Did Jane Fonda Ruin Nuclear Power? A Guest Post

William Tucker, author of the forthcoming book Terrestrial Energy, blogged here earlier this week about nuclear power. This is his second of three guest posts here on the subject.

A year ago, Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt wrote a New York Times Magazine column entitled “The Jane Fonda Effect,” in which they argued that Fonda’s efforts in the movie The China Syndrome could be held accountable for our failure to switch from coal to nuclear power, thereby exacerbating global warming.

As a supporter of the nuclear revival, I certainly regret the Three Mile Island accident and the way it ended nuclear construction in this country. Yet I would also argue that, as a work of art, The China Syndrome was eerily prescient in anticipating the events at T.M.I. and played a positive role in making nuclear power a safer technology.

In the movie, a key moment occurs when the control room supervisor (Jack Lemmon) realizes a spring gauge is stuck, indicating the cooling water is too high when it is actually too low. The operators are trying to drain the coolant when the reactor is actually overheating. Only Lemmon’s alertness lets them avoid disaster.

At Three Mile Island things were much worse. Nothing on the control panel told the operators the level of cooling water in the reactor. Reading other gauges incorrectly, they mistakenly drained the core. The result was a partial meltdown.

What went wrong? As the Kemeny Commission later discovered, engineers had designed the reactors to be “idiot-proof.” Their assumption was that redundancy could be so complete that it wouldn’t matter whether or not anyone really understood the way the reactors functioned. Early operators were only high school graduates.

At the same time, the Atomic Energy Commission had become so isolated from American industry that it missed a whole generation of industrial psychology. After World War II, safety engineers began concentrating on “human-machine interactions,” making buttons and levers understandable to the people operating them.

In nuclear reactors, however, the control panel looked like something out of Buck Rogers. Hundreds of identical lights and switches gave no indication of their function or importance. In one famous instance, operators stuck two different brands of beer cans on a pair of identical levers in order to remember which moved the crucial control rods up or down.

After Three Mile Island, the industry founded I.N.P.O. — the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations — to upgrade operator training and pursue safety research. In the 1990’s a group of Navy veterans began asking why reactors couldn’t operate as efficiently on land as they do on submarines. After upgrading their operations, the utilities soon had their fleet of 104 reactors running at 90 percent of capacity — as opposed to the historical 60 percent.

Natural gas now constitutes 39 percent of our electrical capacity but delivers only 19 percent of our electricity because it’s so expensive. Meanwhile, nuclear — with 11 percent of capacity — generates 20 percent of our electricity because reactors are running so smoothly. Reactors generally close down only once every 18 months for refueling.

No, The China Syndrome didn’t kill nuclear power. Instead, it set off a series of innovations that have transformed the industry. As a result, nuclear power is ready today to shoulder a much larger portion of our electrical burden.

Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.



View All Comments »
  1. Gary says:

    This is all well and good. But why then, are we not producing more power via nuclear energy?

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  2. Dennis says:

    What is a good source to learn more about TMI, and its issues? I don’t know much about it, but that beer can reference has piqued my interest.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  3. Tom Gottshalk says:

    The debate over using nuclear energy for additional power is not focused on the correct set of issues. It is not if reactors can be made safe or efficient or it can replace oil as a way to generate power. To these issues we can answer yes. The debate needs to be centered on the issue of what do we do with nuclear waste. Should we created more of the stuff? What do we do with the waste that is stock piled all over the world? Do we really want to make a material that might cost 10,000 times more to safely store for centuries than it cost to build nuclear plants in the first place regardless of their quality or efficientcy. To these issues we must answer no if we humans intend to continue to be able to live on planet earth. It is not an exageration to say if there is a major nuclear waste accident any where on earth it will negatively affect all living things on the earth far into the future. This cannot be a good thing. We need to answer the question what is the cost of preventing a nuclear waste incident compared to one happening?

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  4. Malcolm Kass says:

    I think lack of hard science education in our society is to blame as well. For instance, I always get sickened when I hear comments about the dangerous “white” smoke coming from some smoke stack, when it is only water vapor.

    Engineer have another name for such truisms called the “Erin Brockavitch” effect. Sorry for the misspelling.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  5. David Ahlport says:

    What killed Nuclear power?
    What killed it largely was open markets.
    Natural gas primarily.

    Notice how in the US compared to the share of natural gas built, not only was there no Nuclear, but there was also hardly any Coal built either.

    Simple market fundamentals really. Nuclear represents:
    * Slow Return on Investment
    * High Default Risk
    * High Investment Increment

    It’s simply a bad investment.

    For instance, Warren Buffet spent $13 million dollars on judging the viability of Nuclear power, only to cancel the project because the economics don’t pencil out.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  6. captain democracy says:

    No! It was Dr. Paul Goffman a nuclear physist who wrote the book called, “The Hot Particle Theory. Then Ralph Nader and 1975 California Prop. 15 which called for nuclear safeguards, scary stuff. I was an environmentalist at Cal U.C. Berkeley studying Architecture and ended up an expert on Solar Energy Architecture known today as the “GREEN BUILDINGS” I am a pioneer at this movement. (see http://www.captaindemocracy.wordpress.com and view the “Green Building” I would like the N.Y. Times to publish this hand drawn Pen and ink project my thesis and show this generation how you draw with out a computer. Though I believe National Energy Policy should shift to a “Hydrogen Economy” it is cleaner.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  7. Craigp says:


    Ask France. They don’t seem to be having much trouble with nuclear waste.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  8. Rob Feltus says:

    If the reactors on TMI were so redundant, why did the operators feel the need to do anything at all? The fighter aircraft industry is now focused on reducing the amount of information presented to pilots in order to keep them flying the plane, not trying to reprogram the ship’s computer. Maybe TMI really stands for Too Much Information.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0