The Politics of Nuclear Power: Where's the Left Wing Science Denial?

By Chris Mooney | April 4, 2011 2:53 pm

When the Fukushima disaster struck, I wrote the following, suggesting this would be a “natural experiment in the politicization of science”:

Today’s Republican Party has evolved to the point where the denial of climate science is mainstream within the party, or even dominant. Scarcely a day goes by without a Republican politician uttering something demonstrably incorrect on the subject.

So here’s the question: Will leading environmentalists, elected Democrats, and other influentials on the other side of the aisle be caught engaging in similar abuses in the unfolding nuclear debate? Will they say things provably incorrect, in the service of trying to tank nuclear power?

Or are liberals and conservatives today truly different when it comes to handling scientific information, no matter what their core political impulses may be?

I, for one, am betting on the latter outcome. Just read comments at my blog: It’s a bunch of old lefties saying how they’ve come around about nuclear power and how they’re willing to credit the benefits as well as the costs. Or just look at Matthew Yglesias: A good liberal who has just written, “I do think it’s worth speaking up for a nuclear industry a bit. The question is safe compared to what?

Now David Ropeik, who writes about risk assessment, and has cautioned against the exaggeration of nuclear risks, has answered:

Blogger Chris Mooney writes on Desmogblog  “Are Liberals Science Deniers? Now’s a Good Time to Find Out.” He refers to the nuclear debate as ”…a natural experiment in the politicization of science,” and optimistically bets that anti-nuclear liberals will be more open minded and respectful of the scientific evidence than conservatives. And indeed some of his respondents, and comments elsewhere, come from self-identified liberals who are open to consideration of nuclear power.

But liberal inflexibility about nuclear power is still widespread. Peter Canellos of the Boston Globe writes about strident anti-nuke Helen Caldicott trying to “…brace up wobbly liberals who look to nuclear energy as a cure for global warming.” Writers responding to a blog I wrote for NPR, “Nuke-O-Noia Could be the Greatest Threat to Japan,” in which I suggested the health impacts of fear could do more harm than the radiation – as the UN found was the case after Chernobyl – said; “Do you need references to other studies that show different statistics for TMI and Chernobyl? I’m stunned.” Another commentator wrote: “Nuclear Propaganda Radio. I’m giving my financial support to Democracy Now,” a liberal radio program that’s avowedly anti-nuclear.

More thoughtful liberals maintain their anti-nuke positions by saying it’s unaffordable, or we haven’t figured out how to dispose of the waste, or that spending on nuclear denies economic support for renewables.  Much of which is rooted in a fear of nuclear radiation that flies in the face of the biological facts. Nuclear radiation is dangerous, but not as much as those rooted fears believe. That puts the tradeoffs of nuclear power compared with other energy sources in a whole new light.

Two points. 1) I don’t doubt there are some unreconstructed lefties from the 1970s who oppose nuclear power and exaggerate the risks. But I don’t consider them to be representative of today’s liberals on this matter–and I don’t think that has been shown.

2) Economics arguments don’t count. You gotta abuse the science to get past my filter, in a demonstrable way. So I’m skeptical that economic arguments are, as Ropeik says, “rooted in a fear of nuclear radiation that flies in the face of the biological facts.”

In sum, I remain pretty unconvinced at this point that the left abuses the science on nuclear power in the same way or to the same extent that the right does on climate change.

Comments (29)

  1. Jon

    Interesting thing: conservative *elites* are massively denying climate change science, while liberal elites are embracing nuclear, eg, former hippies like Stewart Brand and others like him.

    Of course, the cost of the present technology, especially the cost of insuring and financing it right now, is quite high from what I understand. (Ironically, therefore it needs big government, which is strange considering the level of support from conservatives.)

  2. This is absurd, nearly a non sequitur from Mr. Ropeik: “…saying it’s unaffordable, or we haven’t figured out how to dispose of the waste, or that spending on nuclear denies economic support for renewables. Much of which is rooted in a fear of nuclear radiation…”

    Bollocks.

    If that holds true then apparently all those Wall St. financiers and utility execs (see, eg, Exelon CEO John Rowe’s recent comments) who have shied away from new nukes due to cost concerns and uncertainty about waste are really acting out of some irrational fear of irradiation.

    Nonsense. There are many good reasons to question nuclear power and we would be wise to maintain a healthy skepticism about industry claims and government boosterism of a nuclear rebirth.

    One does not need to be “anti-science” or even anti-nuke to see the need to question the safety and security of our aging nuclear fleet, the haphazard storage of spent fuel in overstuffed swimming pools and the efficacy of the NRC. Indeed, the country’s leading scientific body has done just that. The National Academy’s research committee asked pointed questions about the storage of spent fuel. And the NAS is currently preparing for a large scale study of cancer risks near nuclear power facilities. Is the NAS “anti-science” for indicating the need to study the possibility? Somehow I get the feeling from the tone of this post that if I had raised the possibility of a cancer risk in relation to nuclear power plants, I would be written off as an “old lefty” clinging to some “anti-science” dogma.

    Jeff

  3. David Ropeik’s claim that liberal opposition to nukes is rooted in a closet fear of radiation is nonsense. If there is a less expensive alternative to nukes and it causes less harm, then it should be the preferred choice.

    Within five years, as the cost of solar cells, wind power and bridging natural gas comes down for both large and small installations, and the heavily subsidized costs of nuclear power continues to rise, especially in the wake of Fukushima, any objective risk assessment would clearly choose the former over the latter. If you don’t believe that day is close, listen to Jon Rowe, the CEO of Exelon, the largest nuclear plant operator in the country, in his speech given at the American Enterprise Institute the week before the Japanese tsunami. See http://www.aei.org/event/100368#vid. Go to minutes 6:04 to 8:38. Even he says that day is almost upon us. He also says he wouldn’t build a nuke in the U.S. today because it is simply uneconomic. Were the solar/wind costs to fail to come down, he sees natural gas as the fuel of choice for the next two decades at least — not nukes. This comes from the mouth of a man who says in the same interview to his aghast conservative host, “hey, I’m a nuke guy.”

  4. American IPCC funding is gone and Obama didn’t even mention the CRISIS in his state of the union address and there is real talk now for criminal treason charges being laid against those in academia responsible for leading us to a false war against climate variation. And meanwhile, the UN had allowed carbon trading to trump 3rd world fresh water relief, starvation rescue and 3rd world education for just over 24 years of climate control instead of needed population control. History is watching.

  5. Zombie

    The risks from nuclear radiation, if radiation is present, are real and well-known, and there’s no disagreement between scientists, pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear activists about what they are. So the question becomes: how much radiation, or risk of radiation release, is acceptable? This isn’t really a scientific question, it’s a value judgement, and different people are reasonably going to come to different conclusions.

    No antinuclear activist has ever had to invent hazards for nuclear power, only worry about the real ones more than other people do.

    Now, we can have a conversation about what *ought* to consistute a reasonable worry, based on probabilities, and the impact of rare events, and so on. We can discuss the hazards of non-nuclear power sources and whether they’re comparable or not. Science can and certainly should inform these conversations. But fundamentally the question of nuclear power will hinge on what constitutes an acceptable risk.

    There is still plenty of science denial on the left: organic food vitalism, GMO paranoia, extremist animal rightists, etc. If you are looking for scientific “tests” of the left you can look there. No matter how much you dig, though, the right in this country is still far worse when it comes to science denial.

    The only science denial about nuclear radiation I’ve heard so far has been Ann Coulter’s “radiation is good for you” nonsense…

  6. there is real talk now for criminal treason charges being laid…

    No there isn’t.

  7. Marion Delgado

    Stewart Brand is a conservative – a radical conservative – so he doesn’t count as a liberal elitist for nukes. As for hippies, he famously said they got every single thing wrong except the PC. He’s a libertarian conservative for nukes.

    That said, Amory Lovins, who never ran around in a bus full of Deadheads but has been giving suit-and-tie presentations on renewable, fossil and nuclear energy since I was in high school, is arguably also an economic conservative. He will go on and on about the magic and power of markets. His economic objections to nuclear power are very thoroughgoing, and none are based on anti-science. I would count him as basically a libertarian moderate against nuclear power.

    Helen Caldecott might count, though a lot of her objections are based on the precautionary principle. Since the so-called skeptic movement is a subsidiary of the Austrian fantasy market cult, they call the precautionary principle unscientific. They say the same thing about objecting to cruelty to animals. They say the same thing about having industry pay for its violations of other people’s crops – even when it goes to the extreme of a GMO self-extinguishing crop polluting a bystander farm’s crop, and the corporation in question adding injury and insult to injury by trying to say the victim is stealing their intellectual property. They say that concerns about cheap, untested artificial foods are unscientific – because, again, they make the rich richer, which seems to be the baseline definition of “scientific” for someone like, e.g., Penn Jilette.

    The politics here actually ARE similar to the climate debate. A lot of the most repetitious and bullying nuclear partisans are erstwhile climate science deniers and delayers, basically taking a position of “abandon money for renewables and restrictions on nuclear and keep nuclear’s subsidies coming, or you’re not serious about climate change.” It’s a blackmail scam by the Heinlein crowd.

    That there are liberals who don’t know science should not be news, I would have assumed. Also, the paycheck liberals and the identity politics liberals were never very worked up about nuclear power anyway – that was more horse-trading with environmentalists, some of whom, like Ed Abbey, were rather socially conservative.

  8. Chris Mooney

    “No antinuclear activist has ever had to invent hazards for nuclear power, only worry about the real ones more than other people do.”

    A very interesting point from @5. This might suggest the nuclear and climate issues are structurally different, and therefore do not make for a good comparison.

    However, it remains the case that nuclear power is one of the most cited cases of the left being anti-science (see my original DeSmogBlog piece for proof of that), so it is in that I’m calling for putting that assertion to the test.

  9. Chris, I’ll start by citing antivaxxerism as being primarily a “liberal” piece of science denialism. (Per your FB page, since I’m not a friend, yet, I can’t comment there. And, it’s not quite denialism but beyond that, some liberals have illegitimate as well as legitimate fears of “Big Pharma” and “Big Ag.”

    And, I’d actually cite the stuff No. 5 does, along with what I just mentioned, before nuclear power, anymore, as an example of anti-science among certain liberal to left- liberal types.

    That said, some far-left enviros come up with wacky anti-nuclear arguments. I read one yesterday, sorry, no URL, that said, because nuclear elements have half-lifes of, say, 12,000 years, we ought to wait that long, since the invention of human nuclear fission, to actually use nuclear power. By that logic, we should be waiting about 130 million years from the drilling of the first oil well to putting gasoline in a car tank.

    @Marlon Delgado … AHH, there’s the harm of “pseudoskeptics” like Shermer and P&T, who have migled libertarianism with skepticism. Brian Dunning is another. Their defenders ask “what’s the harm,” and your wrong ideas about what skepticism is, answer that to a T. They’re as bad, if not worse, than “gnu atheists.” But, it appears you WANT to believe that, going by the rest of your post. James Hansen, as well as Monbiot, are among the top “climate worriers,” not deniers. And, Abbey? He was an anarchist first, libertarian second, environmentalist third. He was NOT a “social conservative.” WTF?

  10. er – am I missing something – where in the world do nukes come unsubsidised? So how does it become a “conservative” option?

    Apart from that my main difficulty with nukes comes from my orginal lab experience.

    Familiarity breeds contempt and people just get careless.

  11. Chris, I’m still waiting for you to present any case that science denialism on the left on any subject rises to the level of climate denial on the right.

    So far you presented us with assertions from David Ropeik, author, citing as evidence

    1. Himself (a younger and more foolish version).
    2. A woman who ran unsuccessfully for the Australian House of Representatives in 1991
    3. Some people who commented at his blog.

    On the other hand we can cite as current high-powered conservative Republican deniers of climate science:

    Former President George W Bush
    Former V.P. Dick Cheney

    Current Senators:
    John Barasso
    John Boozman
    Roy Blunt
    Dan Coats
    Tom Coburn
    Mike Crapo
    Chuck Grassley
    John Hoeven
    James Inhofe
    Johnny Isakson
    Ron Johnson
    Jim Demint
    Rand Paul
    Rob Portman
    Marco Rubio
    Richard Shelby
    John Thune
    Pat Toomey
    David Vitter

    Recent Convert to Climate Denial:
    John McCain

    Unsuccessful candidates:
    Sharron Angle
    Ken Buck
    Carly Fiorina
    Linda McMahon
    Christine O’Donnell
    Dino Rossi

    Representative Michelle Bachman
    Former V.P. candidate Sarah Palin

    Rush Limbaugh
    Glenn Beck

    This is obviously not even close to being an exhaustive list.

    I understand that you want to be evenhanded in all this, but there is no there there.

  12. For some perspective:

    I’ve worked in the US nuclear industry over twenty years. My book “Rad Decision: A Novel of Nuclear Power” happens to culminate in an accident very similar to the Japanese tragedy. (Same reactor type, same initial problem – a station blackout with scram.)

    Rad Decision is currently available free online at http://RadDecision.blogspot.com . (No adverts, nobody makes money off this site.) Reader reviews are in the homepage comments – there are plenty of them. There is also a paperback version available and a PDF download.

    The book is an excellent source of perspective for the lay person — as I’ve been hearing from readers. I’ve provided a never-seen insider’s perspective on the people, politics and technology of this controversial energy source. There are over 600 workers at every US nuclear site. What are they doing now? What would be going on if an accident occurred?

    Believe me, the real world of nuclear (good and bad) bears little resemblance to what most people think — and I include in that group most of the journalists, academics and advocates currently chatting away on TV and radio on either side of the issue. The current conversation is like casual drivers saying with great confidence what it’s like to compete in the Daytona 500.

    Rad Decision shouldn’t convince any reader that nuclear is perfectly safe or horribly unsafe. Instead it provides the reader with some background and perspective so they can make more informed judgements as the news develops.

    Unfortunately, my media presence consists of this little-known book and website, so I’m not an acknowledged “expert”. I just happpen to do the nuclear stuff for a living.

  13. Chris Mooney

    @11 I’m *waiting* for the argument just like you are. I’m searching for it. Vaccine denial gets partway there, but not far enough. You couldn’t make a reps list like that for vaccine denial.

  14. Chris, the best way to quantify nuclear antiscience is to ask for a numerical answer to the following question:

    How many people has Chernobyl killed so far?

    The antiscientific answers are up to four orders of magnitude higher than those based on data.

  15. Chris Mooney

    @14 ok so where is the discussion of the different claims and why some are exaggerated? I understand Greenpeace makes the highest claim?

  16. In my opinion the major difference between right wing and left-wing science denial is this; left-wing denial is usually not so much of denial as exaggeration. Anti-science and anti-nuclear left-wingers are usually experts at fear-mongering. But it’s only among right-wingers that you will find many cases of bonafide denial and just plain old lying. That I think is the cardinal difference.

    The left is nowhere close to being as anti-science as the right, but the NYT in its disproportionate reporting and misrepresentations about the Fukushima accident tried pretty hard to compensate for the deficit.

  17. Gaythia

    It seems to me that this whole discussion is rather nonsensical unless the groups which are being discussed are more intelligently and specifically defined. And in the end, just maybe you can’t divide the American public down into just two opposing groups anyways.

    As with objections to “teaching the controversy” in evolution, is it beneficial to try to look under every rock to figure out and highlight divides?

    Are we talking Democrats vs Republicans? ( Is there a deep difference in policy on all issues? And aren’t there alliances of oddly joined groups based more on expediency than common origins?)

    left wing vs right wing? (Doesn’t this depend on where we are flying?)

    Free vs rigid thinkers? (Does it matter if what they think about is factual? Are there airheads on both sides?)

    Or liberals vs conservatives (Again an issue problem, do we mean fiscal issues? Or maybe philosophical or religious ones? )

    Maybe the lines are more cross-cutting than absolute.

  18. Eric the Leaf

    Nicole Foss, an expert on energy, nuclear safety, and finance, states the following:

    “Proponents argue that the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) for nuclear power is sufficient to power our societies, that nuclear power can be scaled up quickly enough as fossil fuel supplies decline, that there will be sufficient uranium reserves for a massive expansion of capacity, that nuclear is the only option for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and that nuclear power can be operated with no safety concerns through probabilistic safety assessment (PSA).

    I disagree with all these assertions. Looking at the full life-cycle energy inputs for nuclear power, it seems to be barely above the minimum EROEI for maintaining society, and the costs (in both money and energy terms) are front-loaded.

    Scaling up nuclear capacity takes extrordinary amounts of both money and time. While construction can be speeded up, where this has been done (as it was in Russia), the deleterious effect on construction standards was significant. Uranium reserves, especially the high-grade ores, are depleting rapidly. The reduction in carbon dioxide emissions over the full life-cycle do not impress me. In addition, nuclear authorities make risk decisions without informing the public. They have consistently made risk calculations that have grossly underestimated the potential for accidents of the kind that can have generational impacts.

    In my view, nuclear power represents an unjustified faith in the power of human societies to control extremely complex technologies over the very long term. Any activity requiring a great deal of complex and cooperative control will do badly in difficult economic times.

    Also, no human society has ever lasted for as long as nuclear waste must be looked after. It needs to be held in pools on site for perhaps a hundred years in order to cool down enough for permanent disposal, assuming a form of permanent disposal could be conceived of, approved and developed. During this period, the knowledge as to how this must be done will need to be maintained, and this may be more difficult than is currently supposed.”

    Her arguments may or may not prove to be accurate on their merits, but this is hardly anti-science denialism. If you want to argue the specifics, you can bring it up with her. She’s the expert.

  19. @16 Well put on denial vs. exaggeration in many cases.

    @19 Partially agree, partially disagree. Nuclear EROEI beats tar sand, but falls short of conventional oil or coal, tis true. Estimates are it’s 6-1 or so. http://scienceblogs.com/casaubonsbook/2011/04/fukushima_and_the_future_of_nu.php . BUT … as more and more oil comes from “nonconventional plays,” its EROEI is going to come nearer and nearer to oil. It will still be behind gas or coal, though, but coal has the biggest death factor … 4,000-to-1 vs. nuclear, NOT counting mining deaths.

    As for risk decisions without informing the public, may I introduce Massey Coal? Deepwater Horizon/BP? The denialism of mercury pollution, etc., even after it was known?

  20. vrk

    Commenter 21 gives a link to George Monbiot’s article about Dr Helen Caldicott and her science distortions, but doesn’t give any context. Here’s the full link:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/apr/05/anti-nuclear-lobby-misled-world

    As Monbiot describes, “Dr Caldicott is the world’s foremost anti-nuclear campaigner. She has received 21 honorary degrees and scores of awards, and was nominated for a Nobel peace prize.” Depressingly she has also distorted, misquoted and misrepresented results of scientific studies into the health effects of radiation, among other things, and I would say, after reading Monbiot’s article, that this easily amounts to science denial in places.

    However, it’s not clear where her politics lie. According to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Caldicott) she has run as an independent candidate (1990) as well as wanted to run as an Australian Democrats’ candidate (1991), and based on her writing she seems to be pretty clearly on the political left. This is the first time I’ve heard of her, though, so I have to defer judgement.

  21. Chris Mooney

    @ 9 so friend me!

  22. Chris Mooney

    @22 that Monbiot article is finally what I’m looking for! It makes a plausible case that Caldicott is distorting the science on deaths from Chernobyl. I haven’t independently investigated but this sounds highly plausible. Now–how influential is she???

  23. the best way to quantify nuclear antiscience is to ask for a numerical answer to the following question: How many people has Chernobyl killed so far?

    That question tests a knowledge of trivia, not scientific facts. Not knowing the answer doesn’t prove that someone is anti-science any more than not knowing how many people died in the Boston Massacre proves that someone is anti-history.

    And more to the point, denialism isn’t about whether someone knows the answer to a question, it’s whether someone refuses to believe the correct answer even when presented with solid evidence.

  24. What a marvelous conversation. Many good points. Gaythia’s (18) is wise. It’s simplistic to just say left and right. There are important variations between people. There are many high profile liberals open-minded to nuclear power. And some (though perhaps fewer) conservatives honestly concerned about climate change. There are important distinctions among positions for and against nuclear power too. I take Rowe’s to be economic, for example, not informed by ideology. But there are several comments here that support the observation that, in some cases, our views on many science issues are powerfully influenced by our underlying worldviews and not “just the facts.” Sorry Zombie, but there are humongous disagreements about the actual physical danger of ionizing radiation between anti-nuke advocates and the epidemiologists who study such things. And an anti-nuke calling NPR “Nuclear Propaganda Radio”?
    The psychology of the way we perceive and respond to risk is a fascinating mix of fact and feeling. The nuclear issue is a great example.

  25. I understand this discussion started initially as a thought experiment within a specific U.S. political context. But there is a larger debate to be had on this that extends across the Atlantic.

    And for a window into the reflexive (and passionately held) anti-nuclear attitudes of the left in Europe and the UK, one only has to view the reaction to George Monbiot’s recent string of nuclear-power related columns, especially the last, which is referenced upthread.

  26. seamus

    There’s not so much denial on the left about nuclear, as there is ignorance. Liberal anti-nukes think they already know, so they don’t bother learning anything new, and thus their assumptions are locked in. There are a few examples right in this thread. For example, the idea that uranium reserves will run out, and that nuclear “waste” has to last 10,000 years. (Read up on fast breeder reactors if you have an open mind.)

    There’s also a tendency to create strawman arguments and rail against them. Nuclear proponents who see it as a necessary part of a no-carbon energy plan aren’t saying “only nuclear and nothing else”. We are saying sure, we need renewables, and we need nuclear too, because renewables alone won’t even come close to enough capacity to replace coal. It’s not about costs, it’s about capacity!

    Reflexively dismissive and emotional, coupled with a bit of wishful thinking. Not the same as climate science denialism, but it is ironic that once we move past the AGW “debate”, one of the big impediments to effective implementation of a clean energy economy is the knee-jerk reaction against nuclear energy.

    There’s also the nuclear weapons issue, and some have a tendency to conflate nuclear energy with nuclear weapons technology.

    Still, I have faith that liberals are more open-minded and amenable to reason than the right-wing authoritarians which pass for conservatives these days, and that many on the left will come around to nuclear once they learn a bit more (and unlearn a few things as well). Hey, Hansen did, Monbiot did, and so did I.

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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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