Sunday, September 25, 2022

Atomic Age?

“No scientific subject has ever aroused quite the same mixture of hopes and fears.”
 —Nobel-Prize-winning English physicist Sir Edward Victor Appleton, on atomic energy
One of the first places in the United States where nuclear power was put on the ballot was in the California county where I was born and grew up. It was also the first time U.S. citizens shut down a nuclear plant project with their votes.

Partly in reaction to the 1973 Arab oil embargo, the country had gone on a spree of building nuclear power plants. One was proposed to be built ten miles west of the town of Wasco, which would have put it about twenty miles from my own home town. At first, the project was non-controversial, but as things progressed, opinion divided. My father’s boss was one of the main leaders in the campaign against it.

The area was politically conservative, which should have made it supportive of energy independence and of the cash the project would have injected into the local economy. The concerns, though, were over public safety and, most importantly, the fact that nuclear reactors require huge amounts of water for cooling. Locating it in a place with extremely hot summers and which gets about six inches of rain a year did not make a lot of sense to farmers who, even in the best of times, are in a perpetual struggle for water. In an advisory vote in March 1978, voters rejected the project with a 70-percent majority.

Popular culture has always conspired to make us fear atomic power. The world’s first general awareness of the split atom was two bombs wreaking havoc on Japan in 1945. Nearly every bad thing that has happened in horror and monster movies since the 1950s onwards has been caused by nuclear radiation. In 1979, James Bridges’s movie The China Syndrome, a made-up story about safety coverups at a nuclear plant, put atomic fear in people. That alarm was magnified by the nearly concurrent partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. Four years later Mike Nichols’s based-on-true-events film Silkwood, about the mysterious death of a nuclear plant whistleblower, heaped on more paranoia.

Subsequent accidents at Chernobyl in Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union) and Fukushima in Japan did nothing to make people more comfortable with nuclear energy. The thing is that, with a little digging, we find that these events are not always exactly as we collectively recall them. No one actually died as a result of the Three Mile Island accident. In the case of Chernobyl, around 30 first-responders died. There was an increase for a time in thyroid cancers among those living near the plant, but few of those were fatal. In Japan in 2011, thousands died, but all fatalities were because of the earthquake and tsunami. No one died from radiation exposure.

Are nuclear plants safe? No source of energy is completely safe, but nuclear is clearly statistically safer than, say, coal. But is it safe enough? I don’t know the answer. Only society collectively can decide what is safe enough and what tradeoffs are acceptable or the least bad. Most people who know a lot about this stuff seem to be saying that, if the world is serious about trying to alter humankind’s contribution to climate change, then the real choice is between mass adoption of nuclear (which emits no carbon) or a serious dismantling of the modern economy. Renewable energy sources like wind and sun are appealing, but there are limits to how much they can provide. Over the summer the European Union quietly designated nuclear fission as green energy. Without a lot of fanfare five years ago, John Kerry (now a special presidential envoy for climate) changed his stance on nuclear from anti to pro.

What European country produces the most electricity carbon-free? Easily, that is Norway. Virtually all its electricity comes from hydroelectric plants. Others with low carbon footprints are Sweden, which gets 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear, and France, which normally gets 70 percent from nuclear. (Due to some problematic maintenance, several French nuclear plants are currently offline.) In one of the worst positions is Germany. In the wake of Fukushima, it began dismantling its nuclear program while also continuing to make itself dependent on Russian gas imports. Now with the war in Ukraine, it depends on coal imports.

One of the most outspoken voices for nuclear, coming from the left, is author/activist Michael Shellenberger, who has twice run for the Democratic nomination for governor of California. He features in a documentary I saw at the recent Galway Film Fleadh and about which I wrote on my movie blog: Frankie Fenton’s Atomic Hope. The film is extremely thought-provoking and well worth seeing for anyone interested in the topic. What is interesting is how the nuclear debate is playing into the climate-change discussion. The movie has been surprisingly well received in some climate activist quarters.

It seems to me that that the nuclear energy alternative more or less forces the hand of climate crusaders. If people truly believe that the current climate trajectory has existential consequences for humanity and that altering human behavior is the only hope of affecting that trajectory, then doesn’t nuclear power have to be considered as possibly the only way to accomplish that without societal breakdown?

Two key questions thus are 1) is the production of nuclear energy reasonably safe enough to adopt widely and, if we’re not certain, 2) do we have enough confidence in climate computer models to take the risk anyway?