On Nuclear Power: Five Myths, Three Thoughts

Posted by on Oct 28, 2011

With news this week that Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant may have actually released double the originally estimated amount of radiation last March, the Faustian bargain of nuclear power returns to center stage.

The situation in Japan serves to highlight the tradeoff that governments have made between energy needs and safety. If even after Fukushima we are willing to operate nuclear power plants, one would think there must be a compelling energy benefit to nuclear power. I intend to argue that there is.

Kristin Shrader-Frechette, however, disagrees. Dr. Shrader-Frechette, a biologist and philosopher at the University of Notre Dame, is the upcoming speaker in Rice’s Cultures of Energy lecture series. Her recent book is titled What Will Work: Fighting Climate Change with Renewable Energy, Not Nuclear Power. In it, she argues that the bargain governments make with the nuclear power industry is a Faustian one, in that the risks of nuclear energy outweigh the carbon-free power that nuclear plants produce.

Shrader-Frechette published an article on this subject in the Catholic weekly magazine America back in 2008. She outlines five myths about nuclear power, which are: (1) nuclear power is clean, (2) nuclear power is cheap, (3) nuclear power is part of the solution to climate change, (4) nuclear power won’t increase weapons proliferation, and (5) nuclear power is safe.

Let’s discuss this last “myth”—that nuclear power is unsafe–since it appears the most relevant, objectionable, and accessible to people (like me) without a technical background.

Certainly after Chernobyl in 1986, nuclear power’s potential to destroy became readily apparent; today, after the Fukushima disaster, it seems even more so. Shrader-Frechette also focuses her argument on the risks involved in the disposal of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, a region she describes as seismically unstable. At the same time, however, nuclear power is heavily invested in. It’s insufficient to explain this as a result of the nuclear lobby as Shrader-Frechette does, because the anti-nuclear lobby exists too.

Three considerations I suggest before jumping on the anti-nuclear bandwagon are: (1) its demonstrated ability to provide over 75% of a developed nation’s energy needs, as in the case of France; (2) the economic benefits nuclear plants bring to the towns they’re in; and (3) the contradiction between environmentalism and anti-nuclear power.

Shrader-Frechette conveniently overlooks the case of France in her America article, probably because it’s such a compelling story of nuclear energy’s value. After the oil crisis of 1973-4, the French government decided to pursue energy independence through nuclear technology. Fast forward to today and see how their bet paid off: not only is 90% of French energy from carbon-free sources (nuclear and hydro), but the French also pay the least in energy costs in all of Europe. Moreover, the French also export more than $3 billion per year in electricity to surrounding countries and nuclear waste is increasingly being recycled back into nuclear power plants for reuse. Let’s not forget that America’s history with nuclear power dates back even further than France’s. Why, then, are we in the dark ages, while France reaps the benefits of long-term nuclear investments? Look no further than the anti-nuclear lobby, which has paralyzed nuclear development in the United States, preventing it from reaching its full potential.

I attended high school in western Massachusetts. My school was in a tiny town on the border of Vermont and New Hampshire where, according to folklore, the cows outnumber the people two to one. Hardly the place for a political battlefield. But that’s exactly what it became for the years I was there, because of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, Vermont, just a couple of miles away. The state of Vermont tried ousting the plant in 2010, which would have had dire impacts for all of New England, but especially the area around my school. Several of my friends’ parents worked at the plant, and the plant owners sponsored nearly every activity and school in the area. As a cross-country runner, I distinctly remember that when we crossed over into Vernon the streets were cleaner, the infrastructure was newer, and the people were happier. “Not in my backyard” was a foreign concept because of the economic benefits the nuclear plant brought. In 2010, it seemed that the only people who opposed Vermont Yankee were outsiders led on by the anti-nuclear lobby to believe that the plant was not just bad, but evil. Little did they know.

The heightened rhetoric around nuclear energy is truly distinctive; rarely do you hear coal or gas being discussed in the same way, despite their demonstrably worse impact on both the environment and workers. So why is nuclear such a hot-button issue, especially among environmentalists? Perhaps a philosophical approach to this question might serve us best. Nuclear power plants proper – their building design, material, etc. – appear to be epistemically different from more “green” power structures like windmills and solar panels. Why? Nuclear plants impose their impressive beaker-shaped design on landscapes, while windmills, and to an even greater extent, solar panels tend to blend into their surroundings. This is a significant phenomenological difference between the experience of nuclear plants as opposed to solar and wind. To tack onto this, there seems to be a tenet of environmentalism that privileges the status quo over change. Not just in the typical sense of man versus nature, but in a cognitively far reaching one. For example, what I am describing is particularly found in historic conservation movements that oftentimes attract the same people as the environmental movement. Why? Status quo over change. There is an ontological question regarding the nature of identity that arises from this paradigm. Perhaps it also helps to explain why environmentalists like Shrader-Frechette reject nuclear power despite its ability to resolve many of the problems they seek to fix.

On the other hand, maybe anti-nuclear environmentalists are more concerned with the fallout from a nuclear disaster than the projected devastation of climate change. Either way, there appears to be a deep contradiction in opposing a viable solution to climate change. I look forward to Dr. Shrader-Frechette’s visit on November 10 and to discussing these issues with her at that time.

Links of interest:

Eli Spector ’14 is a philosophy major at McMurtry College. He is an Undergraduate Fellow at the Humanities Research Center working on the Cultures of Energy Initiative.

42 Comments

  1. Jay
    October 30, 2011

    You raise some great points, Eli, and I am excited to hear Dr. Shrader-Frechette’s responses to them in a couple of weeks. The foundations of some of the world’s most powerful green movements are steeped in anti-nuclear rhetoric, so I doubt that we’ll ever see a very defined alignment between environmentalists and nuclear power advocates.

    Nuclear power is tricky. We’re at an important environmental impasse, and we need to take some significant action to start significantly reducing our waste production. Clearly, nuclear initiatives would be a step in this direction. But I wonder if the capital costs of building new nuclear plants wouldn’t be better spent in renewable-energy research. Why should we funnel funds into something many people (not just the “anti-nuclear lobby”) find fundamentally troubling? I’d prefer that we investigate more legitimately renewable options.

    Of course, the United States government only half-heartedly sponsors any alternative energy research at all, but that’s a topic for another post…

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