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

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.

David Ahlport

==Really, thinking long term, there is no other option than to really go nuclear at some point.==

What makes you say that?

Solar and Geothermal exceed any of our forseeable energy needs. By gigantic orders of magnitude.


Read Carbon Free Nuclear Free www.ieer.org/carbonfree/ We CAN develop and use other, more efficient technologies for boiling water that do not require mining and reprocessing uranium (mining leaves huge piles of radioactivity and causes disease and death for miners and processing is VERY greenhouse gas intensive), does not emit radioactivity into our air and water (there are many nuclear power plants in the US that are leaking tritium into groundwater), does not leave the next 800+ generations responsible for the deadly waste that is created and does not cost billions to build just one plant.

Malcolm Kass

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.

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

And yet somehow large amounts of private money were available to bring a long-mothballed Browns Ferry reactor back into service.

In general, when the oil and gas interests say, as in comment 26, that money invested in nuclear power is less effective at reducing CO2 emissions than conservation and renewable energies, and therefore less annoying to them, you should infer that it is, as experience has shown, a lot *more* effective in doing that. When they say it is dangerous, they say this because it is a lot less dangerous than letting them keep their electricity supply privilege. Etc.

Uranium discovery has been occurring at ten times the rate of consumption, despite the stuff's being 50 times cheaper than oil. *Finding* it was, a few years ago, *300* times less expensive than finding oil. It is a long-term solution.


Really, thinking long term, there is no other option than to really go nuclear at some point.


Posted by Rich Wilson: "#6- where do you get the Hydrogen from?"

Solar. If Reagan hadn't killed much of the research, who knows where this technology would be now.

I foresee solar panels on the roofs of all buildings. Everyone becomes a producer of energy and sells it (or gets credit for it) on the grid. Since energy output peaks during midday, you convert the surplus to hydrogen.

Only when we have this surplus of hydrogen do we consider widespread use of hydrogen vehicles. To produce them now requires converting natural gas energy to hydrogen energy - inefficient and not a net benefit.

One of Reagan's buddies must have held shares in an asphalt shingle company.

Tom Gottshalk

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?


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

"Really, thinking long term, there is no other option than to really go nuclear at some point" -- no, there are other options. The thing to watch for is when those who oppose nuclear begin to oppose these other options too; then, you'll know that technical progress has made them threatening to oil and gas interests in the same way nuclear energy has been for about 38 years now.

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

Fuel waste problems are commonplace, e.g. from a Google News search,

Gov. Crist Travels to Jacksonville to Discuss Tropical Storm Fay
First Coast News, FL - 59 minutes ago
They announced at least one man, a 54-year-old in Highlands County, died from carbon monoxide poisoning in his home. Authorities say he tested a generator ...

Coroner: Waynesboro Men Found In Home Died Accidentally
WHAG, MD - 1 hour ago
Investigators say the men died of carbon monoxide poisoning. The coroner's report says Dewease suffered from diabetic episodes and he forgot to turn his car ...

At no time, however, have analogous deaths or personal injuries occurred with *nuclear* fuel waste, in France or elsewhere. Keep in mind that the fuels that produce CO are very lucrative for government. People on a government paycheque who talk up nuclear waste profit a few pennies, I guess, from each such death or injury, a death or injury that the production of additional nuclear waste could have averted.



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.


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


As someone who has been in the electric utility industry for 30 years the idea that environmentalists killed nuclear power is laughable.

Economics killed nuclear power. If you are going to blame anyone for "killing nuclear power" blame Wall Street and electric industry deregulation.

Johnny E

I saw the movie the weekend that the TMI incident was still going on. Nobody knew what was happening yet, It raised my goosebumps.

Unfortunately when they estimate the costs of nukular power they externalize the costs of producing the fuel, managing the wastes, providing security, and deactivating the plant when it's reached its lifespan. It's probably not really profitable.

At a social gathering recently I was talking to a nuclear engineering professor. He said the past 8 years were a disaster for the industry because Republicans kept changing their policies regarding nuclear power.

Don't forget Chernobyl.

Speaking of nuclear subs, I took a harbor tour of the Bremerton Navy Yard after the SALT treaties. A bunch of nuclear subs were in mothballs because of that and had their missile tubes removed. I was thinking, why not turn on the reactors and plug them into the grid. I heard they've been scrapped since then but if Obama gets his missile treaty with Russia we might have that opportunity again.