The news this week that after an exhaustive search, Progress Energy decided to put its next two nuclear reactors next to the existing Shearon Harris plant in Wake County came as no surprise. The utility telegraphed its choice for weeks as it fended off reports (including in the Independent) about security guards’ complaints that economizing has come ahead of safety at the plant (

We’ve recently reported on new research from the National Academy of Sciences that says there is no safe level of exposure to radiation and findings by other groups that all nuclear plants leak. And then there’s the problem of spent nuclear fuel, which no one has figured out how to get rid of. Shearon Harris has one of the largest amount of spent rods in the country, making it a target for terrorists.

Those are reasons enough to want to find an alternative. And it doesn’t have to be the construction of more coal-fired plants, as Progress Energy Chairman Robert McGhee suggests. (It’s doubtful he’d be interested in new nukes at all if the Bush administration hadn’t waved $2 billion of taxpayer money at him.) Instead, leaders across the country are starting to recognize the value of energy efficiency and conservation as a clean way to save money–and fight terrorism.

The most recent convert to this is the New York Times‘ Thomas I. Friedman. He argues that better efficiency and conservation are “actually the most tough-minded, geostrategic and patriotic thing we can do.” The biggest threat to America, he says, is petrolism–the dependence on nations where oil money (big oil money at $60-a-barrel) results in states that have no incentive to become creative, productive and democratic. And some are using oil money to fund terrorism. Another threat, Friedman says, is three billion new consumers in China, India and the former Soviet states who are going to want goods that, if we keep using oil to make them, will “smoke up and choke up this planet far faster than at any time in the history of the world.”

The answer for us, the economy and the world is green technology, Friedman says. And if the United States doesn’t take the lead, it’s an industry that will easily be taken over by Japan and China. He believes the only way to force consumers and industry to change is a gas tax that keeps prices around $4 a gallon, because “if consumers know that the price of oil is never coming down, they will change their behavior.”

I’m for that–it’s also the surest way to end sprawl and encourage mass transit. But there’s an additional way to bring change. If we tell power companies we don’t want generators that threaten our health and safety, that will force them–and us–to find ways to reduce demand and generate electricity more cleanly. This state has projects under way to develop biomass, conservation, green power and solar and wind power.

So instead of building nuclear plants, maybe we can beat others to the lead in green technology. And the best place to fight for that right now is by stopping expansion of Shearon Harris.