The Future of Nuclear Energy?

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | March 14, 2011 9:04 am

I’ve been thinking a great deal about nuclear energy lately in preparation for last week’s Energy at the Movies event at UT. We included clips from 1979’s The China Syndrome followed by real news reports immediately following the Three Mile Island accident–which took place just 12 days after the film premiered. Some energy experts believe that movie contributed to halting nuclear development in the U.S.

Thirty-two years have passed, so I became interested in whether attitudes on nuclear energy may have changed. A few days before the earthquake, I conducted this poll via facebook and twitter:

Within hours, I had 71 response: 63 yes, 2 no, and 6 undecided. How do you think the same question would fare now?

It’s too soon to speculate how U.S. energy policy will be influenced by the weekend’s tragic events in Japan, but regardless of advances in technology and safety measures, public sentiment will likely play a tremendous role in what happens next.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Education, Energy, Environment

Comments (12)

  1. It’s never too soon to speculate đŸ™‚ It may be too soon for *grounded* speculation, but one can always speculate wild-eyedly.

    A few days ago, when we were hearing about the early problems with the reactors, I thought, “well, that’s it for nuclear power.” The US always tends to overreact when something bad happens (the USA PATRIOT act being a horrible and sad example of this). Sometimes that overreaction is just a whole lot of screaming at each other (e.g. over gun control when there is a shooting somewhere). But often it’s an emotional response to a highly sensational piece of anecdotal evidence that colors the whole rest of the debate over an issue. I suspect that this makes it substantially harder to sell the public on nuclear power.

    And, while the issues haven’t changed, this does highlight some issues that everybody should be thinking about. It may well be that modern nuclear reactor designs have already taken into account the kinds of events that happened in Japan. If not, then, well, here’s a wake-up call that there’s things to think about that weren’t thought about when those reactors were designed. However, to my mind, the right answer is “design to deal with this”, not “give it up, it’s too dangerous.” But, I suspect the weight of public sentiment on “give it up, it’s too dangerous” makes everything much harder and more difficult.

    (Unless Pat Robertson convinces everybody that this is God’s punishment on Japan for Hello Kitty or something.)

  2. I hope the responses would not change much. My answer has always been yes. What happened was bad but we always have to look at events in context. The release of radiation has been very modest. A lot of the fear is psychological and comes from the alarmist and unrealistic images that the public associates with words like “meltdown” and radiation. “The China Syndrome” did the future of this country a lot of damage by being so alarmist. Nuclear power is one of those things which is acutely sensationalized when something goes wrong but is not appreciated enough when things are going right (which is 99% of the times). By any standards, the casualties and damage from coal mining, oil spills, natural gas explosions and chemical accidents have far exceeded the damage from nuclear accidents which are extremely few in number to begin with. Holding up Chernobyl as an example is as ridiculous as it can get since it was a freak outlier (that would be like holding up the Hindenberg as an example of what’s wrong with air travel). The nuclear industry has a first-rate track record of safety in general. Of course you are going to have an accident when your reactor is directly hit by an earthquake; that only means that you have to build your reactors in the right locations (which they mostly already are in) and it should have nothing to do with debating whether nuclear energy is important or not.

  3. I think the events in Japan just go to show that nuclear power really is safe. All reactors are designed to withstand earthquakes to some degree, and these reactors ALL withstood the strongest earthquake in Japan in 100 years with no damage to the (primary) containment building or the (secondary) reactor building. The plants in Japan are also designed to withstand tsunamis up to 6.5 meters; unfortunately the tsunami they experienced surpassed this, knocking out some of the back-up diesel generators. While it’s clear that Fukushima unit 1 is lost for future operation, I don’t think we’re going to see any dangerous offsite doses from it. In my mind, this just shows that, with proper consideration for the acts of nature and well-trained, competent personnel (the operators and engineers in Japan have really made some excellent decisions in a very short amount of time to mitigate the effects of these natural disasters), nuclear power is a safe source of electricity and energy.

    What’s more, these plant designs are legacy at this point. Newer designs are even safer, with passive cooling systems that are not reliant on off site power to maintain core temperature.

  4. I think Japan should switch offshore wind and solar.

  5. 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.

  6. When you design, build, and install your core cooling backups… have at least one person on the team who can spell “common mode failure.” NASA is poster hominid for multiple layers of FUBAR CYA that are all neutralized by the FUBAR. Now, Japan.

    Dolly Parton by the Sea (San Onofre, Southern California) was built against the largest temblor (7.0) and highest tsunami (30 ft) imaginable. Guards have been injured informally practicing quick draws – notably one in the men’s room. This sets the theme for the whole place: punctiliously documented suppression of competence.

  7. Jocie

    No to nuclear energy pre-Quake/Tsunami and a hell no to Nuclear Energy post Quake/Tsunami. The Tsunami has certainly taken many lives in Japan, but now think of the difficulties and health implications the people will have to endure because of carcinogenic radioactive exposure. It’s estimated that the Chernobyl disaster could have resulted in the upwards of 200,000 lives after the years following it. I just can’t comprehend why with all the other alternative sources of renewable LEGIT clean energy, why risk lives, scares and disasters with energy such as Nuclear. It may be categorized as alternative, but I would certainly on the lowest of levels right next to coal and fossil fuels.

  8. Brian Too

    Honestly, I think this has set nuclear power back. The public only wants to hear a story about how nuclear power is completely controlled. This episode sends a message that, in this case, it was not controlled. Primary and secondary systems both failed and then the discussion is about a meltdown.

    You know, as soon as I heard about that I became concerned myself. Why are we having to talk about a meltdown if modern reactor designs are so safe? And spare me the the lecture about how these reactors aren’t modern, or aren’t North American, or aren’t this or that or the other. A meltdown can’t happen because that undermines all the soothing talk from nuclear proponents. End of story.

    Perhaps the only reactor designs we should be talking about are inherently stable designs, ones that shut themselves off. Such designs exists but are not normally considered as big power generation designs (so far as I know). I think the issue is, and I might be off base here, but true fail-safe designs do not have the same power generating potential as more mainstream designs.

    In inherently stable reactors, you have to “do something” to start or continue the nuclear reaction. Any failure to prime (and keep priming) the system results in an automatic shutdown. The reactor always defaults to a safe shutdown.

    The Oklo natural reactor had such a system, both simple and elegant. However it could not generate megawatts of power.

  9. Gary B

    I think it’s interesting that it seems the media is completely deaf to the prospects of alternative nuclear systems such as the LFTR (Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor), also known in more general terms as the Molten Salt Reactor. There has been quite a rumble going on for several years in the nuclear community about this technology, India is already constructing a hybrid Thorium reactor, the economics, safety engineering and physics are all quite compelling, yet no mainstream media outlet that I am aware of has published a line of ‘news’. One would think that with all the chasing after every new technology, the ‘latest widget’, etc. in every news medium, that this particularly interesting technology would not get more press, more investigation. Perhaps with this latest disaster showing the obvious problems with the classic light water reactors such as those in Japan and the US, this apparently much better technology will get some traction.

  10. yes before, and yes after.

  11. Eric the Leaf

    “God help us; we’re in the hands of engineers.”

    –Ian Malcolm

  12. Three Mile Island was never as bad as some in the media tried to make it (not even close to Japan’s situation). Should know as my home town and family are approximately 19 miles from the plant.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry.Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.comFor more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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