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.