Nuclear power mind-changing

Last month’s Long Now podcast summarizes the arguments in Gwyneth Cravens’ new book Power to save the world: the truth about nuclear energy. Cravens was a protester against nuclear power in the 1980s. D.R. (“Rip”) Anderson, who knows a thing or two about the subject, changed her mind. In Stewart Brand’s summary of the talk, he notes:

Comparing the environmental footprint of nuclear versus coal was the most persuasive mind-changer for Cravens. Coal involves vast quantities of mine spoil, vast quantities of fuel, vast quantities of pollution (including mercury and uranium), and vast quantities of carbon dioxide poured into the atmosphere. Nuclear, by contrast, uses the most concentrated form of energy in the world, the plants are small, and the waste amounts to one Coke can per person’s lifetime of energy use.

The podcast lays out the big picture in a comprehensive way. I’d like to pretend that none of it surprised me, but that’d be a lie. Although I’ve never been opposed to nuclear power, I’ve never wanted to seriously contemplate a major ramp-up either.

Why not? I guess I have to admit that the confluence of The China Syndrome and Three Mile Island was a mind-changer. And not just for me. It changed the mind of our society.

I wonder what combination of art and circumstance would change our society’s mind on this subject again?

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27 thoughts on “Nuclear power mind-changing

  1. I would have hoped that India and Pakistan testing nuclear weapons would have been enough to keep minds the way they are. Dollar for dollar, conservation measures more cost-effective than nuclear power once the subsidies are taken away, and they lend themselves less well to proliferation.

  2. Nuclear would seem reasonable if the traditional objections were the only objections. That is, if the only problem with nuclear is safety and fuel disposal. Fuel disposal of course is still an outstanding issue.

    Putting all of this aside, nuclear fuel still isn’t magically free and unlimited, and nuclear is just really expensive. If nuclear costs more than other environmentally friendly energy, why choose nuclear? Coal is clearly awful, but by phrasing the choice as simply nuclear vs. coal the nuclear proponents are ignoring a more valid debate. If we want to spend more money for energy, then nuclear is just one of many options. If we *don’t* want to spend more money for energy, then nuclear isn’t an option.

  3. “conservation measures more cost-effective”

    Some questions to ponder:

    What is the total cost (including environmental externalities) of the (mostly coal-based) sources currently subject to such conservation? We don’t like to think about that.

    Will renewable sources in the foreseeable future be able to do the heavy lifting that will be needed to a) displace those conservable sources, and b) meet growing demand? I would like to believe so, but if you asked me to explain how, I’d have to resort to handwaving.

    That said, given Anderson’s emphasis on base load, I’d like to hear his response to the “base load fallacy” (

  4. “Why not? I guess I have to admit that the confluence of The China Syndrome and Three Mile Island was a mind-changer. And not just for me. It changed the mind of our society.”

    I think Chernobyl was the other big convincer. For me, I think it is about paternalism (“leave it to the experts,” “father knows best,”) and our reaction to invisible terrors. (It took me years to be comfortable and to regularly take medication to control my cholesterol level, somehow because I was ingesting an invisible actor — I think I know what aspirin is doing and when it is working, but it is harder to know about Lipitor, ya know?)

    Some of it is a pattern of existing familiarity of course, and the ultra-green side of the environmental movement probably doesn’t want to see either coal or nuclear although I’m not sure they can do the math at all.

    I’m told that a lot of the cost of nuclear is the cost of regulation and of the legal costs of geting permits and actually building the sites. I don’t know how true that is.

    I do think that re-introduction of nuclear power needs two critical things: A sound and clear story about waste disposal and a very serious level of *sustained* (i.e., a century or more) transparency and accountability that we may not know how to conduct as a society. Or trust ourselves and our institutions to conduct. That’s difficult to imagine in our current adversarial condition, so it looks like needing an important breakthrough. Is response to global warming and human impact on climate a good place to start?

  5. I’m conflicted on this as well. I worked for a number of years in climate change policy, and when you look at the numbers, nukes seem to be the feasible long-term solution, unless we are willing to undertake massive systematic change in how we run our lives/societies/cities – certainly not seeming likely right now.

    I read about one epidemiological study that said: living within 40 miles of a coal-fired power plant is gives the same cancer/death rates as smoking a pack a day of cigarettes. No one talks about that study of course (ironically, it came out sometime in 2002, as terrorism was dominating the fears in people’s minds … dying of coal-smoke cancer seems much less worrisome, for some reason). living next to a nuke plant has no such effects. so, despite the threats, Pakistan & India’s nuclear arms have killed far fewer people than, say, american electric power’s fleet of coal-fired power plants.

    james “gaia” lovelock is a nuke convert as well.

    and yet and yet … there are probably better solutions, but none very likely.

  6. Even though the waste per person is small the number of people is great. The waste has a half life of somewhere in the 10s of thousands of years. Unless we are going to shoot it into the sun, with some risk, I will opt for other alternatives without such difficult waste like Hydrogen. Waste that is not able to be properly disposed of is an over riding deal breaker.

  7. “I think Chernobyl was the other big convincer”

    Yes. The point made w/respect to that: No effective containment. Eminently avoidable.

    “Fuel disposal of course is still an outstanding issue.”

    Anderson sees good options there.

    Of course I’m clearly not qualified to speak to these issues. Suffice it to say, I think the arguments are worth hearing out at length.

    Setting aside the specifics of the debate, it raises a whole series of meta-issues. How do we know what we think we know? Under what circumstances are we willing to re-evaluate? How do we balance emotion and reason when making risk/benefit calculations in evolving circumstances? What kinds of appeals to emotion (art) and reason (evidence) can move the needle one way or the other?

  8. I think it is also not about the technological fixes or what the bugs were. It is about trusting the masters of the technology with our fates. Going back to Three-Mile Island is fruitful. I was living in Rochester, New York at the time and not that far from a nuclear power reactor on the shores of Lake Ontario. When Three-Mile Island hit the new, the Chairman of the power company in Rochester went to the site and the visitor center there and gave interviews and press conferences on what they did to ensure their plant was safe, how you could find out about that and so on. I was impressed, no matter how much it was theater. I was also impressed by how they dealt with shutdowns, occassional ventings, and problems with turbine blades and such.

    Then, oddly, there was a lot of effort to try to license more reactors and the Rochester company joined into a pact with Niagara Mohawk that led to some really awful public advocacy, including videos (er., TV commercials) of engineers sort of talking about how we could leave our concerns in their hands. Bzzzt. No pass. And the public didn’t buy it and there are nukes no more thereabouts.

    The difference for me was like night and day. Its not about bad containment but about systems that let bad containment be deployed, or operators under-trained and emergency systems that are error-prone, and so on. This needs to be handled differently.

    I am not arguing against nuclear power, but am concerned for its governance and how we as a society maintain our sovereignty over such things, that mishandled, have grave consequences. There is also the matter of understanding our own behavior around risks and the problem of trade-offs where the same individuals are not on both sides of the equation. (Easy example is mandatory measles vaccinations of children. The trade-off is not for the kids at one level and it is at another level. This is tough stuff.)

  9. I’m not sure if my previous comment got through … but if you’d like to read another viewpoint on nuclear power – an insider’s – see my blog You’ll find here the novel “Rad Decision” that I’ve written, which covers all the ground in an entertaining fashion. I’ve been in the nuke biz over twenty years and can tell you that it’s a lot different than the outside experts, pro and con, may imagine. Stewart Brand has said: “I’d like to see Rad Decision widely read.”

  10. Hi James,

    Your book sounds intriguing. Now I need to decide whether I want it as atoms at raddecision or as bits from Amazone or the library…

    Via your blog I found this from Stewart Brand:

    He says:

    “Single-handedly, [Amory] Lovins converted the environmental movement from loathing of the auto industry to fruitful engagement with it. Someone could do the same with nuclear power plants. Lovins refuses to. The field is open, and the need is great.”

    Coincidentally I have been listening to Lovins’ recent and excellent series of talks over at SIConversations. It’d be great to hear a conversation between him and folks like Rip Anderson and you.

  11. The system is rarely envisioned, built and used by the same person. A successful system is a result of people interactions- intensive ideas exchange, reconciliation of opinions and creation of mutually enhanced knowledge. It is not easy for people to properly translate, communicate and understand each other ideas. Complex knowledge, different background and experience increase the gap that people should jump to completely understand each other.

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  13. Excuse me – but what is wrong with considering “REDUCING DEMAND” as an alternative?

    The choice is not simply coal or nuclear. There is another choice – REDUCE DEMAND.

    If the money spent on building nuclear reactors was instead spent on educating society about how to live greener, with less requirement for electricity – then there would be real progress, and in terms of living sustainably with the environment too.

    Mankind has survived for millions of years without electricity – but now – you claim that we have no choice but to simply meet always increasing demand – BAH! wrong.

    Please, don’t be stupid – place REDUCTION on the bargaining table as another alternative.

    Sure, no brainer – nuclear is cleaner than coal – but hey, here’s a newsflash – using less power altogether is the cleanest suggestion of all. Too bad you are afraid to consider reduction as a real possibility.

    Shame on Gwyneth Cravens. Shame on you all for being tricked into the debate “framed” as choosing only between coal or nuclear power.

    …my father is dying of multiple myeloma – a form of bone marrow cancer – that he got from working at a nuclear power plant in the 70’s. It’s a real shame we are such a dirty, weak-minded species, yet we think we are so wise and advanced.

    1. As much as reducing demand is an intelligent alternative it ultimately fails in the face of a growing global population. The fact remains that as this planets dominant population grows, so will the demand for electricity.

      Coal is a brutal form of energy. Not only is it highly inefficient, but the health issues associated with it are abhorring. I’ve worked in the oil and gas industry for the last 10 years and there is nothing I would love to see more then to see it collapse as an energy source. The crap that I put up with is unforgivable, and we are only doing it to ourselves. In my opinion, I believe nuclear is our best option. Everyone talks about “cost”, well keep in mind that the central banking system is a sham to start and secondly, the worst “cost” we are going to suffer is the only planet thus far in this galaxy capable of supporting complex being ruined by our irresponsibility.

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  15. tre Says:
    “Mankind has survived for millions of years without electricity – but now – you claim that we have no choice but to simply meet always increasing demand – BAH! wrong.”

    I believe the biggest future demand for electricity is from those who are going without right now – do they get the chance to have the comforts we have? Turn off your computer disconnect from the grid and make room for someone else. Oh yeah and cleanup after yourself, stay warm, flush your pollutants away without electricity. Gee I guess we are somewhat advanced over the last few million years. Let us know how your reducing is working out.

  16. Gosh, it’s nice to resurrect 12-year-old posts.

    I work with radiochemists, because we have those again now, and with their groups in a chemistry department. One of the things that’s impressed me over the last several years is how little people know about how much nuclear waste we’ve already got, just from using nuclear for a relatively tiny fraction of our power for 70 years, most of that a pretty miniscule fraction compared with what we use now (because we used more when there were so many fewer people on the planet, and most of them were so much poorer). The scale of the waste is astonishing. It puts me in mind of the graphics people put together to demonstrate the danger to global economies of the major banks’ collapsing. And we literally do not know what to do with it, nor do we even know what most of it is anymore. It’s been cooking for decades, decaying, reacting. It’s in old tanks, and we don’t even know how to get it out of the tanks and into new tanks without making it go critical. We don’t know how to store it longterm in solid form, because it destroys whatever it’s encased in. We don’t know of a place to put it where it won’t contaminate everything around it. The best we’ve been able to do is to work on recycling it, squeezing more useable-by-us energy out of the radioactivity, but that’s been pretty slow going and again, if you don’t know what you’ve got, recycling gets more difficult.

    I’m also impressed by the number of people who think that we can solve this problem by putting the waste in rockets and blasting it into space. We don’t have that many rockets, and we won’t have that many rockets. More to the point, if the rocket blows up in the atmosphere, as they do now and then, you now have a bigger problem.

    So — yes, it looks like we’ll have to use nuclear as an emergency measure. But we can’t use it for long, and before we switch on we’d have to know how to restrain the guys — I use the gender advisedly — who’ll decide this means that there’s endless clean energy and start building in an even more energy-intensive way.

    I don’t see how we avoid conservation, and I think we need a much louder and much more candid conversation about this. I work in a fantastically energy-intensive building; apart from all the machinery, including the fume hoods, chemistry buildings are refrigerated so that things don’t react that we don’t want reacting. Is it necessary to do it that way? Probably only because we don’t have a ducting system in the antique building that’d allow for more rational planning of where the cold goes.

    But today I’m at home. I have an efergy electricity meter on my counter; right now it says my house is using 0.508 kW, most of which will be refrigerator. (This ipad is plugged in at about 30W.) The fridge is reasonably energy-efficient but is still an 18 cu ft fridge, which strikes me as enormously large. I mean that holds a giant amount of food. Two people live here; one will be leaving in a couple of years. When that happens, I’ll replace it with a much smaller one, and though the energy use won’t drop proportionally, it will drop. (I have a rental and will save the old fridge for when the fridge in there dies.)

    Most of the energy cost of my house is in heating and cooling, and much of that comes from the fact that I live in the middle of the continent. It gets very hot and very cold here. But the houses here are not built with thick walls. If I could do one thing to my house, it’d be to add about 8 inches to the thickness of the exterior walls. And then I’d cut a hole in the south side, because I have no south-facing windows.

    Apart from that, my life’s pretty low-energy-cost. I last drove my car on…uh…hm. Friday? (It’s Thursday now.) Yeah, I think that’s right, I bought groceries. The bus I take sometimes is biodiesel-fueled; otherwise I walk. I live on purpose in a place where I don’t have to drive everywhere, but it’s basically suburban. Yards etc. Oh, right, my lawnmower is a Fiskars reel mower; works great, will cut grass to 4” if you want. Doesn’t turn corners wonderfully but pushes easily. No more batteries or gas. You just have to remember to wipe the blades down so they don’t rust, and you can’t wait to mow until you’ve got a jungle.

    Oh, okay, fridge is off: house is at 0.299 kW. I wonder what’s on. …ah. A few vampires. 0.182. Anyway: I’m not that big or overweight, and I don’t eat much — alas, 1400 cals/day even if I’m exercising is about all it takes to sustain me at this point. I already have a house full of stuff and take reasonable care of it, so clothing will generally last me about 25 years, shoes about 10, even though I walk a lot. (Exception: new running shoes annually.) There just isn’t a lot of stuff I need to buy.

    The most energy-intensive thing I do is fly. I probably take about three or four trips a year at this point, most of them a short hop. The carbon cost is nearly the same as driving, since it’s just me, but even so, it’s a lot.

    Anyway: if most Americans lived more like I do, our energy use would thunk to a fraction of what it is now, somewhere between 30-50% just on electricity use. We aren’t deprived in any way here. I’ve got a nice house with plenty of room and a home gym, we eat well, dress well, have lots of toys, aren’t uncomfortable in any way. And yet if you start talking about conservation, people absolutely freak out as though you’re assaulting their dignity. And I genuinely do not understand this, do not understand what it is that they’re defending.

    1. > Gosh, it’s nice to resurrect 12-year-old posts.

      Always makes my day!

      We need to do everything possible with respect to both conservation and non-fossil-fuel energy. In I summarized Saul Griffith’s extraordinary 2008 presentation, While I chose to summarize his inventory of energy production goals, his talk ( was equally about the kind of personal energy budget you describe here.

      1. So…this is interesting.

        First, it’s putting me in mind of an MIT Soapbox podcast I heard around that time about global energy budgets and about how it was not physically possible, given the amount of claimable energy from the sun hitting the earth, to replace all our fossil-driven energy use with renewables. Essentially, since the Industrial Revolution, we’d gone mad with power, and were going to have to figure out entirely new ways of living (or they’d be figured out for us).

        Second, when I start reading that Griffith book, something is very right — the distributed nature of it — and something is very wrong, and I can’t put my finger on it. But there’s something profoundly wrong with the approach. It’s not just about the internalized misogyny (I was disappointed but not surprised to see Brand defending Ito). Maybe it has to do with the failure to understand what already is, socially — it’s a very engineering approach, a moonshot approach. Define the problem! And devise the solution. Maybe it’s about the separation-from and objectification inherent in such an approach. Maybe it’s about the absence of societies and conversations and the idea that the society, not the engineer, is the driver in deciding how to cope with this. Maybe it’s the impossibility of defining what the problem is with such an approach. Which is an interesting thing. In a couple of months I’m due at a conference where I’ll also get to spend some time a young engineer I’ll be collaborating with; he’s got a project involving going to communities to ask them what they want from engineers rather than engineers doing problems-solving stuff at communities. A problem, though, is that he/engineers and the community groups who talk to them have serious difficulty understanding each other. The fact that they are trying to talk is, I think, immensely promising. But as I think about it, the gulf is significantly wider than I’d been thinking. The engineers expect the groups to present their well-defined-by-engineering-definitions problems, and of course the groups are thinking in no such way, and furthermore don’t understand the question. The young engineer is too smart to decide that this means the community needs the engineers to define their problems for them.

        Maybe some questions are “how do communities and societies talk and murmur to themselves, and dream, and walk around, and live” and, then, “is the engineer part of the community, or without” and “if within, how does he learn to hear what’s being said,” and “if without, how does the community learn to speak to someone outside meaningfully” and “how does the engineer make this translation to engineering without alienation, how can he actually use what he’s got in service of the community”, also “how does the community understand what he’s doing and appreciate him.” I mean it demands serious humility and patience of the engineer, given the usual education.

        An important group of people being left out of this conversation are the people who make and sell actual things for a living, and the whole ecosystem grown on them. A key part of reducing energy consumption is to have less, buy less, make less. But I hardly ever hear them, actual people rather than PR drones, in these conversations, asking “how will you help me” rather than “how will you protect my business.”

      2. > Second, when I start reading that Griffith book, something is very right …
        > and something is very wrong, and I can’t put my finger on it.

        Not sure what book you mean, and I haven’t read one by Saul. But if you get a chance to watch or listen to I’d be curious to know your reaction.

        From the writeup:

        “for individuals, to stay at the world’s energy budget at 16 terawatts, while many of the poorest in the world might raise their standard of living to 2,200 watts, everyone now above that level would have to drop down to it. Griffith determined that most of his energy use was coming from air travel, car travel, and the embodied energy of his stuff, along with his diet. Now he drives the speed limit (and he has passed no one in six months), seldom flies, eats meat only once a week, bikes a lot, and buys almost nothing. He’s healthier, eats better, has more time with his family, and the stuff he has he cherishes.”

        I would think this accords well with your sensibilities. If the full talk goes wrong for you I’d like to know why.

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