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Do Not Read This If You Are Anti-Nuclear Energy

There’s been a good bit of back-and-forthing on this blog about nuclear power, most notably regarding a Times Magazine column we wrote recently about the past and future of the nuclear industry.

In a nutshell, we posited that the U.S. anti-nuke revolt in the 1960s and 1970s may look misguided in retrospect since it helped thwart the proliferation of nuclear power (clean but risky) while encouraging coal-fired electricity (dirty and, with global warming in mind, perhaps even riskier).

There is by now a pretty long list of environmentalists who used to be anti-nuke and are now in favor of it. They include Stewart Brand, James Lovelock, and Patrick Moore. If a new book called Power to Save the World is half as good as this Wall Street Journal review says it is, expect that list to get much, much longer.

It is written by Gwyneth Cravens, a “novelist and former New Yorker magazine fiction editor … a sometime antinuclear activist … and a determined organic vegetable gardener who spent her childhood in 1950s New Mexico having atom-bomb nightmares.” Dr. Richard “Rip” Anderson is “another lifelong greenie, a man with a doctorate in organic chemistry who grew up on an Idaho ranch without electricity and whose day job, over the course of a long career, has included pioneering something called probabilistic risk assessment (the underpinnings of climate-change analysis, but that’s another story).”

Together they set off on “a grand tour of the nuclear-power world, from dust-blown uranium mines to the depths of a pilot facility for Uncle Sam’s waste deposit at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.” And they come back raving — in favor of nuclear power. The review’s author, Spencer Reiss, sums things up nicely here:

It’s hard not to read Ms. Cravens’s book as a 400-page indictment of the nuclear power industry’s tragicomic inability to tell its own story. Going all the way back to Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986) — disasters that look a lot less disastrous in retrospect, as Ms. Cravens discovers — the industry has swapped missionary zeal for a hair shirt and a defensive crouch.

In other words, even if you end up pro-nuke, you can still find something to blame on the nuclear industry. (I have always found this argument shaky, especially when put forth by journalists: that the nuclear industry didn’t tell its own story well. When a besieged industry does “tell its own story well,” it is said to be manipulating the media; and when it doesn’t, it’s not the media that’s at fault, but the industry itself.)

That said, it sure feels as if the tide is turning on nuclear power, at least in terms of the American public perception. And if you think public perception isn’t important, just think back to how severely the perception of the Three Mile Island accident changed nuclear power’s future.

Addendum: I received the following e-mail from Gwyneth Craven, correcting an error in the original post (now appended above) and offering some further insights:

I appreciate your good words about my book. I am wondering if you can fix one thing, though. Dr. Richard “Rip” Anderson, the chemist, oceanographer, and expert in risk assessment who took me on a tour of the nuclear world, is actually married to another environmental and community activist, Marcia Fernandez. She came along on the Nuclear America Tour. (Together they saved an airstrip in Albuquerque from development and turned it into a sanctuary for migrating birds and other wildlife.) I am married to Henry Beard, the humor writer.

Good point about the media’s tendency to blame industry, one way or another. I did not intend the book to be an indictment of the nuclear industry, although I do criticize it for handling some matters clumsily, a history of lame P.R., and its partnership, through utilities, with the fossil fuel industry.

To me the book is about prejudice based on wrong assumptions and what Richard Rhodes calls “secondhand ignorance.” In the book (p.184) there is a graph based on a study by Bernard Cohen, Prof. Emeritus, U. of Pittsburgh, about stories by the New York Times of different types of accidents between 1974-78 (prior to Three Mile Island). He compared their frequency with the annual fatalities caused by these accidents. Cohen writes:

On an average, there were 120 entries per year on motor vehicle accidents, which kill 50,000 Americans each year; 50 entries per year on industrial accidents, which kill 12,000; and 20 entries per year on asphyxiation accidents, which kill 4,500; note that for these the number of entries, which represents roughly the amount of newspaper coverage, is approximately proportional to the death toll they cause. But for accidents involving radiation, there were something like 200 entries per year, in spite of there not having been a single fatality from a radiation accident for over a decade.

Another problem, especially in TV coverage, was use of inflammatory language. We often heard about “deadly radiation” or “lethal radioactivity,” referring to a hazard that hadn’t claimed a single victim for over a decade, and had caused less than five deaths in American history. But we never heard about “lethal electricity,” although 1,200 Americans were dying each year from electrocution; or about “lethal natural gas,” which was killing 500 annually with asphyxiation accidents. (Bernard Cohen, “The Nuclear Energy Option,” pp. 58-59.)

People may have skewed risk perceptions, as you have pointed out in your writings, but the media helps that process.