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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.