Freakonomics in the Times Magazine: The Jane Fonda Effect

In their Sept. 16, 2007, “Freakonomics” column, Dubner and Levitt look into the unintended consequences of Jane Fonda’s 1979 film The China Syndrome — i.e., how the anti-nuke movie may be partly to blame for global warming.

How could that be? Dubner and Levitt argue that the film skewed the public’s perception of the risk involved with nuclear power by popularizing the nightmare scenario of a nuclear meltdown. The near-meltdown of one of two reactors at Three Mile Island just twelve days after the release of The China Syndrome seemed to validate the film’s message.

But did it? The President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island found no deaths or negative health effects attributable to the accident. In fact, the damage was so limited that Three Mile Island’s other reactor continues to operate safely today — as Dubner saw firsthand on a recent visit (see photos at right). While the accident produced almost no radioactive fallout, the political fallout helped halt the growth of the U.S. nuclear power industry for almost three decades. That left coal-fired power plants to fill the gap in the country’s growing energy demand. In 2005, the coal-electric industry accounted for 40 percent of U.S. energy-related carbon emissions, making it one of the country’s single largest sources of greenhouse gas.

Today, nuclear power is making a comeback, in large part because it generates electricity without carbon emissions. The revival of the nuclear industry is described at length in this Fortune article, and in this article from The Economist. Is it because the uncertainty of global warming finally outweighs the risks we perceive in nuclear power? Economist Frank Knight might have thought so — his legendary theory on the impact of risk and uncertainty on decision-making is related gracefully by Peter Bernstein in his book Against the Gods. Dubner and Levitt also refer to a risk/uncertainty experiment known as the Ellsberg Paradox, which is discussed in greater depth here.

One country has already cast its lot with the risk of nuclear power, rather than face the uncertain consequences of greenhouse gas emissions — France produces nearly 80 percent of its electricity with nuclear reactors. And Exelon, the largest nuclear operator in the U.S., argues that nuclear energy isn’t just cleaner than coal; it’s also cheaper, per kilowatt-hour.

Still, the risks associated with nuclear power remain. The 1986 Chernobyl reactor meltdown in the Ukraine led directly to dozens of deaths, and has been implicated in more than 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer, according to the Chernobyl Forum Report. The accident spread radiation as far away as Sweden, where research has shown that children who were in utero at the time grew up to have significantly worse-than-average educational outcomes.

But even the Chernobyl deaths are dwarfed by the number of deaths attributable to coal mining — China reported 4,700 coal mining deaths last year. In the U.S., the Department of Labor reports coal mining deaths by state, an average of 33 a year.

For further reading on the pros and cons of nuclear power, try: The American Atom, by Robert Williams and Philip Cantelon; the essay collection Nuclear Power: Both Sides, edited by Michio Kaku and Jennifer Trainer; Helen Caldicott’s Nuclear Power is Not the Answer; and Nuclear Energy Now: Why the Time Has Come for the World’s Most Misunderstood Energy Source, by Alan Herbst and George Hopley.

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  1. Darren says:

    “But even the Chernobyl deaths are dwarfed by the number of deaths attributable to coal mining — China reported 4,700 coal mining deaths last year.”

    Chernobyl is no big deal, except, of course, the small matter of the Zone of Alienation, a roughly 1200 sq mile area where is no human are allowed to enter under threat of imprisonment. An area that would have made Harrisburg, PA uninhabitable in the case of a “Chernobyl” happened at Three Mile island. Otherwise, there are no problems. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zone_of_alienation

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  2. Darren says:

    “But even the Chernobyl deaths are dwarfed by the number of deaths attributable to coal mining – China reported 4,700 coal mining deaths last year.”

    Chernobyl is no big deal, except, of course, the small matter of the Zone of Alienation, a roughly 1200 sq mile area where is no human are allowed to enter under threat of imprisonment. An area that would have made Harrisburg, PA uninhabitable in the case of a “Chernobyl” happened at Three Mile island. Otherwise, there are no problems. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zone_of_alienation

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  3. peter thom says:

    One person alone can very rarely be said to be responsible for anything that requires millions to sign on to. In this case your Great Woman Theorizing is a stretch. I could as easily make the case that the necktie is responsible for a large portion of global warming. Follow this reasoning. In just about any office environment women dress appropriately for summer while men wear neckties (scarves), and often jackets and always long pants, even in scorching heat. The ambient indoor temperature is set to mens’ preferences and it’s not unusual to see women having to carry sweaters to work to accommodate this a/c setting. The average temperature difference between the male and female preferences, (that not attributable to gender alone) is probably on the order of 5 degrees F. If men dressed appropriately for the weather instead of wearing a virtual scarf all summer (the tie sets the entire outfit really) a resetting of a/c in all offices in the Western world could save millions, perhaps billions, of KWH per year. I think this is certainly more reasonable than Freakonomics’ take on Fonda’s culpability. The problem of misuse of resources is cultural.

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  4. peter thom says:

    One person alone can very rarely be said to be responsible for anything that requires millions to sign on to. In this case your Great Woman Theorizing is a stretch. I could as easily make the case that the necktie is responsible for a large portion of global warming. Follow this reasoning. In just about any office environment women dress appropriately for summer while men wear neckties (scarves), and often jackets and always long pants, even in scorching heat. The ambient indoor temperature is set to mens’ preferences and it’s not unusual to see women having to carry sweaters to work to accommodate this a/c setting. The average temperature difference between the male and female preferences, (that not attributable to gender alone) is probably on the order of 5 degrees F. If men dressed appropriately for the weather instead of wearing a virtual scarf all summer (the tie sets the entire outfit really) a resetting of a/c in all offices in the Western world could save millions, perhaps billions, of KWH per year. I think this is certainly more reasonable than Freakonomics’ take on Fonda’s culpability. The problem of misuse of resources is cultural.

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  5. jsn says:

    My recollection of the Three Mile Island incident was of panic on the part of the press because they could not get reliable information. The Governor of Pennsylvania was able to provide independent and reliable information and that in my opinion kept the panic from becoming general. There was a general loss of confidence in the Nuclear Regulatory Agency and it took personal intervention on the part of President Carter to partially restore confidence.

    The theme of the movie China Syndrome was the nuclear power industry was run by a bunch of criminals. Unfortunately there was evidence that the screen writer was on the mark.

    You have to borrow money to build a nuclear power plant and there are major issues with liability insurance. The number of persons and the amount of property that can be harmed by the threat of fallout is immense. My recollection was the dairy farmers downwind of 3MI were not able to sell their milk for a short time after the incident and if that had continued they would have been put out of business. If there was radioactive fallout prior to harvest the crops would be contaminated (resulting in mass bankruptcy) and there would be a major problem with disposal of the contaminated crops. Even though the risk might be small the liability is so large only the federal government is large enough to provide the liability insurance.

    Radioactive spent fuel rods and parts of decommissioned nuclear power plants have kept in a secure location. What we do now is the keep the spent fuel at the plant where it is produced because they operate 24 x 7 and they have security guards. When the plant is decommissioned the radioactive rods and other parts have to be moved to a secure facility and it is not clear that can be done. It is my understanding that some decommissioned reactors have not be dismantled and the spent fuel is still at the plant under 24 x 7 guard.

    I also think you had better do some fact checking about the relative costs of nuclear and coal powered electrical generation. A breeder reactor is much more cost effective that a non-breeder but it is also much more dangerous. You should read history of the Enrico Fermi reactor.

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  6. jsn says:

    My recollection of the Three Mile Island incident was of panic on the part of the press because they could not get reliable information. The Governor of Pennsylvania was able to provide independent and reliable information and that in my opinion kept the panic from becoming general. There was a general loss of confidence in the Nuclear Regulatory Agency and it took personal intervention on the part of President Carter to partially restore confidence.

    The theme of the movie China Syndrome was the nuclear power industry was run by a bunch of criminals. Unfortunately there was evidence that the screen writer was on the mark.

    You have to borrow money to build a nuclear power plant and there are major issues with liability insurance. The number of persons and the amount of property that can be harmed by the threat of fallout is immense. My recollection was the dairy farmers downwind of 3MI were not able to sell their milk for a short time after the incident and if that had continued they would have been put out of business. If there was radioactive fallout prior to harvest the crops would be contaminated (resulting in mass bankruptcy) and there would be a major problem with disposal of the contaminated crops. Even though the risk might be small the liability is so large only the federal government is large enough to provide the liability insurance.

    Radioactive spent fuel rods and parts of decommissioned nuclear power plants have kept in a secure location. What we do now is the keep the spent fuel at the plant where it is produced because they operate 24 x 7 and they have security guards. When the plant is decommissioned the radioactive rods and other parts have to be moved to a secure facility and it is not clear that can be done. It is my understanding that some decommissioned reactors have not be dismantled and the spent fuel is still at the plant under 24 x 7 guard.

    I also think you had better do some fact checking about the relative costs of nuclear and coal powered electrical generation. A breeder reactor is much more cost effective that a non-breeder but it is also much more dangerous. You should read history of the Enrico Fermi reactor.

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  7. DrK says:

    Cabbages the size of a VW Beetle, 6-legged dogs and caterpillars with antlers are but a few of the urban and suburban myths that I, a sometime Pennsylvania resident, have heard courtesy of “3 Mile Island”. Clearly part of the problem with nuclear energy is the general public’s paranoia of the unknown, and most people are clueless on this topic, and their often-overwhelming tendency to believe fiction in the face of fact. Unfortunately, the occasional dispatching of a spy with radioactive material and the legacy of Chernobyl, not to mention the horrible consequences of those 2 H bombs, lend support to these myths. My own view is that nuclear energy is a lot like flying. The chance of an accident happening is really pretty remote, but when it does happen, the consequence can be quite grim. I for one would rather take that chance than the certainty of the equally grim long-term effect of the hundreds of carbon-fueled generators that could be replaced.

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  8. DrK says:

    Cabbages the size of a VW Beetle, 6-legged dogs and caterpillars with antlers are but a few of the urban and suburban myths that I, a sometime Pennsylvania resident, have heard courtesy of “3 Mile Island”. Clearly part of the problem with nuclear energy is the general public’s paranoia of the unknown, and most people are clueless on this topic, and their often-overwhelming tendency to believe fiction in the face of fact. Unfortunately, the occasional dispatching of a spy with radioactive material and the legacy of Chernobyl, not to mention the horrible consequences of those 2 H bombs, lend support to these myths. My own view is that nuclear energy is a lot like flying. The chance of an accident happening is really pretty remote, but when it does happen, the consequence can be quite grim. I for one would rather take that chance than the certainty of the equally grim long-term effect of the hundreds of carbon-fueled generators that could be replaced.

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