Rahul GUPTA: This administration has been very clear: for the first time in the history of the United States federal government, we have made harm reduction the central tenet of how we need to move forward.
That is Rahul Gupta. He is Director of National Drug Policy at the White House.
GUPTA: The mission basically is to reduce the prevalence as well as the harms from illicit drugs across the nation and address it from a global standpoint.
When Gupta talks about “harm reduction” — what is that? You could think of harm reduction as not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. You could think of it as public-health realism. Do you remember the “just say no” anti-drug campaign from the 1980s? Harm reduction is pretty much the opposite of “just say no.” Because “just say no” has not been working.
GUPTA: We’re seeing over 108,000 Americans dying in any given year from either a drug overdose or poisoning.
Most of those overdoses are from opioids, including black-market fentanyl. Gupta is also an internal-medicine physician, and he has a lot of experience with opioid deaths. He used to be public health commissioner of West Virginia.
GUPTA: When I became commissioner of health, West Virginia had the highest death rate from overdoses historically. It was very important for me to look at why that’s happening.
He commissioned an analysis that covered every West Virginian who died of an overdose. Half of the victims who had received medical treatment, Gupta found, could have been saved.
GUPTA: A significant amount of people who had died from an overdose did not receive the lifesaving drug Naloxone, and that went back to access, affordability, but also stigma.
Naloxone, also known as Narcan, is an emergency drug that can stop an overdose as it’s happening. When public-health advocates talk about harm-reduction policies for what they call opiate-use disorder, near the top of the list is access to Naloxone. But there are other policies. You may remember hearing about this in a two-part series we made in 2020 on the opioid epidemic.
Nicole O’DONNELL: We’re all harm reductionists here. So we advocate for safe injection practices, the needle exchange. Opiate-use disorder is treatable. It’s not a death sentence. It’s not — it’s a medical condition and it’s treatable.
Stephen LOYD: So the first thing is to keep patients alive. I think anytime you lessen the stigma associated with addiction, you increase people’s opportunity to step out of the shadows and ask for help. And I’m for any modality that gets people to that point.
Harm-reduction has been gaining support, mostly in liberal cities and states. New York City just opened the first supervised injection site in the U.S., where people can use heroin under medical supervision. Many other places are considering similar moves. And so, I thought it might be time to ask a question that may seem strange at first, maybe even a little crazy. But here goes: if harm reduction can keep people from dying of a drug overdose, should we apply the same logic to other tough problems? Think about this one: Human beings all over the globe are using more and more electricity. Producing that electricity typically creates a lot of pollution and greenhouse gasses. Cleaner energy sources, like solar and wind power, don’t have nearly the capacity to meet the demand. There is no perfect solution. So, is it time to think of a good solution? Is it time to apply harm reduction to energy policy?
Kristin ZAITZ: We talk to Democrats and we have this great Kumbaya moment about how much we care about climate. And then they say they don’t support nuclear.
Today on Freakonomics Radio, is it time to fully embrace nuclear power?
Joshua GOLDSTEIN: We literally wouldn’t have the climate crisis that we have today if we had stayed on that track.
Why did so many people turn against nuclear in the first place?
Craig MAZIN: The China Syndrome was nonsense and should have been described as such.
But nuclear power had other enemies too.
GOLDSTEIN: He did it with a check from the head of Arco Petroleum.
Once upon a time, they said electricity from nuclear power would be “too cheap to meter.” Today: is it too safe to ignore?
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There are a number of misconceptions about nuclear power. Let’s start with a simple image — that huge, hourglass-shaped cooling tower, with steam billowing out the top. Spooky, right? Just about every article you’ve ever seen about nuclear power has been accompanied by a photograph of a cooling tower like that. It has essentially become a symbol for nuclear power.
GOLDSTEIN: It’s a terrible symbol because a lot of coal plants have the cooling towers and a lot of nuclear plants don’t have them. But I know that’s what people think of.
That is Joshua Goldstein. He’s a professor emeritus of international relations at American University. He recently co-authored a book called A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow. In the book, he busts a variety of nuclear-power myths and he highlights the countries that have built a lot of nuclear reactors — countries like Sweden and France.
GOLDSTEIN: Sweden and France, both in the 1970s, were affected by the energy crisis in which the Middle East conflicts had led to a shutoff of oil exports. And suddenly there were lines at the gas station and so forth, it was a big political issue at that time. So Sweden just built a dozen reactors or so in short order. Same thing France did. And their carbon emissions dropped by half just in 15 years, and their economy doubled in that time and their electricity use doubled.
Goldstein was himself a late convert to nuclear power.
GOLDSTEIN: I was an environmentalist, anti-nuclear and all that. But then once I got into climate change, I had to do the math — how would we actually solve climate change — and realized that the solutions, as good as they are, wind and solar and all that, I’m not against it, but they’re just not getting us there. The problem is much bigger than that. And then I hit on nuclear because it’s so scalable, because it’s so concentrated. So then I started learning about it and realized that a lot of what I knew wasn’t actually true. Radioactivity, specifically — people have the idea that radioactivity is like a virus, that if it gets out, it can destroy the world or something. It’s not like that at all. It doesn’t reproduce and it stays in one place. If you leave it somewhere for a billion years, it’ll still be there, but it’ll be actually less dangerous over time.
But most of the world’s electricity today, about 80 percent, is still created by burning fossil fuels. Only 10 percent is nuclear. Building out a nuclear infrastructure is more complicated and expensive up front, so richer countries tend to have more nuclear. Nearly 70 percent of France’s electricity comes from nuclear power. In Sweden it’s 31 percent, with another 45 percent coming from hydroelectric power. In the U.S. — where nuclear power was invented — we get just under 20 percent of our electricity from nuclear power.
GOLDSTEIN: No one country can solve climate change and nobody’s gotten all the way there. But what some countries have done is to learn how to generate electricity with very low carbon emissions and therefore not contributing to climate change.
Now, keep in mind that even carbon-free electricity will not solve climate change.
GOLDSTEIN: Electricity production is not the biggest source of carbon emissions. If you take a circle and cut it in half and then cut one of those halves in half — so, quarters — one of those quarters is electricity production. One of them is all the agriculture, deforestation, land-use stuff and that kind of thing. And then the other half is industrial, transportation, and building heat.
But electricity production is certainly a big enough sector to want to fix.
GOLDSTEIN: There’s a wonderful app called Electricity Map and it shows you in real time who is generating electricity with what fuels, and how much carbon to generate that per-kilowatt hour.
And nuclear power is very low-carbon. Why? It harnesses the process of nuclear fission — the splitting of atoms within pellets of uranium. That fission produces heat, which turns water into steam, which spins an electric turbine. But the real action is what’s happening among those uranium atoms.
GOLDSTEIN: Everything that you love about nuclear power and fear about nuclear power all comes down to how concentrated it is. It’s just so much energy. And that means that you can get so much electricity out of a very small plant and a very small mining operation, very little waste and all of that. But it also means that it’s scary. It’s so much energy and you can make a bomb out of that energy and so forth. So people are scared of it.
Matthew NEIDELL: Obviously, the risk of meltdown is a big concern.
That is Matthew Neidell. He’s an economist at Columbia University who works on public health and policy.
NEIDELL: There’s not just risks of radiation and potential cancer for those who are exposed. There’s also huge swaths of land that get destroyed and there’s also concerns of other fallout from a meltdown. For example, there’s been evidence that shows after the Chernobyl accident in 1986, that children that were exposed prenatally to some of the nuclear fallout had worse outcomes as they became adults.
Chernobyl is the most famous nuclear disaster in history, and it was horrible. Just hearing that word is scary, isn’t it? When you hear “Chernobyl,” it’s hard to not think of nuclear power as dangerous. Still, if you think about it in the framework of harm reduction, you may start to dial down the fear and ask a different set of questions.
GOLDSTEIN: The harm-reduction idea is appropriate. I always think of it in terms of, compared to what?
Joshua Goldstein again.
GOLDSTEIN: Either you’re going to turn off the electricity, which kills people really quickly, or you’re going to burn coal and natural gas to generate electricity, which also kills people, a little more slowly. So you have to think of nuclear power, the pluses and the minuses, and weigh it up — compared to what?
Today there are about 440 nuclear-power reactors operating in 33 countries. And remember, only 10 percent of global electricity is produced that way. So how dangerous is it? One way to answer that question is to measure the deaths per unit of electricity produced by the various types of energy around the world — coal, solar, natural gas, wind, oil, hydro, and nuclear. Would you like to guess which types of energy produce the most and fewest deaths? Okay, let’s go in order.
Most dangerous — by far, nearly triple the next source — is coal. Between the mining, the transport, the burning, and the pollution, nothing else is nearly as dangerous. Number two: Oil. Not very surprising — it’s a dirty fuel. And number three — much cleaner than coal and oil, but still fairly dirty: Natural gas. The next three most dangerous are: Hydroelectric power — actually very safe overall, but its death rate was skewed by a massive accident in China in 1975 that killed more than 170,000 people. Next is: Rooftop solar power. Very safe, although accidents do happen with installations. Next is: Wind. Again, very safe overall.
And at the bottom of the list — or the top, if you’re looking for the energy source that produces the fewest deaths per unit of electricity — that’s right: Nuclear power. Even with the famous meltdowns you know about — Chernobyl in Ukraine,in 1986; Fukushima Daiichi in Japan in 2011; and Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979. Three Mile Island, by the way, produced zero deaths but it was scary enough to change the future of nuclear power in the U.S. Still, on the measure of mortality per unit of electricity produced, nuclear power is, overall, the safest source we have.
The most common source, meanwhile, is coal — which, as Joshua Goldstein writes in A Bright Future, “kills at least a million people every year worldwide, mostly through particulate emissions that give people cancer and other diseases.” The other fossil fuels we burn for electricity aren’t as bad as coal, but they certainly pollute and they raise climate risk — as well as geopolitical risk. Our dependence on oil and gas has meant a long series of wars and occupations; it has meant partnerships with repressive regimes, and it’s meant being held hostage to those regimes when they suddenly decide to shut down the pipeline that’s been supplying your fuel for electricity and heat.
GOLDSTEIN: So these are all very problematic things. And the idea that we’re going to just use less electricity, that’s not going to work for poor people who are just getting out of poverty.
Stephen DUBNER: Americans may have this sense that we are in a position to decrease energy consumption and therefore production. But we forget that much of the rest of the world — just take China and India alone, which is two and a half or so billion people — they are going to be increasing their energy consumption for how long, do you think?
GOLDSTEIN: Well, decades, certainly into the future. And they’re increasing fast. And it’s a great thing. I mean, the increasing energy use in countries like China and India are lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. And it’s often all a matter of life or death to have electricity, to have energy. So that’s all great. But it’s all being done with the cheapest, most available, simplest technology that they can put their hands on. And that’s coal.
NEIDELL: There are better alternatives out there.
Matthew Neidell again.
NEIDELL: Solar power, the prices just keep coming down, especially in the last ten years. But there are two main issues with solar. One is that it’s only producing energy as the sun shines. The other thing is that most of our solar energy that’s being built is being built in areas where it has the most potential to produce energy. Like California. Fifty percent of its grid comes from renewables. So if we want to increase our solar production, any other place we’re going to go to isn’t going to work quite as well because it’s not going to be as sunny.
GOLDSTEIN: We put $3 trillion into renewables, which is great in and of itself, but it hasn’t brought the fossil fuels down. It’s going in on top of fossil fuels. And that’s all because energy use is growing very quickly around the world. We can’t have some fancy expensive system that works okay in Germany, but it’s too expensive for Indonesia, right?
DUBNER: So in your book, you write that current conventional thinking among environmentalists is that, quote, “We don’t need nuclear power. We can build 100% renewables.” What’s wrong with that argument?
GOLDSTEIN: How’s that working out for us? Really?
DUBNER: Well, okay. But let’s say I want to take the charitable view and I say, “Well, look, solar, wind, other renewables are newer technologies. So inevitably the prices will fall and the efficiency will increase. So let’s give it time. We know that’s the path.”
GOLDSTEIN: The price of wind and solar has come down a lot and they’re very cheap now when they produce. But the problem is, when they’re not producing, then the grid needs to go somewhere else to get electricity. Battery storage is still very expensive, and the amount of storage that you would need is incredibly large if you intend to power a whole society or whole grid or the world with just intermittent wind and solar power.
This is the kind of conversation that leads some people around to nuclear power. It’s a conversation invoking numbers and logic, versus politics and emotions, which tend to dominate most such conversations. So let’s poke a little harder into nuclear power — its benefits and costs. The economist Matthew Neidell points to three key benefits:
NEIDELL: The first one is that nuclear power emits no greenhouse gasses. And that’s really important for climate change.
NEIDELL: Another benefit is that there’s also no local air pollution. You hear a lot about particulate matter, which is one of the leading causes of death around the globe. And a lot of that is coming from burning of fossil fuels.
NEIDELL: The third benefit is that once a nuclear plant is up and running — and that’s an important “once it’s up and running” — the cost of producing energy is fairly low when compared to other sources of energy.
Okay, those are the benefits; what about the key costs? The first is the actual cost, in dollars, of getting a nuclear reactor up and running.
NEIDELL: It’s billions of dollars to build a plant. And one of the reasons it’s so expensive to build a plant is the amount of safety measures that you have to take.
The second cost: nuclear plants produce radioactive waste. Storing that waste properly is also expensive. And that brings us to the biggest potential cost: a nuclear meltdown. As we’ve heard, fossil fuels carry all sorts of risk; but with nuclear, isn’t there a risk of destroying the planet?
GOLDSTEIN: There’s been one really bad, serious nuclear accident that killed people in all of history. And that was in Chernobyl. It killed about 50 people on site and sickened others. There was a cloud of radioactive material that went spreading around Europe and everyone was freaked out about it. Theoretically, you might have had more cancers, but it’s so small that you can’t measure it. So that was Chernobyl.
Coming up after the break: was that Chernobyl?
MAZIN: We can’t be held hostage by the specter of misinterpretation.
Also, I just wanted to let you know about some of the episodes we’re working on now, for the next few months. There’s a special series on Adam Smith, the misunderstood philosopher-economist; we’re working on something about the art repatriation movement, and on the airline industry — and those are just the A’s! We choose topics that excite us and we hope they excite you too. Please help spread the word about Freakonomics Radio however you can.
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DUBNER: So first of all, congratulations on Chernobyl and all the accolades that came with it. It’s an amazing piece of work — so, well done.
MAZIN: Thank you. Yeah, it’s a weird sentence for everybody to say, “Congratulations on Chernobyl.” Every time people have to be really — “I love Chernobyl” — and then they always stop themselves.
That is Craig Mazin.
MAZIN: I am a writer, producer, director. I’ve been working in movies and television for over 25 years. But most people know me for my most recent credit, which was the H.B.O. limited series Chernobyl, about the disaster that occurred in Ukraine in 1986.
DUBNER: This is a really small nomenclature question, but I’m curious to hear your answer. I often see the Chernobyl event referred to as the “Chernobyl Nuclear Accident.” In fact, I’m looking at a page here from the World Nuclear Association, and the article is titled “Chernobyl Accident 1986.” I’m curious whether you think “accident” is an appropriate word for what happened there, or no?
MAZIN: From a technical point of view: no, because, to me — I call it “disaster,” not simply because of the scale, but also because I think in part it was borderline intentional. When you look at what they did, it’s hard to call that an accident. Do you call it a car accident if somebody decides to take a turn that’s listed at 20 miles an hour at 90 miles an hour? It’s hard to say that’s an accident. I call it a disaster.
The disaster makes for a compelling, and very frightening, T.V. series. Here’s how Mazin sums up the key events.
MAZIN: In the early morning hours of April 26th, 1986, at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, they were running a safety test. They violated a series of safety rules that we would have in the West that they didn’t have. They also violated a series of safety rules even they had. And in doing so, created a condition in this already inherently unstable nuclear reactor that caused it to explode. And even after it exploded, they refused to believe that it exploded.
The main focus of Mazin’s show is the aftermath of the explosion — the Soviet cover-up; the scientists and officials who spoke truth to power; the eventual cleanup and containment.
MAZIN: There is a massive exclusion zone around Chernobyl that exists to this day because the area is still considered rather dangerous.
DUBNER: And can you give a summary of the human toll?
MAZIN: So you have estimates of death that go all the way from 4,000 people up to a million people. Death also is a tricky thing. Shortened life, is that death? Is it when someone has lung cancer and they worked at Chernobyl and they also smoked? This is a complicated question. And the broader health impacts are also very difficult to figure out because, again, most of them occurred in Ukraine and Belarus, and there was not good data there. I think it’s safe to say that in terms of lives negatively impacted in a serious way, we’re talking about at least hundreds of thousands of people.
DUBNER: So Craig, you’re mostly known for comedies, and this was plainly a tragedy. How did you get excited enough about Chernobyl to want to do the research and writing that led you to pitch it to H.B.O.?
MAZIN: A few initial facts did make me think that perhaps there was a way to tell this story dramatically. The two that really grabbed me — the first one was a simple bit of irony that on the night of the disaster, they were running a safety test. That automatically makes me sit forward as a writer. And the other bit of information was that the man that was assigned to investigate and clean up the disaster, Professor Legasov, committed suicide two years to the day after the explosion. And that also felt very relevant. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be a good story, but the more I read, the more I went, “Oh my God, I have to.”
DUBNER: So what if, rather than pitching the disaster, you had instead pitched a series on, let’s say, how nuclear power can be a safe, global, clean energy source that will vastly lower carbon emissions and help fight the consequences of climate change? Would H.B.O. want to make a six-part series on that?
MAZIN: No. And the reason is, it’s not dramatically interesting. It’s just true. And this is where drama has a purpose. I made a point in Chernobyl during the final episode in the courtroom scene for Legasov to state clearly that nobody else in the world had the problem that that reactor had and that the nuclear power industry everywhere else was so far removed from the circumstances that led to Chernobyl that Chernobyl could never happen anywhere else but in Chernobyl.
LEGASOV: We were following orders. From the K.G.B., from the Central Committee. And right now there are 16 reactors in the Soviet Union with the same fatal flaw.
MAZIN: And yet still, after the show came out, a lot of people — I don’t know if they were nuclear industry professionals, publicists, marketers, lobbyists — were rather vicious about the series, which I thought was stupid. You can’t be an effective proponent of nuclear power if you don’t acknowledge where nuclear power has drawbacks or has failed spectacularly. You just can’t.
DUBNER: You won a couple of Emmys for the series, so congratulations on that. It was very well regarded. I assume it was widely watched. I’m curious to know what you think is the broader impact, if it can be measured. I’m particularly curious how you think it may have changed or added to the public conversation about nuclear energy. Because you were arguing that Chernobyl was an outlier, a terrible outlier, that should never be repeated. But don’t you think there might be a lot of people who watch the series or who hear about the series and think, “Oh, yeah, nuclear energy, that’s Chernobyl, that was a disaster. Yeah, nuclear is terrible. We should stay away from that.”
MAZIN: I think there’s probably quite a few people who watched Chernobyl and then said in a visceral way, “I don’t ever want to go near a nuclear power plant ever.” And I understand that. I did make a point of saying in the aftermath of the show that I am a believer in nuclear power and that, if anything, the research I did into Chernobyl made me more of a believer in nuclear power.
Craig Mazin’s H.B.O. series on Chernobyl isn’t the first time that Hollywood has depicted a nuclear disaster. In 1979, Jane Fonda starred in a film called The China Syndrome, which revolved around a meltdown at a fictional nuclear-power plant in California. Fonda was a prominent figure in the growing no-nukes movement in the U.S. Here she is in an interview just ahead of the film’s release:
Jane FONDA: There are alternatives to nuclear energy. I am not particularly impressed by the nuclear industry.
And here she is discussing why a film about a nuclear-plant disaster was of interest:
FONDA: We chose the nuclear backdrop because it’s a thriller, and it’s a good backdrop for a thriller, and it’s never been done before.
And here’s the film’s trailer:
TRAILER: The closer they get, the more threatening it becomes. Only a handful of people know what it really means — and they’re scared. Soon, you will know.
The China Syndrome opened on March 16, 1979. Twelve days later, one of the reactors at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania melted down. It was the most significant accident ever at a U.S. nuclear plant. No one was directly hurt; radiation in the area around the plant increased only by a small amount. But the timing of the accident and the film conspired to make nuclear power seem terrifying. Craig Mazin again.
MAZIN: Yeah, I think as a child of the ’70s and ’80s, the specter of nuclear “blank” was very intimidating and very frightening. Three Mile Island was — I mean, that is the most overwrought thing ever. I think when they did the final analysis, something like, you know, a dental x-ray’s worth of radiation leaked into the air.
DUBNER: But if you look at what actually happened in the real world as an after-effect of the Three Mile Island accident — which again was not very serious, and The China Syndrome, which — well, okay, your word, “nonsense.” I’ll just say it was, you know, a very dramatic rendering of a nuclear disaster. But because that came out right as Three Mile Island was happening, it certainly changed the public discourse. And one result of that change in discourse, you could say, is that America pretty much abandoned building new nuclear power plants or made it much, much, much more difficult. Many other countries decided to back away as well. And it’s not like nothing happened instead. What happened instead is we mostly burned coal, which has demonstrably killed millions. So what’s your sense or feeling or maybe even fear that Chernobyl may be misremembered or misconstrued as contributing once again to an anti-nuclear sentiment?
MAZIN: Well, the best that I can do is to speak the truth about it and to just, with my own voice, help counter what might be irrational fear that a Chernobyl could happen in the West. We can’t be held hostage by the specter of a misinterpretation. Three Mile Island was a case of the press run amok and no counterbalance whatsoever. The China Syndrome was nonsense and should have been described as such, but wasn’t. The key is to counterbalance what you would imagine to be an obvious and easy misinterpretation. And to, in fact, talk about how a story like Chernobyl is almost a roadmap to safe nuclear power, because it lists all of the things that are required for a nuclear reactor to explode. And we don’t do any of them.
Since Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, nuclear safety technology and regulations have been significantly upgraded. Still, enthusiasm for nuclear power remained dim. Before Chernobyl, more than 400 reactors had opened around the world; in the three decades since, fewer than 200. Quite a few of those were in Japan. And then, in 2011, there was an earthquake off the Japanese coast — its worst earthquake in recorded history. And it triggered a tsunami that killed thousands and swamped the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.
NEIDELL: And eventually, this led to a meltdown in the plant, between a combination of the damage from the earthquake and the damage from the water that was coming over the walls.
That, again, is the Columbia economist Mathew Neidell.
NEIDELL: After that accident happened, there were major protests in Japan and around the world. And one of the efforts of those protests was to stop using nuclear as a source of energy.
The Fukushima nuclear disaster was the worst one since Chernobyl. In response, Japan decided to immediately shut down all its nuclear-power plants. Matthew Neidell wanted to know what effects this shutdown had. He and two coauthors recently published a paper in the Journal of Health Economics called “The Unintended Effects from Halting Nuclear Power Production: Evidence from the Fukushima Daiichi Accident.”
NEIDELL: And what we did in this paper was, we were looking at what happened when Japan decommissioned the use of nuclear power plants as a primary source of energy.
Before the Fukushima disaster, Japan got about 35 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. That fell suddenly to zero. And how did the Japanese make up the loss?
NEIDELL: They started importing natural gas from China and elsewhere. And what happened as a result of importing those sources of energy from elsewhere is that the price of energy went up. And when the price of energy went up, we exploited the good old law of demand, and said that as the price of energy goes up, people are going to use less energy.
That was their theory. And the data, as it turned out, confirmed the theory.
NEIDELL: Prices of energy went up neighborhood of 30 to 40% — that varied across the country, depending on how much nuclear power they were using before the change happened. And we saw pretty substantial declines in energy usage.
Substantial enough so that some people suffered significant consequences.
NEIDELL: As a result of cutting back on their energy usage, they were less protected from the elements. And we saw an increase in mortality, particularly during the colder time of the year, when we saw the biggest declines in energy usage.
It wasn’t that people were freezing to death from using less electricity in the winter; but the researchers found “that the increase in mortality from cold temperatures mainly due to cardiovascular disease.” As they write, “Cold temperatures are related to an increase in blood viscosity and vasoconstriction, harming elderly people in particular.” Neidell and his collaborators found that this chain of events — the shutdown of Japan’s nuclear plants, the rise in energy prices, and the decrease in energy usage — led to an extra 4,500 deaths.
NEIDELL: And if we were to compare that to the actual nuclear accident itself, they only estimate there to be about 130 deaths due to nuclear radiation exposure. So we actually see much higher mortality due to the higher prices than we see to the actual accident itself.
Neidell’s paper was published last year but it was first released as a working paper in 2019. And that’s the same year that Craig Mazin’s Chernobyl series was released on H.B.O.
NEIDELL: Our paper came out, a lot of people said to me, “Are you sure you feel that way?” “Haven’t you seen the miniseries on Chernobyl?” And that doesn’t affect me here. The entertainment industry is making movies or producing entertainment for us. They’re trying to make what sells. I hope that the point of research is to try to influence policy in the right direction.
Is nuclear policy moving in the right direction?
ZAITZ: The state of California is realizing we do not have enough electricity, period.
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What is the state of nuclear power in the U.S. right now? There are 93 reactors in 28 states, down from 104 reactors in 2012. Most of these plants were built pre-Chernobyl. In California, there’s just one remaining nuclear plant: Diablo Canyon.
ZAITZ: There’s two units — so, two reactors on one site that’s located on the central coast of California. And it’s about 20 percent of California’s carbon-free electricity.
That is Kristin Zaitz. She works at Diablo Canyon; she’s also co-founder of Mothers for Nuclear, an advocacy group which tries to show that nuclear power should be a key component of modern environmentalism.
ZAITZ: I got an internship at Diablo Canyon kind of on a chance. I had a good friend who made me a cake to celebrate one of us getting a real job. And he put these little fireworks on top of it. The insinuation was, you know, congratulations, you’re going to go work for a place that’s going to explode. So I was super-nervous going out there and I just ended up thinking, okay, I’m going to go for a few months, I’m going to learn their secrets, and then I’m going to come tell everybody what’s really going on and then I’ll go get a real, real job.
When she was in college, Zaitz recalls, she learned “that being anti-nuclear was a prerequisite to calling yourself an environmentalist.” But she saw things differently once she started working at Diablo Canyon. She’s been there 20 years now, as a civil engineer and project manager.
ZAITZ: A nuclear power plant is like a little city, and there’s jobs for all sorts of backgrounds out there. I am friends with chemists and other types of engineers and financial people, environmental professionals. We even have our own fire department and a medical staff, too.
Construction on Diablo Canyon began in 1968, after six years of hearings to ensure it would be safe and sufficiently earthquake-proof. If you look at the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan, the consensus was that it was poorly designed and especially poorly sited, making it vulnerable to flooding. When Diablo Canyon was being designed and built, a lot of people were sure that nuclear power was the future of electricity production, a clean and safe alternative to fossil fuels. The technology came about as a byproduct of the Manhattan Project, the huge American World War II enterprise that produced the first nuclear weapons. By the 1960s, nuclear power seemed like the sweetest peace dividend ever. But building out nuclear infrastructure was challenging.
GOLDSTEIN: We started out with these big gigawatt reactors back in the seventies, eighties, and nineties.
That, again, is Joshua Goldstein, co-author of A Bright Future.
GOLDSTEIN: They are large, concrete-laying projects which the West, Europe, and North America, have gotten very bad at doing. They all go over budget, very slow. It’s like literally a billion dollars and ten years before a shovel can ever touch the ground. And so that makes the economics really hard.
Around the world, there are more than 50 nuclear reactors currently being built, most notably in China, India, and Russia. Other countries have reversed course entirely — Germany, for instance, used to produce a lot of nuclear power but because of environmental protests and the political leverage of their Green Party, they decided to shut down all their reactors by 2022. In the U.S., meanwhile, there are just two nuclear reactors being built, in Georgia. So, what happened? How did we go from inventing nuclear power to essentially shunning it? Yes, there was the fear created by Chernobyl and evenThree Mile Island. But Goldstein says we shouldn’t underestimate the power of the environmentalist movement.
GOLDSTEIN: So it really predates all those accidents. I would go back to 1973, when the Sierra Club, which had always been pro-nuclear power because it’s so environmentally — it’s why I love it, I’m an environmentalist. Then they flipped and became anti-nuclear power. And then they went to Ohio, where Ohio was burning coal and was planning to build nuclear plants. And the Sierra Club successfully sued and agitated and raised money and got them to shut down most of what was being built there. And today, Ohio is still running on coal. So that’s decades of coal, decades of cancer and emphysema, decades of carbon emissions and so forth. And I think if you went back before that, to the path we were on, we were taking a new technology and we were going to power our cities with it, spread it around the world. And we literally wouldn’t have the climate crisis that we have today if we had stayed on that track. And we would have saved all these lives that died from coal pollution.
DUBNER: What made an organization like that change its position so concretely?
GOLDSTEIN: There was a strand — and I remember this from back then — a strand of thought that technology was bad. The population was growing too fast, too many people, people were bad. And the head of the Sierra Club, David Brower, subscribed to that. His predecessor had — I mean, the Sierra Club voted in favor of the Diablo Canyon nuclear reactor twice, the membership. But David Brower was anti-nuclear and shared these beliefs about technology, population, and so forth. And he left the Sierra Club and went over and founded Friends of the Earth, which was a explicitly anti-nuclear group. And he did it with a check from the head of Arco Petroleum. So, you know, the fossil industry has always had an interest in shutting down nuclear for obvious reasons. It’s competition.
In 2016, it was decided that the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant would be decommissioned, its electricity replaced by renewables. This was the agreement reached between state and local governments, environmental groups, and the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, which owns the plant.
Ralph CAVANAGH: The agreement in 2016 to retire and replace it, in which I participated, was an agreement that recognized that increasingly Diablo Canyon didn’t fit in a rapidly changing California grid that was moving toward new resources.
That’s Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of the energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. They like to say that the costs of nuclear power outweigh its benefits. Their argument is that safety isn’t the main concern with Diablo Canyon.
CAVANAGH: The weaknesses of Diablo Canyon lie in its giant size, inflexibility. In competitive contexts, where winners and losers emerge on the merits of affordability and reliability, nuclear power hasn’t been able to succeed. It hasn’t been able to overcome a host of lower-cost and more reliable alternatives.
But there’s a problem. Energy prices in California are already the highest in the country. Kristin Zaitz again:
ZAITZ: The state of California is realizing we do not have enough electricity, period. Not just not enough clean electricity, but not enough electricity period, to provide reliable electricity to people.
Zaitz has been meeting with California lawmakers across the political spectrum to build support for a nuclear solution to the state’s energy problems.
ZAITZ: I have found that Republicans tend to be supportive of our message right away. They might not want to talk about climate, but they’re supportive of keeping Diablo Canyon and other existing nuclear plants open. And then we talk to Democrats and we have this great Kumbaya moment about how much we care about climate. And then they say they don’t support nuclear. So it’s tricky. I think there are quite a few Democrats that are changing their tune on this.
ZAITZ: A lot of environmental groups are opening up to nuclear and outright changing their minds, and that’s happening faster and faster now. It’s like, it’s no longer taboo to be pro-nuclear energy if you’re an environmentalist.
NEIDELL: There’s a question of whether people are coming around on nuclear.
That again is the public-health economist Matthew Neidell.
NEIDELL: We’re seeing a couple of things happening that might be triggering this. After Fukushima, Japan stopped using nuclear power. Also, Germany stopped using nuclear power. And what they did was they replaced that energy with something else. And a lot of that was importing natural gas from Russia, especially for Germany. Now we have Russia invading Ukraine and all kind of sanctions going on. And now the import of fuel from Russia isn’t such a certain thing as it was before. So now Germany’s in the difficult position where they have much higher fuel prices, energy prices, and they need to start thinking about winter. Same thing in Japan. So now they’re saying maybe we need to kickstart our nuclear-power plants. Because that would be a way to provide a reliable source of energy, again without impacting climate change and local air pollution. And the important thing is, hopefully we can come back with more safety provisions in place that we can prevent any human error that might have contributed to some of the problems at Fukushima.
NEIDELL: It’s also interesting that the Inflation Reduction Act, or the climate bill, has not only created a lot of incentives for renewables, but for nuclear as well. Hopefully what we can do is instead of spending a lot of the energy arguing against nuclear, if we can spend a lot of that energy in making nuclear as safe as possible.
In addition to new incentives for nuclear power, the Biden administration has set aside $6 billion to, as the New York Times puts it, “help troubled nuclear plant operators keep their reactors running and make them more economically competitive against cheaper resources like solar and wind power.” Going back to how we began this episode: how much of this new direction on nuclear power can be attributed to an embrace of harm reduction? Sure, there are risks associated with the generation of power by nuclear fission; but there are risks associated with any sort of electricity generation, and plenty of risks from having no electricity. It’s worth noting that at the same time California was preparing to shut down Diablo Canyon, they also launched The California Harm Reduction Initiative to fight drug overdoses by funding what are called “syringe service programs.” It’s also worth noting there are more fatal drug overdoses per year in the U.S. alone than deaths from nuclear power ever.
GUPTA: The President’s been very clear that we need to make harm reduction strategies that have been proven and are high impact like naloxone.
That, again, is Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
GUPTA: Making sure that we have certain service programs, those type of issues in the forefront of making sure we’re first keeping people alive and then getting people to help they need when and where they need it without fear or judgment.
DUBNER: Now, I could hear a lot of listeners hearing you say that and think, Well, you know, no, Dr. Gupta. I’d rather not move toward more clean syringes and syringe exchanges. Let’s move toward abstinence. Let’s move toward getting users to not use this dangerous stuff. What do you say to the abstinence argument?
GUPTA: My first reaction is, look, as a physician, I’ve taken an oath to do no harm first. And that includes making sure that we’re saving lives as many today as we can. So it’s all of the above approach. But the first priority has to be for people who are about to die or are dying. Because when we run the numbers, we believe that if we do nothing or we continue to do what we have been doing, by 2025, we will be losing about 165,000 Americans a year. And that is just unacceptable.
DUBNER: Do you think it’s a legitimate analogy we’re making and a legitimate question we’re asking, of whether if one embraces harm reduction in one realm, that person should consider it in another, even if it’s as different as something like energy production?
GUPTA: I think you raise a really important and good question, which is harm reduction by itself does not have to be limited to health care systems or processes. When you look at any one of these macroeconomic aspects that have complex aspects to them, I think it is fair to approach it from a harm reduction aspect. However, I will say this: Even with simple things that look so obvious today, like seatbelts, when they began, they were controversial. They were not so easy to implement. And it did take time. So we have to also, while continuing to develop evidence and data and science behind harm reduction approaches, we’ll also have to have patience to understand that not everyone will reach the same end goal at the same time. And that’s where we have to have the patience and compassion to understand other points of view, but still not give up the aspect of harm reduction to approach tough policy solutions. As commissioner in West Virginia, we had a nuclear power plant close to us in Pennsylvania, which required us to have a certain level of knowledge and training in both functioning, but also what would happen in case of dysfunction. So I’ve had to deal with this a little bit. But broadly, when we talk about climate change, we have to think about, for example, the social cost of carbon. And unfortunately, the people who contribute the least to this may disproportionately bear the most cost. So the harms from extreme weather events, poor quality of air, poor quality of water. It could be food insecurity, it could be increased incidence of communicable diseases. And so we have to look at it in that sort of context — that at the end of the day, these policies, no matter how complex and macro they are, they ultimately affect individuals. If they’re affecting the most vulnerable amongst us, then we have to think through how to look at harm reduction as a policy.
DUBNER: That sounded like a very diplomatically worded way of saying that you don’t think my argument is totally crazy.
GUPTA: I don’t.
What do you think? We always like to hear your feedback. Our address is email@example.com; you can also leave comments at freakonomics.com, and while you’re there you can find transcripts, show notes, and information about the other shows in the Freakonomics Radio Network.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Zack Lapinski. Our staff also includes Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Ryan Kelley, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Morgan Levey, Julie Kanfer, Jasmin Klinger, Eleanor Osborne, Jeremy Johnston, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jacob Clemente, and Alina Kulman. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of the music this week was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
- Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of the Climate & Clean Energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
- Joshua Goldstein, professor emeritus of international relations at American University.
- Rahul Gupta, director of National Drug Control Policy at the White House
- Craig Mazin, American screenwriter, producer, director.
- Matthew Neidell, professor of health policy and management at Columbia University.
- Kristin Zaitz, civil engineer and project manager at Diablo Canyon; co-founder of Mothers for Nuclear.
- “Nuclear Explained: U.S. Nuclear Industry,” by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (updated 2022).
- “Nuclear Power Gets New Push in U.S., Winning Converts,” by Ivan Penn (The New York Times, 2022).
- “Japan Turns Back to Nuclear Power in Post-Fukushima Shift,” by Kana Inagaki and Leo Lewis (Financial Times, 2022).
- “Germany’s Nuclear Power Half-Step,” by The Editorial Board (The Wall Street Journal, 2022).
- “The Controversial Future of Nuclear Power in the U.S.,” by Lois Parshley (National Geographic, 2021).
- “The Unintended Effects From Halting Nuclear Power Production: Evidence From Fukushima Daiichi Accident,” by Matthew Neidell, Shinsuke Uchida, and Marcella Veronesi (Journal of Health Economics, 2021).
- “An Assessment of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant for Zero-Carbon Electricity, Desalination, and Hydrogen Production,” by Justin Aborn, Ejeong Baik, Sally Benson, Andrew T. Bouma, Jacopo Buongiorno, John H. Lienhard V, John Parsons, and Quantum J. Wei (Stanford Energy, 2021).
- “New York City Allows the Nation’s 1st Supervised Consumption Sites for Illegal Drugs,” by All Things Considered (2021).
- “‘Too Cheap to Meter’: A History of the Phrase,” by Thomas Wellock (United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 2021).
- “Mortality Rate Worldwide in 2012, by Energy Source,” by Madhumitha Jaganmohan (Statista, 2021).
- “Nuclear Energy,” by Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (Our World in Data, 2020).
- “Be Cautious With the Precautionary Principle: Evidence From Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident,” by Matthew J. Neidell, Shinsuke Uchida, and Marcella Veronesi (NBER Working Paper, 2019).
- “Comparing Fukushima and Chernobyl,” by the Nuclear Energy Institute (2019).
- “The Safest Source of Energy Will Surprise You,” by Jeff Desjardins (Visual Capitalist, 2018).
- “The Immigrant Doctor Who’s Solving West Virginia’s Opioids Crisis,” by Brianna Ehley (Politico, 2018).
- “Are Fossil Fuel Interests Bankrolling The Anti-Nuclear Energy Movement?” by Ken Silverstein (Forbes, 2016).
- “The Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, a 48-Year Odyssey,” by Leon Koenen (KCET, 2011).
- “Chernobyl’s Subclinical Legacy: Prenatal Exposure to Radioactive Fallout and School Outcomes in Sweden,” by Douglas Almond, Lena Edlund, and Mårten Palme (The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2009).
- Encounters with the Archdruid: Narratives About a Conservationist and Three of His Natural Enemies, by John McPhee (1971).