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.


"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.

peter thom

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.



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.



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.



Calling this the "Jane Fonda Effect" is pure marketing, specious and cowardly. If the facts speak to your argument, then let them do that and don't dress them in polarizing, empty rhetoric.

Expand the time line and effects of nuclear power and come back to us with some facts or informed speculation. I don't know what you're going to find out, but my sense is that every five years into the future, every new nuclear plant added, every accumulated amount of waste to deal with, the safety, efficacy and viability of nuclear power is diminished. And until you do this, objectively, as if you are actually searching for an answer rather than confirming your prejudices, I'll think you are selling us a bill of goods.


This web site is starting to turn into a Pro-Business Hack Site. Are Economists Inherently Biased?

I understand the pressure to publish for a deadline, but you're 5 second analysis if an issue just isn't good enough. Maybe you guys should write a Researched Weekly column.

As someone who lives 25 miles away from 3 Mile Island, let me tell you that the RISK of Nuclear is by far understated, how are you going to evacuate Harrisburg and Philadelphia? Then there's the clean up cost. Storing dangerous Waste for 10,000 years? Let's be honest, that's impossible. The Nuclear Industry has to find a way to solve the waste problem.

Finally, Chernobyl: 4,000 deaths is also Grossly Understated. How do I know. There was and is a big emigration from Russia to the US, from the 1990's to today, one of those emigrate's worked for a small company I worked at. She was downwind of Chernobyl, she died of cancer. That's what's convenient about radiation poisoning. Let the people leave and it becomes someone else's problem.
She isn't counted in your statistics.

We may have to hold our noses and build one more generation of Nuclear Power, but let's be HONEST about the risks.


Mark Brucker

I don't see any mention of two other issues with nuclear power-radioactive waste that is dangerous for many thousands of years and the possibility that more nuclear material will make it much easier to produce nuclear weapons such as might be used by terrorists (including not just foreign terrorists, but people such as those who bombed Oklahoma City).

Mark Brucker

"Could it be that nuclear energy, risks and all, is now seen as preferable to the uncertainties of global warming?

France, which generates nearly 80 percent of its electricity by nuclear power, seems to think so. "

I don't think so. I think France made this move long before global warming was an issue.

"The nuclear industry, already foundering as a result of economic, regulatory and public pressures, halted plans for further expansion. And so, instead of becoming a nation with clean and cheap nuclear energy, as once seemed inevitable, the United States kept building power plants that burned coal and other fossil fuels. Today such plants account for 40 percent of the country's energy-related carbon-dioxide emissions."
There was another option. California, by emphasizing conservation, became much more energy efficient than the rest of the US. Conservation can help avoid both nuclear AND coal pollution AND is less expensive than either!



We don't build Chernobyl style reactors any more. No one in the West has done so since, oh, probably the first reactor pile in the University of Chicago in the '40s. We shouldn't dwell on Chernobyl because that type of accident would be literally impossible to replicate with the designs we use for power plants.

There is a non-zero chance of a serious accident with a nuclear power plant, sure. But the fact is that Chernobyl is probably unique in combining a reckless disregard on the operators' part on their own safety protocols, total technical incompetence (literally; one person on the crew that night might have seen a nuclear power plant before, much less been the crew of one), and an obsolete design which in typical Soviet fashion has no concerns at all for the well being of the people running, or living near, the plant.

TMI, for all its problems, failed as a Western style plant should have -- loss of the reactor at the cost of a radiation leak which was essentially undetectable above background levels. This is even including the fact that the operators were near criminally negligent. We can design these things to be safe, much safer than anyone gives credit them for, and evoking Chernobyl every time "nuclear" comes up in conversation is uninformed fear mongering.



If poster # 6 is so afraid of nuclear power plants why do you live so close to one?

The Jane Fonda headline is attention grabbing and why is it bad for a writer to grab attention?

Peter thom (post #2) needs to work on his comedy routine about neckties

One big knock on nuclear power is how do you value the cost of dealing with the waste materials. However it looks like we did not fully appreciate the costs of non-nuclear waste and it's impact on global warming.

Which door do you take? The lady with a possible std or the hungry tiger.


Couldn't part of the problem be that it is much easier to price and place the negative externalities (associated with risk) for nuclear production than it is for coal? I expect that there are some more liberal cost estimates of the Chernobyl disaster involving not only a broader health estimate, but also possible land productivity. In the end I think that we have no good estimate for how much the negative externalities of coal power production cost. Also the situation with coal miners dying vs. local citizens dying is the same kind of situation where soldiers in Iraq dying today have limited affect on the public as opposed to a drafted army. So dead coal miners are an understated cost. Also most of them are Chinese and despite the decision by Australia to sell China nuclear fuel it is a lot more likely for a nuclear problem to happen in this country than there. Or at least it seams that way.

Also another reason many economists are more optimistic about nuclear power is that they tend to assume continued technological progress. So plants will continue to become safer and cost efficient while it seems probable that the nuclear waste problem could have a technical solution while the problem of fossil fuels running out has none.



"There was another option. California, by emphasizing conservation, became much more energy efficient than the rest of the US. Conservation can help avoid both nuclear AND coal pollution AND is less expensive than either!"

California is not the perfect model for how to do things when it comes to energy. You can take portions of what they have done to create a model for the rest of the country, such as diversifying their energy generation, but their overall plan has hit a lot of trouble spots (remember the 'rolling brownouts' in the 90's?).

Another point is that much of the efforts for conservation pushed by the California government have simply led to people paying higher prices for their energy (much higher than most people are willing to pay in the rest of the country), and many people being able to justify the cost of producing their own energy to reduce their energy costs. This can be seen both ways: you have the often better energy production techniques that are used in homes (and better conservation to make better use of the home-generated energy), the reduced costs of transporting energy, and the cleaner production involved with many types of in-home energy production (i.e. solar power). On the other hand, the state has more or less given up trying to become more efficient at generating energy and has left the people of California with the choice of spending a lot of money to build their own energy infrastructure in their homes or suffer the higher costs of energy in their state.



I don't understand why this is called the "Jane Fonda" effect rather than the "Jack Lemmon" effect. After all, Jack was the bigger star at the time of the movie. Perhaps the Freaky Steves are trying to appeal to the right-wing knee-jerk crowd?

But while nuclear energy clearly has some advantages compared to coal-fired energy - the best way to not create waste energy is to conserve. The rest of the world can get by on 1/6 th the energy per capita that the US uses; it seems that there are life-style changes we could make that would reduce the requirement for both coal and nuclear.

Michael A

Did Freakonomics even bother to watch The China Syndrome?

If they had, they would have thanked Fonda for downplaying what was about to happen at Three Mile Island.

(Spoiler alert:)

In the movie, there was no meltdown and no release of radiation. The reactor breakdown was self-contained. Audiences could walk away believing that while the technology might be trustworthy, its operators were not.

So the nation was shocked when Three Mile Island turned out worse than the movie -- a substantial meltdown actually released radiation into the air and water, and politicians and engineers fumbled for days as a hydrogen bubble in the reactor threatened to burst the reactor open and do god-knows-what to the outermost containment. (Thankfully that didn't happen.)

Jane Fonda and The China Syndrome didn't exaggerate the imminent danger -- they downplayed it.

John Wheeler of "This Week in Nuclear" Podcast

While I find “The Jane Fonda Effect” thought provoking, it's interesting to find that two renown economists missed a fundamental fact about the decline in nuclear plant construction in the 1980's and 1990's: the primary cause was the economics of electricity supply and demand, NOT the success of the anti-nukes. Economic recession and a corresponding drop in electricity demand growth left utilities holding the bag on billions of dollars of base load power plant projects. They did what any good business would do – they cancelled their orders. During the same time period MORE new coal plants were cancelled than nuclear plants. If the success of the anti-nuclear movement had truly been the cause of nuclear plant cancellations, then there would have been a corresponding increase in new coal plant construction, and there was not.

For the same reason nuclear plants are coming back in favor – they make sense economically; low emissions, low cost energy, and long term electricity price stability are attracting investment around the world. The “anti's” can't change the fundamental economics of nuclear energy, and that's why they are losing their struggle.

Here's one more statistic to consider: the age of the average anti-nuclear activist, like Jane Fonda, is increasing by about one each year. In 15 or 20 years most will be gone.


Mark Brucker

Re Vizeroth post:
1. The rolling brownouts in California came partly from deliberate witholding of energy by Enron and other energy companies and partly from problems with the distritbution system. It certainly wasn't just power generation that led to those.
2. While California's actions have certainly not been ideal, I disagree that they "simply led to people paying higher prices for energy". They saved a great deal of energy and helped to change the way energy is used throughout the US. California standards have led the way nationally on efficiency for many products, from refrigerators (saving $10-13 BILLION a year) to furnaces to A/C.


I thought California increasingly bought energy from surrounding states. Strict standards in California leads to more pollution in other states. Is this true?

To John Wheeler, I might ask how many jobs may have relocated out of the country to avoid high energy costs and stricter standards. Or what was the impact on the steel industry of higher energy costs Vs foreign competitors?


A key point this article overlooks is that the power plant at Chernobyl is of a design that has long been known, including at the time, to be dangerous. The RBMK reactor design has essentially no passive control. RBMK reactors were intended to be complements to the Soviet nuclear weapons program, which used and produced highly enriched uranium and plutonium; one supposes safety was not a primary goal.

There are a few RBMK reactors still operating in former Soviet satellites. Lithuania must shut its remaining RBMK reactor down in the next few years as part of its EU entry package.

Existing and future reactors in the US are of an entirely different design. When considering the risks and merits of nuclear energy, it is important to bear the fundamental design differences in mind.

And it is imperative that we voting citizens inform ourselves so that we don't make knee-jerk reactions based on hyperbole in media.



One of the important reasons France has been successful with nuclear power is that each facility is the same. France is divided up into even power consumer areas, since its ran by the national government, and you build and train on plants that are pretty much the same everywhere. While not 100% the same, its close enough to assure high risk reduction and lower costs. In the USA, each plant was a custom job. Very complicated, no effective ability to reuse designs, training or best practices. Thus higher costs to build, run and train, and with the extra complications, easier to make mistakes. Now this may change in the future with the new small reactors that can be assembled in a modular fashion, which will lower costs and complexity. Sure storage of the waste is an issue, and putting in space may become an option, its better to have that issue that global warming. As far as use of waste by terrorists, I can not think of a worse source of materials


Dr. Gulag

Nuclear waste: there is no problem, at least not one that comes from nuclear physics. For example, traditional nuclear waste can be recycled into fuel pellets for use by more modern and advanced reactor designs. This process can be repeated and the waste is converted into less and less dangerous elements with each cycle.

The reason we don't do this is political: it was outlawed by that turgid, sanctimonius idiot, President Jimmy Carter. Meanwhile Europe contines to reprocess. I'm sorry for the disresept, but if you want to mostly blame one person for the current state of nuke power in the US, look to Carter. I still consider him in a close tie with Bush II for worst President.

A revival of the nuke industry here will only drive more innovation and result in even better solutions. Properity breeds invention. Same with golbal warming. You don't rape your economy with some feel good but useless treaty to solve any technological problem.

The use of modern breeder reactors could make existing uranium supplies last *60* times longer than traditional reactors. There's so much new science in this field since Three Mile Island that some of you critics really need to update your ideology so you can even begin to debate the issue on the correct intellectual level.