit our web site and give us your ideas, your interest, and
your knowledge. Contribute your writing. Let us know what you and
others are doing.