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Nuclear Dark Ages? Or Nuclear Renaissance?

“I know that vibration wasn’t normal”

Jack Lemmon famously uttered these words in the 70s blockbuster The China Syndrome in reference to unusual activity taking place at his nuclear reactor. Lemmon, a shift supervisor at the plant, uncovers alarming evidence that the plant is fundamentally unsound and demands that it be shut down. His concerns are brushed aside by the nuclear industry executives, who have no desire in halting production.

I won’t spoil the ending for those haven’t seen it, but just before the credits roll the screen cuts to color bars, implying that the fate of the characters and an area the size of Pennsylvania is unknown.

Twelve days after the release of the film in 1979 – which went on to win four academy awards – a stuck valve at the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island led to the release of radioactive gases, compelling 140,000 people to evacuate.

The one-two combination of The China Syndrome and the Three Mile Island incident dealt the nuclear industry a powerful blow. This was further exacerbated by the accident seven years later at Chernobyl, in Ukraine. The anti-nuclear movement gained momentum after the events of the 70s and 80s and continues to this day, both here and abroad. However, despite a long history of public distrust, the nuclear industry is being considered again as the search for carbon-free power sources intensifies.

Interestingly, there are more nuclear reactors in the US (104) than anywhere else in the world. The next closest is France, with 59, and Japan, with 53. The nuclear reactors in the US represent almost 25% of the total plants worldwide. The US derives 20% of its total energy input from nuclear sources, slightly higher than the worldwide average of 17%.

Plot of all nuclear reactors in the US
Plot of all nuclear reactors in the US

However, these numbers do not accurately convey the movement (or lack there of) of the industry. The majority of the functioning reactors in the States were built during the 60s and 70s, with the last reactor going online in 1996. Although there are 35 construction proposals being reviewed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the single plant currently under construction has been since 1973.

China, Russia, and India respectively have twelve, eight, and six reactors under construction. China has proposals for an additional 100 plants and India for another 20. The Republic of Korea is constructing five new plants. Even Finland and Ukraine both have two plants in the works. Why is America hesitating? In an age of carbon-counters and cap-and-trade policies, doesn’t a 100% carbon-free energy source sound appealing?

Well, for one thing, it’s costly. In today’s market, estimates of constructing a new plant range anywhere from 1 to 14 billion dollars. Just the cost of obtaining a license to construct a plant can be prohibitively expensive – up to a billion dollars in consultation and processing fees – and take years to finalize. Without government subsidies, the lengthy construction timescale and overall cost requirements make nuclear power a pricey investment. Innovations in natural gas and coal processing have bumped up efficiency in these markets, making them a safer – and preferred – investment choice for financiers.

The economic hurdles cannot be too great though, considering that so many nations, including developing nations such as China and India, have so fully embraced new nuclear reactors. It seems that Americans, despite their surprising dependence on nuclear energy, continue to perceive nuclear power as a dangerous and volatile force.

Matthew Nisbet, who specializes in the relationship between science, media, and policy, suggests the dual effect of China Syndrome and Three Mile Island marked the tipping point in the public’s image of nuclear power. In the 60s and 70s, slogans like “atoms for peace” and “power too cheap to meter” dominated public discourse. This all changed after 1979.

Extensive media coverage of Three Mile Island portrayed the event as a catastrophe, despite no deaths or injuries. TIME magazine equated nuclear technology to a “confused nightmare” and emphasized the uncertainties and inadequacies of the science. As Nisbet says, nuclear power became “Frankenstein’s monster” – powerful and uncontrollable. Federal regulations were tightened under intense political pressure and several reactors were shut down due to heightened concerns and scrutiny. The last construction permit was awarded in 1979.

Since then, public support and approval ratings for nuclear power have been steadily (albeit slowly) rising. The desire to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases has also contributed to the trend.

Gallup polls taken in 2009 demonstrate the highest level of support for nuclear energy since 1994. 59% of respondents now favor nuclear energy as an electricity source (up from 57% in 1994), with the largest increase in those who strongly favor it, 27% compared to 21% in 1994. However, other measures to reduce carbon emissions (development of renewables, an emissions cap, stricter enforcement of regulations) continue to be viewed as preferable. Less than half the respondents favored nuclear development in the vicinity of their residence; NIMBY is alive and well when it comes to nuclear power.

What can explain the apparent contradiction here? Americans rely on nuclear power for a fifth of their needs (and have done so for 50 years) yet are hesitant to support it.

Perhaps the answer lies in communication. Nuclear has – in terms of power output, health risks, and environmental damage – a stellar record that most people aren’t aware of. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and China Syndrome seem to have permanently tarnished the image of what was once considered the solution to the world’s power needs.

An aggressive communication strategy that highlights the facts and history of the technology would go a long way in correcting misconceptions about the safety and risks of fission. Framing the issue in terms of our historical dependence on nuclear and our established role as world leader in the industry might prove effective.

Who knows, maybe even a “Ms. Atom” beauty pageant like the Russians have hosted would get the message out there: nuclear power is safe – let’s develop it.

Stay tuned for more follow-up posts that explore the concerns about nuclear energy.

(Photo Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

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14 years ago

[…] Republican Senator Lindsey Graham urges American lawmakers to ramp up nuclear development programs to meet our growing power needs in a carbon-free manner. Senator Graham pointed to France as an example – they meet 80% of their energy needs through nuclear sources – and talked about Generation IV reactors and their waste-recycling capabilities. Energy Secretary Steven Chu has also expressed support for nuclear development and in particular the European Pressurized Reactor (EPR), a Generation IV model that has generated interest in France, Britain, India, and Dubai. For more information on the ongoing nuclear “renaissance”, check out an earlier blog post. […]