Nuclear Power's New Friends?

When the issue of global warming first starting gaining public mindshare, around 2000, I was, I'm ashamed to say, a bit gleeful.  As a devotee of nuclear power, this looked to be an added impetus to get the construction of new nuclear power plants underway.  After all, I was in the business of designing new plants, and it's a lot more fun (and rewarding) to be in a growing business than it is to be in a stagnant or shrinking one.

With that insight -- that carbon reduction was good for my career -- I decided to become a well-informed advocate for CO2 restrictions.  The place to start was the then-current (2001) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  The executive summary seemed like a rousing call to action, but, persnickety engineer that I am, I read the whole of the technical appendices, too.

My main takeaway was that any atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration change from fossil fuels would be swamped by a multitude of other variables outside our control or knowledge.  In other words, the scientists could not say one way or another whether burning fossil fuels would have any effect.  (See here for more on the continuing saga.)  The executive summary grossly misrepresented the scientific text in service of an apparent political goal of demonizing fossil fuels.

In poker, a good player looks for "tells" -- micro-expressions in the behaviors of the opponents indicating the real strength of their cards.  We all do this every day in trying to judge the honesty of our interlocutors.  The first tell I discovered in the IPCC was the disconnect between the politicized executive summary and the technical report.  The second, and the clincher, was that there was clearly no rush to embrace nuclear power as a remedy by any of the advocates for fossil fuel restrictions or carbon tax.  Environmentalists, a crucial elite constituency, still refused to acknowledge the clear technical conclusion that the best way to reduce CO2 emissions is to build more nuclear power plants.  Watch Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth, and you'll hear not a word about nuclear, pro or con...but you will see a nuclear weapon being detonated in glorious color.  The disdain is not at all subtle.

But suddenly, some environmentalists are publicly embracing nuclear power.  A new movie is out, Pandora's Promise, featuring five prominent people from the movement telling their stories about how they came to embrace nuclear power because it remains a workable alternative to fossil fuel use, at least for electric generation.

The movie is targeted at environmentalists and attempts to speak to them from their point of view.  The profiled are clearly sincere, both in their concern for "global climate change" and in support of nuclear power.  But the movie's particular strength is that it offers graphic and incontrovertible visual evidence for the claims that nuclear advocates have been making for decades -- nuclear really is safe, and radiation levels from plants' operation are trivial.

The most vivid and effective theme is the repeated scenes of a radiation detector shot in a variety of locations around the world.  The meter face and its digital read-out are shown at arm's length against several recognizable backdrops -- New York, Paris, Kiev, Los Angeles, etc, with just a small variation in the meter reading.  On the other hand, there's a scene of a guy buried in dark-colored sand at a beach in Brazil, with the meter reading a order of magnitude greater the what one shown earlier in the cities.  This is a "black sand" beach, heavy with natural thorium.  Through a translator, the buried guy says he's doing it for his health.

Then they take their radiation meter to Fukushima.  After some dramatic and anxiety-provoking entrance moments (shots of warning signs, donning anti-contamination garb, etc), they break out the trusty rad meter with the ruined plant in the background and -- surprise! -- the digital readout is about the same as Manhattan.  They poke around a bit and find a high reading, one about the same as the black sands beach, in a crack in the concrete, evidently where some small particle became lodged.  Of course, no one seemed to have informed the film crew that the proper way to compare radiation readings for whole-body radiation effects is to measure from a consistent distance from the ground.  Waist-high is the standard, although investigating hot spots (like the hot crack at Fukushima) can justify up-close readings.  But putting a detector within inches of a radiation source does not a comparison make to a reading feet from the beach sand.

While the production values are excellent, and the content reliable, to the downside, the pace is a bit slow.  Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom it ain't.  Still, it is far easier to digest and probably far more convincing than another dry essay that attempts to refute the disinformation against nuclear power.

This is a movie that one should insist that any friend with anti-nuclear leanings see.  For those predisposed to be pro-nuclear, it will offer a grab-bag of easy-to-remember visuals so you can say, "But I saw the meter readings myself!"

The notion of environmentalists suddenly embracing nuclear power remains personally unsettling.  After 40 years of watching the movement damn all things nuclear, and ginning up one fallacious witch hunt after another, I can't really trust the movement or their motives.  The individuals featured in the movie, like Stewart Brand, author of The Whole Earth Catalog, or Richard Rhodes, chronicler of the Manhattan Project, are no doubt sincere in their current evaluations of nuclear.  After all, the facts are on our side.  I've met with one of the featured new converts, Gwyneth Cravens, author of Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy," and she is quite cogent and explicit about her conversion process.  She was wrong before, and she admits it.  Her book is an excellent discussion of that process and the critical moments in it.

Some in the nuclear power business, especially on the public relations side, welcome a possible coalition of environmental groups arguing for climate change restrictions (but nominally pro-nuclear) and the nuclear power industry itself.  When you have so few political friends, even a professional movement environmentalist can look like your new BFF (best friend forever).

I caution my colleagues on this.  The problem remains the "tells" of global climate change activism.  If one shares the strong suspicion that the climate change initiative is founded on a hoax in support of a power- and money-grab, then why would one expect to gain lasting advantage from closely aligning one's interests with it?  "Lie down with dogs and you'll get up with fleas" should be our guiding principle here.  While substituting nuclear for coal is now and will be a clear win for reducing air pollution, there is no compelling evidence that it will have an effect on the global temperature 10 or 100 years from now.

Granted, a carbon tax would make nuclear power more attractive when one runs the numbers on an investment decision in new electric generation.  But that same carbon tax could so burden the economy that new electric generation might not even be needed.  Electrical demand historically has tracked GDP by some multiple.  Stagnant or declining GDP means no increased demand and no need for new plant to satisfy that demand.  Ergo, no new nuclear orders.

While I certainly welcome former foes of nuclear now coming around and saying maybe nuclear is not so bad, we must refuse to promote new plants on what I consider false pretenses.  As public opinion becomes more aware of the falsity of the claims of impending climate catastrophe, nuclear needs to maintain its distance. 

We nuclear advocates should take our glee the old-fashioned way: by earning it.  That is, by continuing to offer to the public safe, clean, and reliable electricity at a competitive price.

Joseph Somsel is a nuclear engineer and the opinions here are his alone and do not reflect those of any employer-  past, present, or future.