In recent years, the main debate surrounding energy sources has focused on economic and, to some extent, environmental factors. But the existing methods of energy production and transportation also pose grave health risks to humans — a fact shown by recent disasters that could add more urgency to the development of safer energy sources.
Nuclear energy has long been criticized for its deadly potential, a concern that is intensified in the wake of perennial disasters. On Monday, an explosion at the Centraco site that treats nuclear waste in southern France killed one person and hurt four. France, which is more dependent on nuclear energy than any other country worldwide, was relatively lucky in that the accident did not result in radioactive leaks that might affect more people. Japan was not as fortunate in their own nuclear accident earlier this year: the leaks from a tsunami-hit nuclear plant contained the same amount of radioactive cesium as 168 of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima. The risks at nuclear plants have made many people question the benefits of the energy source: a Pew poll from March found increasing opposition to nuclear power. Even though accidents are rare, they have disastrous potential.
France was not the only country that experienced a fatal accident involving energy on Monday: a leaking gasoline pipeline in Kenya created an explosion that killed at least 75 people and injured more than 100. The explosion set shacks ablaze in the slum near the pipeline, as people tried in futility to escape the fire. The situation in Kenya is even more tragic when considering that many of the victims would not have been the beneficiaries of the fuel supply; they bear the risks while the wealthy elite and international community reap the benefits. Such disasters are far too common, and they would presumably not be as tolerated and ignored if those affected had a different skin color and social status.
These recent tragedies emphasize the need to consider the human as well as economic and environmental impact of energy sources. As scientists and politicians discuss the fuels of our future, the recent loss of lives should make it even more apparent that more resources should be dedicated to enforcing regulations and developing safer energy sources.
Obama has already faced several key energy-related crises during his presidency, and his failure to take clear steps toward new energy sources — as he had pledged in his campaign — might haunt him as he seeks reelection. The frequency of accidents related to old energy sources have made people more frustrated with the government’s ineffectiveness in supporting new energy. Some of the administration’s greatest blows resulted from such incidents: The president did not take quick, decisive action after the 2010 BP oil spill that killed 11 workers and had a critical impact on everything from birds to fishermen. Instead, many dangerous drilling practices have been able to continue. The episode disappointed already-disenchanted environmentalists who had helped secure the presidency for Obama in 2008.
The administration continues to grapple with energy debates, and Obama has new opportunities to take a stand for safer energy sources. Environmentalists protested last month against the construction of a new pipeline that would carry oil from the Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico, voicing concerns that the existing pipeline has already leaked several times. The State Department issued a report favoring the controversial project, but Obama still has the opportunity to halt the construction. Otherwise, he risks losing the last shreds of support from environmentalists outraged at his recent cancellation of potential new Environmental Protection Agency rules on ozone emissions.
The environmental necessity of developing new energy strategies is well-known to most rational people, but the human toll should also be considered as part of the energy debate. As the risks of existing energy sources become even more apparent in light of recent fatal accidents, the incentive to invest more money in alternative energy has never been greater.