The Curious Wavefunction

The Curious Wavefunction

Musings on chemistry and the history and philosophy of science

Top 5 reasons why intelligent liberals don t like nuclear energy


Schematic and description of a liquid fluoride thorium reactor which holds much promise for the future of nuclear energy (Image: Thorium Singapore, click to enlarge)

Many of my friends are science-loving liberals. Many of them are also environmentalists. But most of them are against nuclear energy, and this is where I disagree with them. Over the years I have had several conservations with these friends about nuclear power and most of their objections seem to boil down to a handful of arguments that are well-meaning but often ignore some basic facts. So here's a purely personal, short list of reasons which in my opinion drive a lot of liberal objections to nuclear power. These are by no means exhaustive, but it just seems to me that there are some simple answers at least to a few questions raised by well-meaning liberals regarding nuclear energy, and it's worth delving into them.

1. Ignorance: This simple reason remains remarkably pervasive. I am not trying to sound preachy or elitist here but reading two or three books would greatly benefit people who have a gut reaction against nuclear energy. The whole set of beliefs about any kind of radiation in any proportion being harmful, about nuclear plants releasing large amounts of radiation (when in reality they release fractions of what everyone naturally gets from the environment), about nuclear waste being a hideously convoluted and insoluble problem (the problem is largely political, not technical) can be dispelled by reading some basic books on radiation and nuclear energy. The most important revelation in this context is how, in our daily lives, we face risks that are hundreds of times greater than those from nuclear energy (transportation, air pollution etc.) without being nonplussed.

In the half century during which almost 500 nuclear power plants have been steadily humming and providing energy to millions, there have been only two serious accidents - Chernobyl and Fukushima - one of which was a truly rare event and the other was entirely preventable. The number of deaths from these two accidents are a small fraction of the number from almost every other energy source, not to mention from indoor and outdoor pollution arising from chemical and fossil fuel sources. In addition coal-fired plants emit much more radioactivity than any nuclear power plant. The small casualty rate from even the two worst nuclear accidents in history attests to the generally outstanding record of nuclear safety all over the world and in the US in particular. The large-scale adoption of nuclear energy in the US has been thwarted more by political inertia and gut fears rather than by a sound assessment of the costs and benefits. The high costs are mostly capital and have stemmed from unrealistic standards and layers of bureaucracy. If you typically think of problems like waste reprocessing or disposal that on the surface seem like insurmountable technical difficulties, delving deeper will usually reveal that the real issues are political and social. Nobody thinks that waste disposal and making nuclear plants failsafe are trivial issues, but deeper investigation almost always reveals that the situation is much better than most people think and that the principal opposition has been human, not scientific.

There's several objective books that presents a balanced view of the topic. As a starting point I would recommend Richard Rhodes's article in Foreign Affairs and his book Nuclear Renewal which talks about the extensive and safe deployment of nuclear energy by countries like France. Samuel Glasstone's timeless classic Sourcebook on Atomic Energy is still excellent on basics, so is Bernard Cohen's book. Gwyneth Cravens's very informative "Power to Save the World" is particularly noteworthy since Cravens was vociferously against nuclear power before she educated herself and found herself in favor of it; it's a remarkable example of how someone can change their mind in the face of evidence. Another informal, breezy and excellent treatment is Scott Heaberlin's A Case for Nuclear-Generated Electricity: (Or Why I Think Nuclear Power Is Cool and Why It Is Important That You Think So Too). For those who are ok with a slightly heavier dose of science, I would strongly recommend David Bodansky's Nuclear Energy. In addition there's some very promising new technologies on the horizon in the form of advanced new-generation reactor designs and new thorium-based fuel cycles. These developments are geared toward increasing safety (both passive safety and proliferation resistance) and efficiency and reducing cost. Liquid fluoride thorium reactors are especially noteworthy in this regard and Richard Martin's "Superfuel" does a very good job of explaining their function and advantages. The main obstacle to the testing and use of these designs is again political rather than scientific.

2. Bad psychological connections: There are two bad connections in the minds of many liberals, both of which are rather unjustified and contribute to their dislike of nuclear power. One is the connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Knowing the basics about how different weapons are from reactors can contribute to mitigating this misunderstanding; for instance it's been known for years that contrary to popular belief, reactors can't blow up like a bomb. The fundamental fact to be understood is that every power source carries some risks, and the danger from nuclear proliferation mainly exists because of human fallibility, not because of some inherent problem with nuclear energy. The thrust should be at maintaining an international system that safeguards nuclear material from being used for weapons, not to ban the material and technology themselves.

Another flawed connection is between environmentalism and the boycott of nuclear power. Unfortunately die-hard environmentalists are mainly responsible for reinforcing this connection. Their decades-long opposition to nuclear energy started with some reasonable premises, but then mainly descended into irrational, uninformed and exaggerated polemic. Helen Caldicott whose dedicated opposition to nuclear weapons is commendable is a prime example of peacemongers gone awry. Her latest book warps and misrepresents facts, grossly in some cases, and demonstrates ignorance of simple scientific principles. It also indulges in much cherry-picking. A resounding counterexample to Caldicott is James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia hypothesis, who was staunchly against nuclear power before he realized that it's the only source that truly promises to be a cheap, high energy-density and low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels. Solar and wind energy could provide a small percentage of our energy needs over time, but Lovelock realizes that nuclear technology is already here and it's the only form of energy that can be deployed quickly on a large scale to prevent the grim consequences of climate change. The fact is, liberals need to know that nuclear power is completely compatible, if not especially so, with environmentalism. It releases very little greenhouse gases and is a model for efficiency.

3. Waste: A point again related to the first point above. Many people think that this is the single greatest threat from nuclear power, that we will all be inhabiting vast atomic wastelands if we allow nuclear power to flourish. Many of the books cited above have detailed sections on nuclear waste. It's not a trivial issue, but many of the problems have to do with inefficiency and increased proliferation threats from burying valuable plutonium-containing nuclear waste. If we reprocessed the waste from nuclear reactors on a large scale, much of it would become much more benign and could be handled much more safely in low volumes. Yucca Mountain was a failure because it was a hasty, politically-motivated project that was a public relations disaster. But other enterprises like the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant are much more sound and should be vigorously pursued.

4. Damn them Republicans: There is actually a third connection- that between nuclear weapons and belligerent right wing political leaders that drives liberals' disdain for all things nuclear. If the erroneous connection between power and weapons takes hold in your mind, then it is not too difficult to perceive a connection between nuclear energy and right wing excesses. Although George Bush Sr. and Ronald Reagan presided over sweeping weapons reduction reforms, in the last two decades Republicans have been vocal opponents of nuclear treaties and compromises. It does not help that climate change deniers such as Republican Senator James Inhofe are also pro-nuclear power. The only way to stop oneself from making such flawed political connections is to be reminded that this is not a political issue. Objections to and support for nuclear power should go beyond political partisanship. The merit of nuclear power lies in the science and thus bows to no political or partisan mongering, and especially not to dedicated deniers like Inhofe. It's important for liberals to separate the scientific pros and cons of nuclear energy from the political credentials of those who support or oppose it.

5. Fear of the unknown: This is again related to the first point. Fear of the unknown has unfortunately driven negative liberal reactions to many other promising technologies, including vaccines and GMOs. I was at a climate change discussion dinner recently and happened to have an amiable journalist covering the event sitting at my table. We got into discussing the merits and problems with nuclear power and what she said almost perfectly captures the sentiments of many reasonable and intelligent but anti-nuclear people; she said, "I am just afraid of something I cannot see". Well, if there's one thing that distinguishes man from other species, it is his ability to uncover nature's secrets and appraise and harness them, especially the ones that cannot be seen. Man's great capacity to face unknown challenges, understand them and use them to his benefits underpins much of our technological prowess. We cannot see x-rays, yet have no problem having x-ray scans (ironically something that delivers a greater dose of radiation than nuclear power plants). Only increased and better dissemination of knowledge about nuclear energy can dispel such doubts of the unknown, something which we have proudly done in the past for other technologies like MRI.

The simple fact that a piece of uranium about the size of the tip of your finger can deliver as much energy as almost 2000 pounds of coal should be evidence of humanity's astounding achievement in wresting nature's essential source of energy from her. In the discovery of nuclear power we have done the unimaginable. We have brought the sun and the stars to our world. Extinguishing their flames will be conduct unbecoming of our vast and unique place in the universe, and a very great tragedy for our future generations.

This is a revised an updated version of a post first written on The Curious Wavefunction blog.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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