Nuclear Columbine

June 16, 2015 | 6:00 am
Dave Lochbaum
Former Contributor

Nuclear Energy Activist Toolkit #57

From Charles Whitman killing 16 people with shots fired from a tower on the University of Texas at Austin campus on August 1, 1966, to two students killing 13 people by gunfire at Columbine High School in Colorado on April 20, 1999, to a gunmen killing 32 people at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, to a young man fatally shooting 20 children and 6 staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012, and many other incidents, school shootings have tragically claimed too many innocent lives and given too many families irreplaceable, unforgettable losses.

The United States could have reacted to Whitman’s rampage by closing all public and private schools. That action would have absolutely prevented school shootings and their tragic consequences.

Instead, the United States chose to sustain the benefits from formal education while pursuing measures intended to make schools as safe as possible. While school shootings have continued, I recall the comments made by William J. Bennett, Secretary of Education under President Ronald Reagan, after Columbine. Bennett observed that while you could count the times the safety measures failed, you could not count the times they succeeded in averting tragedies. Rather than suggesting that occasional school shootings were “acceptable losses,” Bennett emphasized the vital role for safety and security in our educational system.

This education situation is similar to our longstanding position on nuclear power. Nuclear power became one of UCS’s focus areas shortly after the organization was formed in May 1969. Nuclear power provides certain benefits by producing large amounts of energy from a relatively small environmental footprint. But the consequences from nuclear mis-steps can be extremely costly. UCS has consistently focused on identifying nuclear power plant safety shortcomings and advocating their solutions. The nuclear plant accidents at Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986), and Fukushima (2011) has not altered that focus.

Bottom Line

One of two things would need to happen to move UCS into adopting either a pro-nuclear power or an anti-nuclear power position.

First, we could become unable to find nuclear power plant safety shortcomings if all operating reactors complied with applicable regulations or if all operating reactors were inherently safe. With only benefits to be captured and no costly consequences to be experienced, nuclear power could be embraced by UCS.

Second, we could become unable to find appropriate solutions for nuclear power plant safety shortcomings. With benefits to be derived only at undue risk of costly consequences, nuclear power would likely be opposed by UCS.

Until then, UCS will continue looking for nuclear safety problems and calling for their resolutions.


The UCS Nuclear Energy Activist Toolkit (NEAT) is a series of post intended to help citizens understand nuclear technology and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s processes for overseeing nuclear plant safety.