Are Liberals Science Deniers? Now is a Good Time to Find Out

By Chris Mooney | March 14, 2011 12:11 pm

My latest DeSmogBlog piece is about the unfolding nuclear power debate, and how it fits into the context of arguments about the left, the right, and science. This is something that has been on my mind for some time:

When I and other demonstrated, during the George W. Bush years, that political conservatives had grown very strongly anti-science, we often heard what I would call the “nuclear counterargument.” The point was made that, hey, during the 1960s and 1970s, it was the political left that attacked science illegitimately—particularly around nuclear power.

Here’s a typical example of the charge, from the George C. Marshall Institute book Politicizing Science: The Alchemy of Policymaking (2003):

To attack the nuclear power industry, [activists] needed ammunition, and it was readily found. They only had to go through the nuclear power risk analysis literature and pick out some of the imagined accident scenarios with the number of deaths expected from them. Of course, they ignored the very tiny probabilities of occurrence attached to these scenarios, and they never considered the fact that alternate technologies were causing far more deaths. Quoting from the published scientific analyses gave the environmentalists credibility and even made them seem like technical experts. (Bernard L. Cohen, “Nuclear Power,” p. 146)

Similarly, in reviewing my book The Republican War on Science, sci-fi author David Brin offered a counterpoint: “Take for example the ill-considered leftwing concordance to rigidly oppose to nuclear power, a faulty liberal reflex that ignores real potential to reduce carbon emissions and help bridge the next few decades while we develop sustainable technologies.”

But as I go on to argue at DeSmogBlog, I don’t think liberals are necessarily anti-nuke today–much less inclined to misuse science toward that end. So I propose that with the dramatic new focus on this issue, we are about to find out: Does the left misuse science as much as the right, and is nuclear power a good example of that?

My guess is no–but I’m very willing to be proven wrong.

You can read the full DeSmogBlog piece here.

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Comments (48)

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  1. Finding the energy to do it right | Politics in the Zeros | March 15, 2011
  1. Mike H

    There is no more techno-advanced country in the world than Japan. Nuclear power is not safe there, and it is not safe anywhere.

    -Norman Solomon

    Since there has not been even so much as one fatality in the US from commercial nuclear power this sounds like a whopper.

    This is the first of what will likely be many.

  2. Jason

    These nuclear plants were hit by one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history, a tsunami, and numerous aftershocks. It’s hard to say that nuclear power is dangerous because a plant damaged by this many natural disasters is in trouble.

    The good thing about science compared to rhetoric is that science learns from its mistakes. After this situation in Japan calms down, undoubtedly scientists and engineers will pour over everything they learned there in order to improve future designs. Will it ever be perfect? Probably not. Besides, have we heard about how many conventional fuel stores leaked a huge amount of oil/caught on fire after this event?

    I think in this case the news will play it up more and more in order to get the drama they want.

  3. Chris

    The Tsunami has killed more people than this nuclear disaster ever will. And yet we will never hear an outcry to move people away from the Oregon and Washington coasts because of the remote yet real possibility that a Tsunami of that magnitude could strike there.

  4. Mike H

    Here’s another one, this time from the ironically named “Union of Concerned Scientists” David Lochbaum.

    The Japanese reactors were designed to cope with power failure for eight hours. Most U.S. reactors can cope with outages for only four hours.

    That must explain the meltdown at Turkey Point when it was without off site power for nearly a week after Hurricane Andrew. Oh wait … that never happened.

  5. Cathy

    I think as long as they are located at seismically stable areas they’re okay. I’m fascinated and horrified by nuclear power at the same time, and would much rather the cost of new nuclear plants be shifted toward solar and wind solutions. If an earthquake or hurricane destroys wind or solar farms, the only loss is that of short term infrastructure – not long term potential radiation pollution.

  6. Sherry M

    Although there are exceptions to the rule, activists and extremists are, in general, under-educated about that which they fear. While lack of understanding may often be the source of fear, it is later fueled by willful ignorance of any fact which may challenge the now indoctrinated world view. This phenomenon is observed in dogmatic individuals of all stripes, including liberals.

  7. TTT

    When the butcher’s bill has been tallied, we will surely find that dozens to hundreds of people burned to death when natural gas pipelines were severed and ignited by the earthquake, and that nobody died of radiation poisoning.

    It is true that self-declared liberals are more likely than self-declared conservatives to oppose nuclear power, but in actuality just about everybody opposes nuclear power because they’re all scared NIMBYists, and conservatives just like to try to make liberals look extra bad in the process. They don’t offer pro-nuclear results–they are just as intimidated by the general public’s overwhelming rejection of the nuclear industry as liberals are–but they offer points-scoring rhetoric.

  8. This entire debate centers around the operation of the nuclear plant itself, since that is the location for potential catastrophic failures: spectacular, news worthy, and frankly horrifying in it’s consequences no matter how unlikely its occurrence.

    I don’t think that we have yet absorbed the lessons of Fukushima. There is a hubris, sometimes nationalistic, that allows us to say that we have planned for all contingencies. If you listen to those who talk about Diablo Canyon site this week, they make the point that it was over designed to withstand the largest possible quake on the nearby faults. The same was said about Fukushima, and yet we did not truly understand just how great a quake was possible there.

    The other lesson that we should learn, but again one that no one is talking about, is that there is a risk in putting so much emphasis on large scale, single site capabilities. Yes, it may be economic when all is well, but the economic consequences are very bad when all is not well. The argument for a distributed system with multiple generation technologies: solar, wind, wave, co-generation, etc. makes the system much less prone to the effects of the loss of a single site. This would make the United State more secure. It would make the US economy more robust and better able to absorb shocks, whether from single site failure or from conflict fed spikes in the prices for Middle East Oil.

    And, just as importantly, the economics of nuclear have never considered the health effects of the entire process system from mining to transportation to processing to the storage of nuclear waste. At each step, we need to understand the long range effects before we commit to increased nuclear power plants, and the users of that technology should bear the cost.

    Yes, there may be just as many knee jerk reaction on the left as on the right. That just means that there are as many ideologues who will use any situation for partisan advantage. Follow the science for then entire process system. Follow the economics that the science says is true. I don’t think that you will end up supporting nuclear or coal or any other fossil fuel.

    Wes Rolley – past CoChair, Ecoaction Committee, Green Party US

  9. onefanboy2many

    Please, I’m a liberal and take it from me, liberals are just as likely to distort and ignore science as conservatives. Just look at the sales of homeopathic remedies and the use of weather patterns as an argument for global climate change. Homeopathy is a scam that’s been around for thousands of years and while global climate change is real, don’t tell me that a harsh winter is a sign of that. And please, don’t get me started on astrology.
    This whole country has gone into a new dark ages when it comes to science and it isn’t just one political party that’s involved.

  10. Jon

    But the important difference, onefanboy2many, is that the people who believe in homeopathy have little or no influence on policy. They’re not senators.

    Unfortunately, that’s not the case on the right. Who is the ranking member of the environment committee in the US Senate? That man would chair the committee if we had a GOP majority in the senate.

  11. And who is the Arkansas senator (not to mention the previous governor) and others like him who don’t believe in evolution? More than liberal politicians, conservative politicians who are anti-science seem to be in positions of power. That’s the problem. If you have someone who has kooky opinions, at least you don’t want them in the corridors of power and that seems to be much more of a problem with conservatives.

  12. Nandalal Rasiah

    Chris,

    I think, though your beat is climate issues, it would do well to break this out into the attitudes of liberals and conservatives on all issues where science is regularly cited (or ignored, as may be the case.) This would address the the “which side disregards science more” question. It’s pretty clear which side disregards critical race or feminist theory but I think the answer will change from field to field as you go through them all.

  13. Mike H

    Jon, few congressmen are as anti-nuke as Ed Markey. He’s made some of the most transparently ludicrous arguments to kill the US nuclear industry including an obscure 1982 study on neutron embrittlement he twisted out of any meaningful context to try and pass legislation closing all nuclear power plants. He’s now calling Fukushima “another Chernobyl”.

    Are you going to say he is not influential?

  14. PeterW

    The nuclear industry has a problem and attacking people who are concerned with nuclear power seems just a tad over the top right now. First off, lets see what happens in Japan before we start thumping our chests and saying how safe the industry is.

    Also it would be good to reflect on the real cause for the slowdown in the nuclear industry which is of course price. Even with subsidies and laws that limit the liability of the industry if there’s an accident, the industry can’t build a competitive reactor. If they could they would have, especially during the Bush years.

  15. Quote:
    Dave Sweeney from the Australian Conservation Foundation says Australia has a direct moral responsibility for any nuclear fallout.

    “Australian uranium is bought and burnt by this power company in Japan,” he said.

    “So there are direct links between the industry here and the industry in Japan, which is causing major problems with mass evacuations, with mass dislocation of communities, with a real threat of a grave contamination event.”
    from:
    http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2011/03/13/3162740.htm

  16. Oldtaku

    Nuclear might be a good example, but new age whackjobbery is an even better example where a large subset of liberals just throw science out the window except when they can exploit it.

    Quantum Hoohah, Now With More Energons(TM)!

  17. Does the left misuse science as much as the right, and is nuclear power a good example of that?

    Not to accuse you of engaging in the fallacy of false equivalence, but you must realize that you haven’t actually given us an example of liberals misusing science yet, even in opposition to nuclear energy.

    I also think you’re launching into a strawman argument with your list of liberal objections to nuclear power: “Nuclear power is the child of the “military industrial complex”; private companies are making big money at it; and so on.” These are caricatures of 1960s hippies that ignore the central reason people oppose nuclear power.

    In my experience, when people object to nuclear power, it is mainly on the grounds that the waste is clearly hazardous and difficult to dispose of. This is true of both conservatives and liberals as you’ll quickly discover if you suggest transporting it through, say, Orange County or disposing of it in West Texas. The accident at Chernobyl demonstrated that the risks involved include the loss of an entire city, which is not trivial if the city in question is your own.

  18. This is true of both conservatives and liberals as you’ll quickly discover if you suggest transporting it through, say, Orange County or disposing of it in West Texas.

    Proving the point. Here is Republican Senator John Ensign’s statement on the issue of nuclear waste disposal.

    By the late 1980s, the Energy Department had narrowed its search for a permanent site to three western states: Nevada, Washington, and Texas. At the time, the House Speaker was Rep. Jim Wright (D-TX) and the House Majority Leader was Tom Foley (D-WA). When Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act in 1987, it directed the Energy Department to study a single site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a permanent repository.

    During his tenure in the House of Representatives, Senator Ensign played a major role in blocking the interim storage of nuclear waste in Nevada.

    And his list of accomplishments:

    Cut funding for Yucca Mountain in the DOD authorization bill by half.

    Fought off efforts in the Budget Committee to increase the annual funding level for Yucca Mountain, helping to stall completion of the project

    Helped stop Yucca Mountain.

    He isn’t fighting against Yucca Mountain to keep hippies happy. He’s fighting because the Republicans and conservative Independents who voted for him don’t want the waste in their state. Perhaps you are aware of any Senator or Congressman, Republican or Democrat, who wants the waste sent to their state instead?

  19. The accident at Chernobyl was such a freak outlier that it’s fallacious to consider it as a possible scenario which we should fear. There was no containment structure (a feature present in every single other reactor) and the communist controls were such that all information about the accident was stifled, giving people no chance to protect and evacuate themselves. By the way, a lot of the area around Chernobyl is habitable again and one of my colleagues who is into Soviet studies actually visited the reactor last year and had some pictures taken inside the control room. As for waste, the biggest offenders are also usually the shortest-lived so they can be safely buried and their radioactivity dwindles quite soon. It’s worth noting that on the other hand, elements like mercury, lead, cadmium and arsenic essentially last forever so they are worse. The other problem is the lack of reprocessing which was a bad idea; with reprocessing, not only can you conserve nuclides and reuse them but you can also reduce their concentration in the waste. The people who opposed Yucca mountain and other projects are usually ill-informed about the actual dangers. A cousin of mine worked on Yucca for fifteen years and said he was amazed by how much of the opposition has nothing to do with science. James Lovelock has offered to bury a year’s worth of waste from a reactor in his backyard and his offer still stands.

  20. Marion Delgado

    Is Chris Mooney abandoning the search for objective reality in favor of industry friendly he said/she said fake balance? Now is a good time to find out..

    Frankly, your last point of inquiry guest was completely full of crap. A prime example of that:

    Searching for false balance, he decided to check what people thought was the consensus on burying nuclear waste in deep ocean ridges.

    Chris, in case you hadn’t noticed, that question is NEVER brought up. Not, normally, in polls, not by legislators, not by industry.

    What IS brought up is trucking waste all over the country and finding a state to sequester it in – not a deep ocean ridge. And the main state they want to sequester it in doesn’t seem to want it.

    So when people ARE polled “What do you think the National Academy of Science thinks of burying nuclear waste in deep ocean ridges?” The correct answer is “how would I know?”

    But your guest’s bullshit answer is “see, liberals are just as anti-science as conservatives!”

  21. Marion Delgado

    Also, obviously, you’re asking the wrong, rigged questions in general.

    It’s hard to be either pro or con the vaporware that is the only nuclear power you get to discuss if you’re serious – this is why actually existing renewables are always compared to pie-in-the sky nukes – because the nuclear industry – which propagandizes and lobbies much more heavily than all renewable energy figures combined – insists on that.

    Do you have a scientific counter to what Amory Lovins has said about nuclear power?

    From the 70s to now, “liberals” (and not really, because the bread-and-butter paycheck liberals or civil rights liberals, etc. aren’t really that concerned) meaning, really, environmentalists, have claimed is that as few nuclear power plants as possible should be built – to give us all better odds. We’ve insisted on the precautionary principle, and like all other industries that externalize risks and detriments and internalize profits, they attack that principle. Of the few that are built, we wanted them as safe as possible, and not built in places like Fukushima.

    And we were right and are right. This is not a science question – this is a muscle question. Whose definition of who has to pay for whose profit is the real question.

  22. Gaythia

    United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Backgrounder on Radioactive waste:

    http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/radwaste.html

    “The splitting of relatively heavy uranium atoms during reactor operation creates radioactive isotopes of several lighter elements, such as cesium-137 and strontium-90, called “fission products,” that account for most of the heat and penetrating radiation in high-level waste. Some uranium atoms also capture neutrons from fissioning uranium atoms nearby to form heavier elements like plutonium. These heavier-than-uranium, or “transuranic,” elements do not produce nearly the amount of heat or penetrating radiation that fission products do, but they take much longer to decay. Transuranic wastes, also called “TRU,” therefore account for most of the radioactive hazard remaining in high-level waste after a thousand years.

    Radioactive isotopes will eventually decay, or disintegrate, to harmless materials. However, while they are decaying, they emit radiation. Some isotopes decay in hours or even minutes, but others decay very slowly. Strontium-90 and cesium-137 have half-lives of about 30 years (that means that half the radioactivity of a given quantity of strontium-90, for example, will decay in 30 years). Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years.

    High-level wastes are hazardous to humans and other life forms because of their high radiation levels that are capable of producing fatal doses during short periods of direct exposure. For example, ten years after removal from a reactor, the surface dose rate for a typical spent fuel assembly exceeds 10,000 rem/hour, whereas a fatal whole-body dose for humans is about 500 rem (if received all at one time). Furthermore, if constituents of these high-level wastes were to get into ground water or rivers, they could enter into food chains. Although the dose produced through this indirect exposure is much smaller than a direct exposure dose, there is a greater potential for a larger population to be exposed.

    The spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants must be handled and stored with the same care as separated high-level waste, since they contain the highly-radioactive fission products plus uranium and plutonium. Spent fuel is currently being stored in large water-cooled pools and dry storage casks at nuclear power plants. Some is also stored at facilities at West Valley, New York, Morris, Illinois, and Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory. “

  23. The accident at Chernobyl was such a freak outlier that it’s fallacious to consider it as a possible scenario which we should fear.

    It’s fallacious to consider an actual disaster as a possible scenario?

    When people are being asked whether they support nuclear power they are being asked whether the risks and costs associated with nuclear power are acceptable ones. The risks they are considering are worst-case scenarios. If you build 100 nuclear power plants and only one has a catastrophic failure, that’s a freak outlier. But when people are deciding on an acceptible level of risk, it’s the worst case scenario that they are concerned with, not the typical scenario. You can’t claim that people are being unscientific or irrational if they are worried about the possibility of a worst case scenario when that scenario has already happened. The phrase “catastrophic failure at a nuclear power plant” has serious implications that “catastrophic failure at a wind farm” simply does not.

    And now I’m reading that a fourth explosion has occurred at the Fukushima nuclear plant, meaning that at least 3 of the 53 Japanese reactors are at risk of catastrophic failure right now. 200,000 people have been evacuated. Jason, above, argues that it’s unfair to say that nuclear power is dangerous because the reactors were damaged by natural disasters. But this is the world we live in and those are the risks we have to be prepared for.

  24. Chris Mooney

    Here is a statement from Public Citizen. Do folks think this is crossing the line?
    http://www.citizen.org/pressroom/pressroomredirect.cfm?ID=3292

    March 14, 2011

    Japan’s Nuclear Disaster Holds Lessons for United States

    Statement of Tyson Slocum, Director, Public Citizen’s Energy Program

    The whole world is horrified and saddened at the death and destruction wrought by an earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan.

    But the horror continues with the escalating fears of nuclear meltdown at three 1970s-era Japanese reactors. Such an event could eclipse the damage and destruction already wrought by Mother Nature.

    This is nuclear power’s Achilles’ heel and shows why it is sheer folly to pour resources into building and maintaining nuclear reactors in the U.S.

    Despite the assurances of our elected officials and the industry, there is no way to guarantee the public’s safety when a natural disaster or terrorism strikes commercial reactors. The Japanese are arguably the best prepared to deal with earthquakes, yet they failed to adequately plan for the impact of a tsunami. This demonstrates the difficulty in planning for both the “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” that impact nuclear reactors from natural disaster and terrorism. There are alternatives. Had Japan invested in rooftop solar and wind turbines to the degree it spent maintaining and building nuclear reactors, the country wouldn’t be grappling with the potential of a full-scale nuclear meltdown.

    U.S. policymakers should watch events in Japan closely and understand the implications to public safety of committing U.S. taxpayer resources to building new nuclear plants. We call on the federal government to do the following:

    1) Immediately stop activity relating to relicensing aging U.S. reactors;
    2) Halt all activity geared toward building new reactors; and
    3) End federal subsidies – such as loan guarantees – for commercial nuclear power, which total $500 billion to date.

    Instead, the U.S. should focus on developing wind power and assisting families in the installation of rooftop solar systems.

    We went through a similar debate shortly after Sept. 11, but quickly forgot. We can’t afford to forget again.

  25. Chris Mooney

    Here is a refutation of Markey’s “another Chernobyl” claim. It does seem pretty indefensible
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704893604576198421680697248.html

  26. Marion Delgado

    There was no containment structure (a feature present in every single other reactor) and the communist controls were such that all information about the accident was stifled, giving people no chance to protect and evacuate themselves.

    Wanna bet? Actually there was a containment structure, just not a good enough one. But the American capitalist reactor at Hanford that the communists based their RBM-1000s on didn’t have the safety features the Soviets built into the Chernobyl. And the American capitalist Republican governor of Pennsylvania exercised capitalist controls such that the head of the Pennsylvania Department of Health was fired for contradicting his whitewash of the Three Mile Island accident. And such that information about the fact that Metropolitan Edison had been flushing radioactive liquids into the Susquehanna never reached the people downstream who should have known. Information about radiation didn’t reach the people downwind, either. And we’ll never know the consequences of TMI, probably, because of information control.

    The only silver lining at TMI was that after a fuss was kicked up by academics, an NRC official convinced American capitalist Republican governor Richard Thornburgh to change his refusal to evacuate.

    I notice two falsehoods that are very easily checked that are circulating among the allegedly-pro-science nuclear industry partisans:

    1. Chernobyl didn’t have a containment building:

    The containment building at this plant is certainly stronger than that at Chernobyl but a lot less strong than at Three Mile Island, so time will tell

    – Ken Bergeron

    And two days before that briefing, NRC Commissioner James Asselstine had testified at a House hearing that Chernobyl indeed did have containment and that it was built to withstand greater pressure than some U.S. containments. … American minds had probably long since been made up on the question of containment by the time the New York Times reported on May 19, three weeks after the first story on the accident, that the reactor which exploded had a large containment structure of heavy steel and concrete, and ‘that at least some of this containment structure was designed to withstand pressures similar to those in many American reactors.’ The Times also reported that the stricken reactor ‘had more safety features and was closer to American reactor designs than Western experts had assumed’, and in fact ‘incorporated enough of the advanced safety features used in American reactors to raise questions… about the effectiveness of plant designs in the United States.

    Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Aug-Sep 1986

    What you see cited are original plans for RBMK-1000 reactors, not the retrofitted ones the USSR built after 3 Mile Island, including the one in question at Chernobyl:

    Second generation RBMK designs were fitted with a more secure accident localization system, as can be seen in pictures. It is fortunate that the accident happened in a second generation unit, as if it had happened in a first generation unit it could have been even more devastating.

    – Wikipedia

    2. The Fukushima plant has a core catcher http://www.quora.com/Fukushima-Reactor/Does-Fukushima-I-have-a-core-catcher

    The point that old reactors are more dangerous is nonpartisan.

  27. Marion Delgado

    I agree with Chris Mooney that calling this another Chernobyl is indefensible. The plant is an old one and the location is unsafe, but the Chernobyl explosion happened right away and their reactor wasn’t hit with an earthquake and a tsunami – it failed on its own, just as the Three Mile Island plant did.

    That statement – especially early while the situation is ongoing and information is sparse – is over the line.

  28. Marion Delgado

    But Chris, your “refutation” is full of s__t, too, for reasons I outlined above. Tucker is just another nuclear industry shill, and doesn’t care at all if his information is accurate, as long as it achieves its PR objectives. He’s no better than Markey.

  29. Mike H

    @ Marion Delgado

    In a word: bullshit. The Soviet RBMK’s DID NOT have containment structures.

    A containment building is a specialized steel reinforced concrete structure designed to house the reactor and withstand internal pressures of up to 200psi. Not a single RBMK was built with one. Soviet VVER’s (pressurized water reactors) were built with this, but Chernobyl was not a VVER.

    Additionally, with respect to TMI every credible epidemiological study found zero increase in mortality from cancer.

  30. Here is a statement from Public Citizen. Do folks think this is crossing the line?

    The statement is obviously advocating and end to nuclear power, but how is it over the line? Again, I don’t see any scientific errors in their remarks. They simply feel the risks are too high and cannot be completely mitigated.

  31. -It’s fallacious to consider an actual disaster as a possible scenario?

    In this case I think it would be since the several factors (a fundamentally flawed reactor design, communist inertia) conspiring to bring about that scenario were quite unique. That does not mean that we should not consider them, simply that it would be unwise to just forestall further development because of the one in a million chance that they might conspire again. What we do in cases like the present one is put together a review and evaluate the safety of our systems and improve them, not declare that we need to abolish those systems. And if people are concerned about the worst case scenario for nuclear power, why aren’t they also concerned about the worst case scenario for automobile accidents which have killed far more? Ideally we should construct all cars to look like tanks. The reason we don’t is because of simple tradeoffs; the worst case scenario is still not bad enough compared to the enormous benefits we get from transportation. One can make similar arguments in case of knives and guns.

    Similarly in case of nuclear power, people will stop worrying about the worst case scenario only when climate change exacerbates our lifestyle so much that we simply have to depend on nuclear power for its high energy density and relatively carbon-neutral form. The only problem is that with public sentiment running against nuclear energy because of these outliers, we may not be able to retool and depend on it even when we need to. That’s when we will realize that our reactions to accidents like this were overblown. That’s the real tragedy.

    @26: I would point you to the Dec 1986 BAS article (which came out after the Sep 1986 issue) which laid out the conclusions of the Bethe committee. As you can see, the conclusions speak for themselves and have nothing to do with “pro-industry partisans”. As Bethe says, the lack of containment was probably the least important of the problems. Markey is misguided indeed.

    The public statement that was cited fails to take a hard look at its own conclusions. For instance it simply declares but provides no evidence for the statement that Japan would have sustained the same level of development if it had replaced nuclear by solar and wind (which undoubtedly form a valuable part of the mix). And of course, it is extreme in proposing an end to a nuclear reactor building. No one suggested an end to manufacture of calcium carbide after it killed more than 10,000 people at Bhopal, a number far greater than reactor accident related deaths. Again, we need to put what’s happening in perspective and balance the pros and cons.

  32. Dark Tent

    One has to wonder…

    How long after the “resolution” of the current crisis should someone like Amory Lovins — who has for years consistently opposed nuclear power based on scientifically based concerns about safety and nuclear proliferation (as well as on economics*) — wait before they bring up those concerns again if they don’t wish to be labeled a “science denier” by Chris Mooney and other “science abuse experts” ?

    *namely, that building more nuclear plants is not the best use of scarce dollars to reduce carbon emissions.

  33. PeterW

    Somehow people think because this was an act of nature it somehow gives the industry a pass. They knew this area was prone to large earthquakes and tsunamis. When they decided to build in this location they should have planned for these eventualities. They obviously didn’t. The fact that circumstances aren’t the same as Chernobyl doesn’t give the industry a pass.

  34. Here is a refutation of Markey’s “another Chernobyl” claim. It does seem pretty indefensible

    Here is Markey’s actual statement:

    I am shocked by the devastation that has already been caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. It is heart-breaking to see the destruction that has already taken place, and to hear of so many people being killed or injured. As a result of this disaster, the world is now facing the looming threat of a possible nuclear meltdown at one of the damaged Japanese nuclear reactors. I hope and pray that Japanese experts can successfully bring these reactors under control and avert a Chernobyl-style disaster that could release large amounts of radioactive materials into the environment.

    I am also struck by the fact that the tragic events now unfolding in Japan could very easily occur in the United States. What is happening in Japan right now shows that a severe accident at a nuclear power plant can happen here

    Here’s Tucker’s version:

    Rep. Ed Markey (D., Mass.), a longtime opponent of nuclear power, has warned of “another Chernobyl” and predicted “the same thing could happen here.”

    Tucker then goes on to assure us that You can’t have a “runaway reactor,” nor can a reactor explode like a nuclear bomb, then goes on to refute all manner of other anti-nuclear claims, none of which Markey made.

    It’s pretty clear from the original statement that Markey is not claiming that the Fukishima plant is following the identical history of Chernobyl. Rather, he is worried about the possible release large amounts of radioactive materials into the environment, like that you can read about here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/15/world/asia/15nuclear.html

    Japan’s nuclear crisis verged toward catastrophe on Tuesday after an explosion damaged the vessel containing the nuclear core at one reactor and a fire at another spewed large amounts of radioactive material into the air, according to the statements of Japanese government and industry officials.

    Tucker goes on to tell us that “If a meltdown does occur in Japan, it will be a disaster for the Tokyo Electric Power Company but not for the general public. Whatever steam releases occur will have a negligible impact”, which I suppose means that all those people who’ve been evacuated can return home and begin cleaning up, now.

    Here is the comment I consider over the top: “With all the death, devastation and disease now threatening tens of thousands in Japan, it is trivializing and almost obscene to spend so much time worrying about damage to a nuclear reactor.”

    That’s Tucker of course.

  35. Nullius in Verba

    “but the Chernobyl explosion happened right away and their reactor wasn’t hit with an earthquake and a tsunami – it failed on its own, just as the Three Mile Island plant did.”

    Actually, Chernobyl didn’t just fail on its own, it was driven into a dangerous state by inexperienced operators conducting a research test on emergency shut down methods.

    For the first part of the test, they lowered the power level, but because of an operator error they lowered it too far, and the reactor shut down completely. In order to proceed with the rest of the test, they turned it back up to maximum, and ignored the alarms this triggered. What they didn’t know is that the shutdown had put the reactor in an unstable state – a combination of Xenon-135 poisoning and higher coolant density (due to loss of steam bubbles) acting as a moderator. Essentially, they were revving the engine to the max to compensate for the loss of power due to the after-effects of the shutdown.

    Then when they ran the experiment, it suddenly lowered the coolant density, raising the power, upon which even more coolant flashed to steam and a positive feedback cycle started. Nobody is quite sure what happened next – but computer models say it peaked around ten times the design maximum and the pressure of the steam ripped off the 2000-ton steel plate on top of the reactor, after which everything caught fire.

    Western reactor designs require them to remain stable under these conditions – the design of the Soviet reactors breaches international regulations. Chernobyl as such would be therefore very unlikely to happen in the US. Newer reactor designs for new build would be even more safety-conscious than those of the 1970s and 1980s.

    And industrial accidents happen. Considering the thousands of people who have just died in Japan, a reactor accident that has so far not killed anybody is a remarkable testament to safety design. Apply the same logic to the houses people live in – why, if we hit your house with a level 9 earthquake and a 10 m tsunami, it’s possible that the house might collapse and kill you! You live every day with tons of wood, steel, and brick or concrete suspended a few feet above your head. Houses are dangerous! We ought not to build any more, until we’ve got the safety issues sorted out, right?

    The hysterical, selective exaggeration of risk is a hallmark of unscientific scaremongering. When nuclear power is only required to be as safe as living in a house, you can talk to me about what the Japanese disaster means for nuclear energy. I’m pleased to see that the hysteria has mostly passed this blog by, but there’s plenty of it to be found elsewhere.

  36. Well-said Nullius. Plus there were all the fundamentally flawed problems with design as pointed out by the Bethe committee in the link above. It was human error, neglect, bureaucracy and faulty design all combined together. I am heartened to see the discussion on this blog being generally reasonable but as you mentioned there’s hysteria and irrational conclusions in other places, such as the NYT comments section.

  37. Dark Tent

    Curious Wavefunction says

    there’s hysteria and irrational conclusions in other places, such as the NYT comments section.

    It’s not just the NY Times comments section.

    Hardly.

    There are also irrational (and just plain idiotic) comments coming from folks who should certainly know better.

    Like the supposed “nuclear expert” at MIT — Joseph Oehmen (whose specialty is NOT nuclear engineering or nuclear physics) — whose “letter” has been spreading like wildfire in the media and on the web: “You can stop worrying about a radiation disaster in Japan–Here’s why…”

    there was and will *not* be any significant release of radioactivity from the damaged Japanese reactors.

    By “significant” I mean a level of radiation of more than what you would receive on – say – a long distance flight, or drinking a glass of beer that comes from certain areas with high levels of natural background.

    Whatever else may be true, that statement has already been proved wrong by the facts on the ground.

    Despite that, Oehmen is STILL being quoted all over the place as a some sort of “nuclear expert” when in fact, he’s nothing of the sort. That is eminently clear from his above statement about the beer, which was just dumb. Only an idiot and/or fool would say such a thing — especially at such an early stage of the crisis with extremely limited information about what was actually happening at the reactors .

    Has Oehmen admitted he was wrong? (wrong on his prediction and wrong to make such an irresponsible statement to begin with)

    Not that I am aware. In fact, it appears that the Nuclear Engineering Department at MIT has actually set up a web site to allow him to further “explain” the situation to all the rest of us who aren’t smart enough to appreciate that multiple reactor cores (and spent fuel rods stored in pools outside the reactor containment structure ) that have suffered a total cooling system failure essentially present no more radiation risk than flying on a plane or drinking a glass of beer.

    PS. For what it’s worth, I actually think its fairly pointless to “debate” the situation at the reactors at this stage because it’s STILL really hard to know what is actually happening — probably even for those on the site (and the vast majority of the banter on the web amounts to little more than vacuous speculation). But based on what little information has come out from the Japanese government about radiation releases so far, I know one thing for sure: Oehmen was wrong. Demonstrably so.

  38. Dunc

    It was human error, neglect, bureaucracy and faulty design all combined together.

    Indeed it was. And when we can finally solve these problems, nuclear power will be safe… I wouldn’t hold your breath though.

  39. No, we cannot solve these problems and will have to live with them. However their confluence is quite unlikely. But that is precisely why nuclear power is not much different from other sources; similar to other sources, we accept its benefits along with its risks.

  40. No, we cannot solve these problems and will have to live with them.

    That’s what most politicians say about climate change. You seem to think that nuclear energy is a solution to the problem of climate change, but I haven’t seen any evidence that building more power plants will result in anything other than people using more energy. We’re still on track to burn up all the oil and coal we can get our hands on.

    We aren’t being offered a choice between dealing with the consequences of nuclear waste or climate change. What you are demanding would simply give us both.

    However their confluence is quite unlikely.

    Their confluence happens all the time. In fact it’s happening right now. Your “one in a million” estimate seems to be off by a few orders of magnitude.

  41. Interestingly, nuclear energy is a solution to the problem of climate change and its own problems fade in comparison to those engendered by climate change. Your quote about people using more energy applies equally to any other source. We unfortunately are indeed on track for burning fossil fuels, especially because of Republican recalcitrance. All we can do is keep truckin with nuclear, solar and wind as well as we can.

    -Your “one in a million” estimate seems to be off by a few orders of magnitude.

    Uhh…no. There is no evidence that the current disaster is close to Chernobyl. And even if it were, it represents the second serious accident among hundreds of worldwide nuclear reactors operating through the last fifty years. Even with the current accident the record is first-rate by any standards. The confluence has certainly not happened “all the time”. I would point you to an excellent post by veteran Oak Ridge engineer Charles Barton which puts the situation in perspective.

  42. Eric the Leaf

    @Jinchi
    Your argument is persuasive. It is made even more compelling by those of Nicole Foss at theautomaticearth. She is difficult to refute. I also agree that there is no evidence that nukes will actually replace energy from fossil fuel–at best perhaps keep pace with population growth. It is not a solution to the climate problem. On the other hand, we may need the electricity as a plausible substitute for liquid fuel as the global petroleum supply begins to deplete. . .assuming a generational turnover to electric vehicles, which I view as unlikely.

  43. nuclear energy is a solution to the problem of climate change

    No. To solve the problem of climate change you have to stop burning fossil fuels. You can argue that nuclear power could become an alternative to fossil fuels, but nuclear power is not, in and of itself, a solution to the problem. I haven’t seen any evidence that the political push to build more nuclear power plants is anything more than an attempt to get more power onto the grid.

    There is no evidence that the current disaster is close to Chernobyl.

    The odds that today’s disaster will end up close to Chernobyl is closer to 1-in-10 than it is to 1 in a million. And this is in a country that has a high level of capability to deal with the problem, where the reactors were apparently well designed and run. Now imagine if the same thing were happening in a developing country like Iran, or in a war-zone like Libya, or in an environment where the lifetime of a nuclear plant is extended from 30 years to 50 years, etc. etc. etc.

  44. Nullius in Verba

    “You seem to think that nuclear energy is a solution to the problem of climate change, but I haven’t seen any evidence that building more power plants will result in anything other than people using more energy.”

    “I also agree that there is no evidence that nukes will actually replace energy from fossil fuel”

    Nuclear energy would be a solution to the problem of climate change if the people in charge actually thought climate change was a problem. (i.e. a problem more serious than facing down the political opposition to nuclear.)

    People will use more energy. If you build only a handful of token nuclear power stations, then it will not reduce the demand for fossil significantly. If you embarked on a programme like France’s at the end of the last century, and built several hundred nuclear power stations a decade, and at the same time stopped building new fossil fuelled stations, then it’s possible to make a difference. You could do, if you wanted to. If it was necessary to save the world, I’m sure you would.

    Nobody is saying it would be a trivial undertaking. All we’re saying, with regard to climate change, is that if you really, really insist on switching to an alternative to fossil fuels, then nuclear is at least feasible, unlike the joke alternatives that keep getting pushed.

    However, it is quite evident that there is no political will for taking serious steps to deal with the climate change ‘problem’, and never has been, so the question is hypothetical. Nobody has any intention of doing anything practical about it. We will keep on using fossil sources, the excuses and greenwash will keep on getting weaker and weaker, until everyone forgets there was ever supposed to be a problem. Life will go on. And eventually, when technology moves on enough, we’ll switch to something else (maybe nuclear, maybe solar, probably something less easily imaginable) naturally and without pressure.

  45. -No.

    Yes, you have to both stop burning fossil fuels and use nuclear and other power sources. I regard the “problem of climate change” as both the deleterious effects of fossil fuel burning and the need to maintain relatively high standards of living. What you say goes for any power source. What nuclear power can do is to replace carbon emissions that’s the point. Hence it could become an alternative to fossil fuels. Future generations will never forgive us if we don’t utilize every available power source to combat the insidious effects of catastrophic global warming.

    -The odds that today’s disaster will end up close to Chernobyl is closer to 1-in-10 than it is to 1 in a million

    As I said before, even two accidents in fifty years of operating hundreds of reactors is vanishingly small close to the thousands of people killed in industrial accidents. Chernobyl killed probably a few hundred because of entirely avoidable mistakes (a lot of the radiation was because of lack of distribution of iodine tablets because of secrecy) and TMI killed no one and was benign by any standards. Plus, the Japanese reactor did admirably well compared to the magnitude of the disaster which struck it and this should not be forgotten. Rational people who want to combat climate change have to look at this in perspective. That’s the main difference between us and the largely anti-science, ideological Republican lobby in this country. It’s worth reading the post on Cosmic Variance.

  46. Marion Delgado

    As I’ve predicted repeatedly the nuclear cultists like Mike H come out of the woodwork and cite the original plans for the older RBMKs. And of course, the containment building at Chernobyl wasn’t one because the top blew off. But when the Fukushima containment building top blows off, it’s STILL a containment building because .. communists!

    so the bullshit is all Mike H’s.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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