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.

David Ahlport

==Studies are all over the map on the costs of various energy sources. The best way to sort this out is for the govt. to simply tax or limit CO2 emissions, air pollution and foreign oil/gas imports and let the market decide how to respond. An additional step would be to eliminate or reduce subsidies, or at least try to make them somewhat equal between sources. Not only would nuclear advocates not fear such a fair, open competition, we would relish it. It is renewables advocates who do all they can to avoid such a competition, by demanding renewable portfolio standards, etc...==


Bring it on.
Nuclear wouldn't last a day without it's subsidies and support structures.

In particular, lets Axe that 22 billion dollar Federal capital financing loan program, thats 3x larger than the entire rest of the electricity sector.

By comparison, Solarthermal and Geothermal get mere table-scraps compared to the lavish Federal support for Nuclear.

Nuclear is the most Centrally Planned form of energy on the planet.




Another point about TMI. The actual radiation released was far less than you get from an X-ray or taking a commuter airplane flight. The problem is a lack of education which causes everyone to be afraid of "nuclear radiation" because they don't understand how it really works.

We could do more to use the 're-use' or continue to use the fuel as someone mentioned. Also, the waste issue is another one that if we were actually researching we could probably do more to deal with. But as someone mentioned the danger is not nearly as great as many people believe.

erik de koster, brussels

In Belgium, 54% of our electricity is nuclear, worldwide we are 2nd behind france in nuclear share of electricity production. The 1999-2003 coalition of socialists, liberals and greens decided (grudgingly and hard pressured by the greens) to phase out nuclear energy by 2015. I think recent events in our backyard (aka the georgia crisis and our dependence on russian gas, and the soaring oil prices) show the foolishness of this decision. The green party has imploded in the meantime, so I can only hope this decision will be reversed. It reminds me of a bumper sticker I saw during the seventies: 'nuclear power ? why? in my home, electricity comes from the power plug'... Is nuclear energy safe? Of course it is dangerous and it produces nuclear waste, more than solar or wind energy. But unlike these green technologies it has the possibility of producing massive amounts of energy from proven technology in an economically feasable way. Is it a long term solution? No, but it buys us time. Is it the best way to make electricity? Of course not, but is there a better alternative, if we want to become independent of the arab states and russia? In the meantime, we have found that wind energy suffers from an unexpected important problem in a densely populated country such as ours; even though we have some of the best winds in the world (see Freakonomics yesterday) and a high potential for wind energy, we have a NIMBY problem: wind energy in a densely populated country implies a lot of people will see and hear wind turbines, and apparently people don't like that...



Nuclear economics (in response to #5, #26 and #28):

The only thing nuclear has ever had trouble competing with is coal and (briefly) natural gas during the recent (and temporary) gas glut. The only reason it has been more expensive than coal is that coal's environmental and public health costs are not accounted for in the price (whereas nuclear is not even allowed to have any such costs). Scientific studies on such external costs show that they would double coal's price (while nuclear's external costs are negligible; at most a fraction of a cent/kW-hr).

In short, nuclear has always been required to completely contain all its toxins/wastes while fossil fuel plants have been allowed to simply dump their toxins/wastes directly into our air and water, for free. The result? 25,000 deaths ANNUALLY in the US alone, along with global warming. This is finally beginning to change. If and when fossil fuels are required (like nuclear) to contain their waste products, nuclear will beat them hands down on cost.

Studies are all over the map on the costs of various energy sources. The best way to sort this out is for the govt. to simply tax or limit CO2 emissions, air pollution and foreign oil/gas imports and let the market decide how to respond. An additional step would be to eliminate or reduce subsidies, or at least try to make them somewhat equal between sources. Not only would nuclear advocates not fear such a fair, open competition, we would relish it. It is renewables advocates who do all they can to avoid such a competition, by demanding renewable portfolio standards, etc...

Dave (#5), the era of cheap natural gas is over. Indeed, FPL's analysis showed that their new reactor project is cheaper than any other option, including gas, and the PUC agreed. Wake Up (#28), renewables receive a larger R&D budget, and are far more subsidized than nuclear on a per kW-hr basis. At BEST, wind provides intermittent kW-hrs at roughly the same overall cost that nuclear provides steady, reliable base load kW-hrs. You disagree? My challenge above stands. Let's let the market decide and see what happens.


William Tucker

Just to weigh in here as the guest blogger, I'm with Jim Hopf (#31) all the way. My biggest exasperation is that solar advocates won't embrace nuclear, even though any nuclear advocate will admit there's a place for solar, especially for peaking power. What it will take to push a carbon tax or marketable-right regime through Congress is a nuclear-solar alliance, That is the only way to make coal pay the costs of its environmental impact. Neither the nuclear nor solar industries can achieve this alone. They're both too small and lack clout. Coal, on the other hand, is - next to farming - probably the most entrenched industry in the country. Whole states are wedded to it - even to the point of destroying their own topography (see West Virginia). A carbon tax was laughed out of Congress in June and will be again if nothing changes. But if environmentalists would abandon their dreams of an all-solar economy and join hands with nuclear, a carbon levy could probably be achieved with either Obama or McCain as President.


David Ahlport

==You do a cynical little calculation on dollars and cents that conveniently ignores the externalities.==

So does that mean we get to budget in the anti-proliferation cost of dealing with Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan?

==All costs associated with nuclear waste handling, processing and disposal are fully covered by a 0.1 cent/kW-hr fee that is already included in the price of nuclear electricity. Thus, the "nuclear waste problem" can and will be solved at a very low cost==

Except for the part where thats simply not true.

The fund is still 3x too small, has almost nothing contributed to it since 1998. And at minimum we'd need 10 Yucca Mountain style projects by the end of the century if we planned to even make a dent on climate change.

Meanwhile organizations like the UK's Nuclear Decommissioning Authority find that the price of decommissioning keeps skyrocketing.

Where as for the US, profits budgeted for the plant decommissioning have Zero income tax. (Which can many times be equal to the capital cost of building the plant in the first place.)


Wake Up

Regardless of safety concerns, the cost of nuclear power per kWh far exceeds that of not only coal and gas, but alternatives like wind. More overlooked, the energy savings and carbon reduction from implementing efficiency gains would be FAR greater per dollar that the alternatives.

"Every dollar invested in nuclear expansion
will worsen climate change by buying less solution per dollar."


All costs associated with nuclear waste handling, processing and disposal are fully covered by a 0.1 cent/kW-hr fee that is already included in the price of nuclear electricity. Thus, the "nuclear waste problem" can and will be solved at a very low cost, despite the impeccible standards that will be applied.

Unlike any other waste stream and/or industry, the nuclear industry will be required to prove that it will completely contain its waste material for as long as it remains toxic (i.e., proof of negligible impact, over the infinite term). Such a requirement, and level of environmental performance, is unprecedented. Nuclear power has the smallest waste problem of any industry, not the largest. Coal ash, chemical toxic waste, and ordinary (landfill) garbage will all represent a much greater overall health risk to future generations, over the very long term.

As for a "major nuclear waste accident", not only has nobody ever been killed by nuclear power plant waste over the last 50 years, but even the worst case accident or event (leakage, etc..) that any anti-nuclear "expert" has ever proposed or imagined has a much smaller impact than the ANNUAL impact of fossil fuel power plants. These effects include hundreds of thousands of deaths every single year, along with global warming. No type of accident or event at Yucca mountain has any potential to expose anyone to an annual dose rate higher than the range of natural background exposure.



There is a solution to the nuclear waste problem ... in Nevada. People in Nevada are adamantly opposed to it, but frankly it's time they took one for the team. The waste would go in an area where no one lives, anyway. Much of the opposition is not so much rational as irrational - people hear the word nuclear and the lizard part of their brain conjures up images of mushroom clouds and Godzilla. Not to say there aren't immense technical challenges with safely transporting the waste to Nevada and safely disposing of it ... but it's way better than the alternative of keeping the waste where it is. Speaking as someone who lives in a metro area of over 1 million (Richmond, VA) within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant (Lake Anna). You can't tell me the same risk factors exist in BFE, Nevada.



The total net CO2 emissions from nuclear power (including all aspects of the production cycle), are ~2% that of coal, and ~5% that of gas. Nuclear's overall net CO2 emissions are roughly equal to or lower than those of renewable sources.


The main point, however, is that net emissions for both nuclear and renewables are negligible compared to those of fossil fuels, and not enough to matter.

Routine emissions (pollution) from nuclear power plants are completely negligible, with even the closest residents getting less than a thousanth (0.1%) of average natural background exposure. Over their entire ~40-year history, US nuclear power plants have never had any measurable impact on public health. In stark contrast, fossil fuel power plants cause ~25,000 deaths every single year, along with being the single largest source of global warming. Uranium mining does have a tangible impact, but it is much smaller than the effects of coal mining (for the same amount of energy).

It should also be noted that the impact of renewable sources is not zero. Massive land use, per amount of energy generated, is probably the best example of this. As we use more and more renewable sources, to the point where they actually make a significant contribution, their negative aspects will become more apparent. Most scientific studies of overall external costs (i.e., environmental and public health impacts) of different energy sources show that nuclear's external costs are a tiny fraction ( a few percent at most) of fossil fuels', and are similar to renewables'.


David Ahlport

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

France has plenty of problems with waste. In detail huge PDF style.


David, Warren isn't investing in nuclear, but Gates is. Buffet has a very narrow set of criteria for what he invests in. You have over the years gone from a "sky is falling and nuclear is oh so dangerous" to "it is a bad investment stay away."

Have you seen the cost of coal lately? Currently it has gone from around $100 million a year to fuel a coal plant to $400 million, and that is just in the last year and a half. When I think about the costs of the alternatives, which are Anthracite or brown, not wind, geothermal or solar, I instinctually factor in the cost of mountain top removal (and dumping into adjacent valleys), heavy metal pollution, CO2, acid rain and particulates that kill over 12,000 Americans alone every year. You do a cynical little calculation on dollars and cents that conveniently ignores the externalities. Coal is far more expensive than the dollars and cents you now cling to as the next line in your argument.

Waste is not an issue. We will eventually burn it all down and if we don't we will have some sense and finally just bury it deep in the earth where it will sleep and decay until dooms day. What is the big deal?



A few comments:

The "waste problem in nuclear reactors is not with fuel rods. These are a very small part of the total waste. The real problem is the coolant, rusted piping, lubricant, and at JPL goats for some reason, that all become radioactive when exposed to radiation from the reactor. These materials can also break down into chemicals that are toxic in their own right.

Hydrogen is not a fuel source, it is an energy transport medium. Hydrogen must be made using some form of energy, it is then burned or run through fuel cells producing invariably less energy than was used to create it. It is as valid to say that we should move to a "battery economy" or a "flywheel economy" as a "hydrogen economy."

Finally with respect to the tragedy with the windmill in Oregon. When the windmill came down there wasn't a public health scare or an evacuation. Nuclear power will never be as safe as wind, because nuclear produces power from materials that could kill you with a small exposure.



If we didn't have laws keeping us from reprocessing fuel nuclear fuel we could get more than the 5% efficiency out of the fuel we are currently using and thus create much less waste. After all it is the latent energy that causes all the problems with fuel storage. If the fuel didnt have any energy left it wouldn't be an issue. But since we can't legally reprocess the fuel to burn it completely we have to throw all that hot fuel out. That is until we are allowed to reprocess it, then we can take all of the fuel we have in storage and use it again. This way the fuel storage point would be moot and nuclear power would be hands down a great asset to our energy portfolio.

Additionally, to rebutt some of the above commentary:

Nuclear Power has a "slow return on investment"
This is so wrong. Most nuclear reactors make enough power to bring in $1M dollars every day. Which is why they typically pay for themselves quite quickly. Even if you spend several billion to make a plant, in much less than a decade, sometimes as quickly as a couple years, these plants can be churning out profits, and when a plant can run for 40 years or so that is a huge amount of return on the investment.


Rich Wilson

#6- where do you get the Hydrogen from?

G.R.L. Cowan, H2 energy fan 'til ~1996

Actually nuclear construction fell sharply several years *before* Three Mile Island.

In 1968 the US nuclear power industry made electricity that otherwise would have required 3 million tonnes of oil, says BP. In 1973, 19.9 million tonnes; last year, 187 million tonnes. Oil was beginning to be heavily taxed in the early 70s, and that, I think not coincidentally, is when nuclear energy began to have political trouble, and many reactors were cancelled. As those troubles continued, any plant-wrecking accident, no matter how harmless, would be seized upon by petrodollar-crazed governments, and so Three Mile Island was. Because of that seizure it is better remembered than a much more serious wind turbine accident in Oregon, even though the latter accident occurred in August last year.

Bill Woods

Tom Gottshalk: "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."

There's no limit to what we can spend, but the fee that's already included in the cost of nuclear fuel is more than sufficient.

"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."

Bad news - it's already happened:

Rob Feltus

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.



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

captain democracy

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 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.