Gene Expression

Who’s afraid of nuclear power?

Just listened to an interview on NPR with the author of Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy. She mentions how she had a reflexive prejudice against nuclear energy and generally opposed its use because of her environmentalist impulses. That’s not surprising of course, people are terrified of nuclear energy because of its associations.

For me an easy way to dispel this sort of terror in most of my friends is simply to point out that the two nations with the highest per capita consumption of nuclear energy (by far) are France and Sweden (Finland is #3, though there is a large break in usage between #2 and #3). Most of my friends are generally Left and perceive Europe to be advanced vis-a-vis the United States, with Scandinavia & France in the vanguard of progress, so that point generally nullifies the negative attitude toward nuclear energy enough to explore the issue more rationally and empirically. A cost vs. benefit calculus is really difficult to engage in when repulsion and aversion are overwhelming.

And yet I note that while Europeans are far more sanguine about nuclear energy, they exhibit a much stronger aversion, enforced through legislation, toward genetically modified foods. I wondered if the attitude toward nuclear power was actually negative on the ground in these European nations, with the energy policies being driven by government fiat. No, most Swedes seem to support nuclear power. As it happens, twice as many Americans oppose genetically modified foods as favor them, while among Europeans the attitudes vary by country though it seems opposition is more intense than support or enthusiasm. So I can’t make heads or tails or the trends here.

Finally, if you listen to the interview the author of the book makes it clear that her positive attitude toward nuclear energy production was strongly influenced by her visit to a coal burning plant. This is a case where focusing on nuclear energy alone and tallying up the negatives gives a false impression of the world as it is, because life is filled with trade offs and without nuclear power the reality is that fossil fuels, and especially cheap coal, will fill the void. But you’ll generally see and think about the issue at hand, and not all the dependencies and secondary implications. For example, in the United States 70% of our electricity derives from fossil fuels. In Sweden 10%. Well, that’s due to nuclear energy. Good? Bad? Well, you have to have all the facts on the table and keep them all in mind.

Comments

  1. #1 Colugo
    October 27, 2007

    Razib: “Most of my friends are generally Left and perceive Europe to be advanced vis-a-vis the United States, with Scandinavia & France in the vanguard of progress, so that point generally nullifies the negative attitude toward nuclear energy”

    The left of center has an extremely selective grass-is-greener reflex when it comes to Western Europe. It applies on social democratic economic policies, healthcare, abolition of the death penalty, low church attendance, and opposition to US foreign policy, but not to abortion law (see Wikipedia article), state churches, lax sexual harassment policies, restricted access to university education, wiretapping and other police powers, lack of sanctions on Burma and Sudan etc. All of the ways in which Europe is arguably more “conservative,” dysfunctional, or backwards than the US are just ignored.

  2. #2 jaakkeli
    October 27, 2007

    For example, in the United States 70% of our electricity derives from fossil fuels. In Sweden 10%. Well, that’s due to nuclear energy.

    Not that simple. A rather large part of Swedish electricity comes from hydroelectric power. Countries are created very unequally for it and the United States is large enough that geographical diversity probably cancels out to give it average potential for hydroelectic power among countries. Sweden is almost ideal for hydroelectric (rainy and has mountains in the right places) and gets the first dibs on the imports from what must be the goddamn luckiest country in the world (even in Finland electricity prices fluctuate according to how much it has been raining in Norway).

    And you do know that Sweden is giving up nuclear power completely, right? The government’s against it, not the people, the perfect opposite of the US. Of course, the decision was made ages ago (following the blessed traditions of social democracy, the people were given the option to vote either “NO” or “HELL NO”, or something like that) and even the politicians now realize that it was an idiotic move, but it just can’t be canceled, because it would mean giving up and openly admitting Sweden’s failure to be the world’s ethically superior nation. It’s like the Green version of the war on drugs or “abstinence only” sex ed.

    (This, BTW, is also the main argument against nuclear power in Finland, these days – “the progressive nations of Europe are talking about giving up nuclear and we mustn’t look bad compared to them”. Ironically, when put this way, the argument of beating Sweden actually works against them, because one of the most essential cornerstones of Finnish identity is that Finns should be more evil than Swedes.)

  3. #3 jaakkeli
    October 27, 2007

    Oh and if some American thinks I’m joking, *not at all* – that’s exactly how northern European national politics works, much of it is simply a coolness race. Eg. those state churches are finished, because they’ve stopped being cool long ago. It wasn’t embarrassing as long as everyone had one, but now the Swedes made a move and everybody will have to follow, because now the rest of us have to be terribly embarrassed about not looking as modern as Sweden.

    I’m convinced that this is a *really* important factor in why America isn’t that “progressive”. Northern Europe is the ideal place for the coolness race – when there are 4 historically and/or culturally close closeby countries of about the same population (3 of which have nearly identical languages), everybody watches everybody and everyone’s constantly worried about looking worse than the others.

  4. #4 Caledonian
    October 27, 2007

    What are they going to move to, if not nuclear? I mean, I’m a big fan of reducing usage to meet the available supply, but how will they compensate?

    Wikipedia suggests that 48% of Sweden’s power comes from hydroelectric sources, but that further hydroplant development has been stopped to protect its water resources. It suggests that the nuclear rollback may be postponed or (effectively) cancelled because of this.

  5. #5 razib
    October 27, 2007

    Not that simple. A rather large part of Swedish electricity comes from hydroelectric power. Countries are created very unequally for it and the United States is large enough that geographical diversity probably cancels out to give it average potential for hydroelectic power among countries.

    point taken. the pacific nw could have gone the scandinavian way but we shot down and rolled back our nuclear power plants (we have the columbia river giving us very cheap hydro electricity).

  6. #6 agnostic
    October 27, 2007

    It depends on what makes the person left-of-center. If they’re environmentalist, point out what’s been pointed out. If they’re into the labor movement, point out how miserable the conditions are in coal mines. It would be better for those workers to answer phones and sweep up at a nuclear plant than die from black lung.

  7. #7 jaakkeli
    October 27, 2007

    What are they going to move to, if not nuclear?

    Importing from the new Finnish plants, of course. They get to be oh-so-superior, we get to profit. The usual story. (Naturally, publically they insist that they’re going to get it from unnamed, yet-to-be-developed “renewable” sources. They can keep this up as long as the old plants still work and they don’t have to deliver.)

    Oh yeah and from Russia. This is where it gets really hilarious. Russia has lots of those old Chernobyl-type reactors right next to Finland, operated with all the concern for safety the Russians usually have. We are not happy, but we’re buying it anyway, because it’s really cheap, since they can’t sell it directly to any other richer country and of course we can always resell it to Sweden. Russia of course would be more than happy to sell even more of their nuclear juice and one big reason why we’re building more nuclear is that it’ll let us refuse the temptation. Now the Swedes have finally noticed the possibility and they’re not shutting up about us evil Russia-hating Finns who won’t let Russia build a cable to Sweden. And this is happening even when they’ve actually had a right-wing (ie. Finn-loving) government!

    So, if only we let them do it, the Swedes’ plan could be summarized as letting Russia build Sweden’s nuclear plants right next to Finland.

  8. #8 James Aach
    October 28, 2007

    One of the difficulities with nuclear power – or any energy source – is that the population has little “gut feel” for how it works, how much it produces, what the risks are, etc. All they’ve got are bad TV and movies and somewhat fluffy science news pieces. While I’m not sure of nuclear’s future myself, I do know a lot about it, having worked in a nuke plant the last twenty years. So I wrote a novel that covers the good and the bad of nuclear in an entertaining style. It’s available at no cost to readers at http://RadDecision.blogspot.com and is also in paperback. Reader comments at the homepage have been very positive. Stewart Brand, noted futurist and author (and a friend of Ms. Cravens, the writer you note above) thought enough of it to say “I’d like to see Rad Decision widely read.”

  9. #9 RIght Democrat
    October 28, 2007

    Expansion of nuclear energy is not a left-right issue. There are socialists who favor nukes and libertarians who oppose nuclear. Polls have shown that a majority of rank and file Democrats and Republicans favor nuclear power. It is a shame that our Democratic Presidential candidates have failed to strongly endorse increased use of atomic energy.

    Democrats like John F. Kennedy and the late Senator Al Gore, Sr. were strong proponents of nuclear power. Imagine the impact if former Vice President Al Gore, Jr. were to become an advocate for nuclear power. Gore could help save the planet from global warming and make America energy independent.

  10. #10 MarineCorpsVet
    October 28, 2007

    Oh, and by the by, Germany is backpedalling on their decision to shut down all nuclear power. They’re reading the handwriting on the wall (of the reactor vessel).

  11. #11 BRC
    October 29, 2007

    Interesting thread, Razib, and thanks for the link to that book. I want to add that as with all energy issues or all issues of technological infrastructure, though, the issues are as much non-technical as they are technical. That means the explanation for why the French enable and promote nuclear energy, why the Germans are not so committed (despite MarineCorpsVet’s perception that their deliberations on policy for how to decommission nuke plants could somehow be cast as “backpedalling”), and why Scandinavians are in limbo is importantly about issues of control, risk management, risk production, engineering trust and authority, and long-term political viability. Those are not auxiliary or peripheral issues; those are the core issues. Any claim that the US could or should go nuclear because other countries have done so also needs to work through the cultural, political, expert-structure, and risk management differences in those nations too.

  12. #12 John
    November 6, 2007

    What I don’t like about nuclear energy – and I don’t see it being discussed here – is the dumping of the waste. Safe, regulated dump sites would do much to dispell my misgivings. Certainly Leftist Europe doesn’t have anywhere near a spotless record on this.
    http://www.greenpeace.org/international/press/releases/europe-s-secret-nuclear-waste

  13. #13 Organic Chemistry
    November 29, 2007

    Well, the dumping of waste can be a problem if not done correctly. Leak-proof drum that just disappear into a mountain in Nevada could work just fine.

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