We know now that the containment dome in the Gulf has failed, meaning that the underwater gusher spurting 200,000 gallons into the water will persist for weeks if not months. Tar balls have hit the shore in Alabama, and the toll on marine life will be great. With months left to play out in this story, the support for offshore drilling as a solution to our energy needs will continue to dissipate.

But if this story gets bigger, don’t expect that energy conversation to shift to nuclear power anytime soon:

Radioactive water that leaked from the nation’s oldest nuclear power plant has now reached a major underground aquifer that supplies drinking water to much of southern New Jersey, the state’s environmental chief said Friday.

The state Department of Environmental Protection has ordered the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station to halt the spread of contaminated water underground, even as it said there was no imminent threat to drinking water supplies.

The department launched a new investigation Friday into the April 2009 spill and said the actions of plant owner Exelon Corp. have not been sufficient to contain water contaminated with tritium.

There’s no “imminent threat” to drinking water at the moment, but of course when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20 there was no sign of an underwater leak. Much like that persistent leak, amounts of tritium could spread into the groundwater and eventually hit wells or aquifers. This could be many years off – 14 to 15 years according to the EPA – but with tritium a known cause of cancer, and with the uncertainty surrounding the source of the leak or whether it could accelerate, it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on.

It’s also worth factoring into the costs of new nuclear plants, as the Obama Administration has favored and as Republicans have boosted for years. The bigger problems with nuclear power are both what to do with the waste byproduct after the fact, and how to pay the extreme cost of building a reactor before the fact. But during the process of creating nuclear power, there are potential disasters that can result. As with offshore drilling, it is correct to say both that nuclear power is mostly safe and that it poses an unacceptable risk. Because the nature of an accident can be so widespread and catastrophic as to cancel out all the positive safety reports that preceded it. Plus, if the industry capture in regulating the nuclear industry is anything like that with offshore drilling, then we may not know the full extent of a disaster until it’s too late.

Al Gore writes that the BP oil disaster is but a symptom of a greater addiction:

Just as the oil companies told us that deep-water drilling was safe, they tell us that it’s perfectly all right to dump 90 million tons of CO2 into the air of the world every 24 hours. Even as the oil spill continues to grow—even as BP warns that the flow could increase multi-fold, to 60,000 barrels per day, and that it may continue for months—the head of the American Petroleum Institute, Jack Gerard, says, “Nothing has changed. When we get back to the politics of energy, oil and natural gas are essential to the economy and our way of life.” His reaction reminds me of the day Elvis Presley died. Upon hearing the tragic news, Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, said, “This changes nothing.” [...]

Here at home, the illusion that we can meaningfully reduce our dependence on foreign oil by taking extraordinary risks to develop deep reserves in the Outer Continental Shelf is illuminated by the illustration below. The addition to oil company profits may be significant, but the benefits to our national security are trivial. Meanwhile, our increasing appetite for coal is also creating environmental and human catastrophes. The obscene practice known as “mountaintop mining,” for instance, is not only defacing the landscape of Appalachia but also destroying streams throughout the region and poisoning the drinking water of many communities.

I’m not sure the impact of these paragraphs would change much if you replaced “mountaintop mining” with “nuclear power,” or so on. We keep looking for silver bullets in solving our energy issues that carry major risks to our environment and public health. Meanwhile renewable technologies that offer great promise don’t get the same level of attention or interest. Perhaps these persistent reports clearly identifying the risks to energy processes – including nuclear – will wake up the nation.