The failures of the elites: nuclear power

posted: January 27, 2023

tl;dr: In the 1970s nuclear power, not global warming, was supposed to kill millions...

I’ve watched, over the course of my lifetime, the United States slowly dismantle its nuclear power industry, often replacing shuttered nuclear plants with natural gas-powered plants that emit large amounts of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. The pivotal event that caused this shift was the the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979. Back in the 1970s there were few fears of global warming or climate change; now it is one of the most dominant issues in our politics. In retrospect it was a huge mistake to ramp down our number one source of low-carbon emissions electricity.

The elites who got it wrong:

Who got it right:

In the foreground an industrial plant consisting of a concrete tapered cylinder hundreds of feet tall emitting steam from the top, with other mostly windowless buildings nearby along with an asphalt parking lot with some cars, and in the background a huge expanse of blue water with nothing else visible on the horizon, on a sunny day with blue skies

The only nuclear power plant that I visited decades ago which is still operating is the one farthest from population centers: Nine Mile Point

What the elites said would happen:

The China Syndrome gets its title from the fear that a nuclear reactor meltdown would burn a hole through the earth all the way to China. The arguments against nuclear power in the 1970s were:

What I said at the time:

I’ve been pro-nuclear power my whole life. Some of this no doubt comes from being an engineer and the son of an engineer, and having a general faith in technology. I grew up outside of Schenectady, New York, a General Electric (GE) company town, and my dad worked for GE for years. I remember driving past the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, which is still involved today in the U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered ship program. Jimmy Carter, who was U.S. President when I was a kid, worked at Knolls for a time. It was not anything scary or unusual. I also studied the physics of nuclear reactions in college.

I spent some time in my formative years visiting or being near various nuclear power plants:

(An aside about Vermont Yankee: I remember being very impressed with an adjunct facility today called the Northfield Mountain hydroelectric plant. During low periods of electricity demand, i.e. excess output from Vermont Yankee, water from the Connecticut River was pumped up 800 feet in elevation to an underground reservoir at the top of a nearby mountain. During peak electricity demand the water was released to spin turbines in a power plant inside the mountain in order to generate more electricity. Northfield Mountain, which began operating in 1972, is effectively a giant battery. Energy storage systems like this, on a much greater scale, are what is needed to deal with the highly intermittent nature of solar and wind power.)

The U.S.’s worst nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in 1979 did not shake my faith: the claims of the anti-nuclear activists seemed exaggerated. No one actually died in the immediate aftermath of the accident: even today you can win a bar bet by challenging someone to state how many people died on the day of the Three Mile Island accident. The long term epidemiological studies of the radiation released state that the number of excess deaths is zero or very small. Compared to the number of people who die in coal mine accidents, let alone from the air pollution released by burning coal and fossil fuels, it is clear that nuclear power is much safer than burning coal and fossil fuels. Don’t climate change activists claim that millions upon millions of people have died or will die due to burning fossil fuels? Shall we count the number of people who have died in wars over fossil fuels? Where are the millions who have died from nuclear power?

Nuclear power isn’t 100% safe - nothing is - but as an engineer I also believe in continuous improvement. This is how we’ve made airplane travel safer over the decades: by studying accidents, finding the root cause, and making improvements (our refusal to do this in the case of COVID-19 is why I believe we will have another pandemic). The Fukushima accident in Japan is an example: the seawall was too short, and the emergency backup generators needed to cool the reactors were located behind the seawall at a lower level than the top, so that once a tsunami breached the seawall, it was game over. Why not build a higher seawall and put the generators at an even higher elevation? Why not use a different reactor design that does not require active cooling? If we give up on nuclear power, it’s like giving up on air travel after a few crashes. Meanwhile, 38,824 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2020.

A graph of electricity production in France from 1960 to 2015 in percentage terms, showing fossil fuels at 55% in 1979 and then declining rapidly to 9.5% in 1988 and remaining at or below that level, and nuclear power generating around 10% in the late 1970s and increasing rapidly to around 70% in the late 1980s and remaining at that level

France leads the industrialized world in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from power generation

What actually happened:

It’s now more than fifty years after the founding of Greenpeace, and it's fair to say none of their worst-case fears have happened. There have been no more Three Mile Island-scale nuclear accidents in the United States, and just two of similar scale worldwide: Chernobyl and Fukushima. Human deaths are attributed to both accidents, but the numbers are much smaller than most people realize. Far more Japanese people died directly from the earthquake and tsunami than from the resulting accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

What the elites got wrong:

People naturally fear technology that they do not understand, especially nuclear technology, which has also been used to produce mankind’s most lethal bombs. I don’t blame them. Jane Fonda did not have the benefits of studying physics at Cornell University. The onus is on us, the people who understand the technology, to engage with the public and with critics, and attempt to reach a consensus that benefits mankind.

Because the dangers of nuclear technology were well-known, the world’s governing bodies and the industry constructed a regulatory framework and industry practices that have actually worked pretty well. Again, nothing is perfect. There have been plenty of plane crashes too since the 1970s, but air travel is also generally regarded as safe. Meanwhile, if it is proven that the SARS-CoV-2 virus arose from lab experiments at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, then the scientists who ended up killing millions of people were not the nuclear scientists but the virologists.

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