Top 5 reasons why intelligent liberals don’t like nuclear energy

This is based on my own experiences. I am sure there are several reasons and some of those reasons are commonly known. But I have still always been surprised and intrigued by why this is so. Here is my own list based on my personal interactions with reasonable and intelligent people who argue against nuclear power.

1. Ignorance: This simple reason remains pervasive. I am not trying to sound preachy or elitist here but reading two or three books would greatly benefit people who have a gut reaction against nuclear energy. The whole set of misconceptions about any kind of radiation being harmful, about nuclear plants releasing large amounts of radiation (when in reality they release fractions of what everyone naturally gets from the environment), about nuclear waste being a hideously convoluted and insoluble problem (the problem is largely political, not technical) can be dispelled by reading some basic books on radiation and nuclear energy. The most important revelation in this context is how, in our daily lives, we face risks that are hundreds of times greater than those from nuclear energy (transportation, air pollution etc.) without getting nonplussed.There are of course many books for understanding such concepts, but for a general overview, I would recommend Richard Rhodes’s article in Foreign Affairs and his book Nuclear Renewal, Samuel Glasstone’s timeless classic Sourcebook on Atomic Energy for basics, and Gwyneth Cravens’s very informative book which I am currently reading. Another informal, breezy and excellent treatment is Scott Heaberlin’s A Case for Nuclear-Generated Electricity: (Or Why I Think Nuclear Power Is Cool and Why It Is Important That You Think So Too). For those who are ok with a little heavier dose of science, I would strongly recommend David Bodansky’s Nuclear Energy.

2. Bad connections: There are two bad connections which many liberals automatically make, both of which are unjustified and contribute to their dislike of nuclear power. One is the connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Again, knowing the basics about how different weapons are from reactors can contribute to mitigating this misunderstanding. Somewhere, I think there is also this connection between nuclear power and nuclear proliferation. While there is some truth to this, the fundamental thing to be understood is that every power source carries some risks, and the danger from nuclear proliferation mainly exists because of human stupidity and its manifestations, not because of some inherent problem with nuclear energy. The thrust should be at maintaining an international system that safeguards nuclear material from being used for weapons, not to ban the material itself. And even with the proliferation risks, the benefits of nuclear power far outweigh the risks.Another bad connection is between environmentalism and boycott of nuclear power. Environmentalists are mainly responsible for reinforcing this connection, with their decades-long opposition to nuclear energy, which started with some reasonable premises, but then mainly descended into irrational, uninformed and exaggerated polemic. Helen Caldicott, whose opposition to nuclear weapons is commendable, is a prime example of peacemongers gone awry. Her latest book warps and misrepresents facts grossly in some cases and demonstrates simple ignorance of matters, not to mention cherry picking. One expected better from such people whose original intentions were honorable. Liberals need to know that nuclear power is completely compatible, if not especially so, with environmentalism. It releases very little greenhouse gases and is a model for power efficiency.

3. Waste: A point again related to 1. Many people think that this is the single greatest threat from nuclear power, that we will all be inhabiting vast atomic wastelands if we allow nuclear power to flourish. Again, read some books! It’s not a trivial issue, but mostly a political issue that’s also related to inefficiency and increased proliferation threats from burying valuable plutonium-containing nuclear waste.

4. Damn dem Republicans: There is actually a third connection- that between nuclear weapons and right wing belligerent political leaders, mostly Republican. If the erroneous connection between power and weapons is made, then it is not too difficult to perceive a connection between power and right wing fanaticism. It does not help that some leaders such as Republican Senator James Inhofe who is vehemently and stupidly against global warming, are also pro-nuclear power. The only way to stop oneself from treading this false path is to be reminded that this is not a political issue. Just because some environmentalists oppose nuclear power does not make it flawed, nor does Inhofe’s support make it promising. The merit of nuclear power lies in science, and thus bows to no political or partisan mongering, and especially not to hacks like Inhofe.

5. Fear of the unknown: Again related to 1. above. I was at a climate change dinner and happened to have an amiable journalist covering the event sitting at my table. We got into discussing the merits and problems with nuclear power and what she said still simply captures the sentiments of many reasonable and intelligent but anti-nuclear people. She said “I am just afraid of something I cannot see”. Well, if there’s one thing that distinguishes man from other species, it is his ability to uncover nature’s secrets and appraise and harness them, especially the ones that cannot be seen. Man’s great capacity to face unknown challenges, understand them and use them to his benefits underpins much of our technological prowess. We cannot see x-rays, yet have no problem having x-ray scans (ironically something that delivers a greater dose of radiation than nuclear power plants). Only increased and better dissemination of knowledge about nuclear energy can dispel such doubts of the unknown, something which we should be proud of doing in the past.

The simple fact that a piece of uranium the tip of your finger can deliver as much energy as almost 2000 pounds of coal should be evidence of man’s astounding achievement in wresting nature’s essential source of energy from her. In the discovery of nuclear power we have done the unimaginable. We have brought the sun and the stars to our world. Extinguishing their flames will be conduct unbecoming of our vast and unique place in the universe, and a very great tragedy.

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6 Comments »

  1. 1
    DV82XL Says:

    Well said. In particular point 4; the ideological factors in this debate are not given enough consideration and should be taken into account more often.

  2. 2
    nucleardreams Says:

    Right. Ideology by definition causes tunnel vision and constrains you to biased perspectives to one extent or another. Too much in this country has become simply a matter of partisan opinion, rather than objective truth that needs to be weeded out of the mess of politics. People don’t understand that advocating nuclear is not just another political position.

  3. 3

    There’s an issue related to point #4 that I think the pro-nuclear community needs to come to terms with- the fact that some people are pro-nuclear for the wrong reasons. It comes back to the idea that nuclear advocacy is not just a political position- for some people, it is. (Inhofe is a good example.) And the poorly-conceived arguments they make for nuclear work to discredit the cause of nuclear power in public discourse. I think that the facts are firmly on the side of nuclear energy, but when nuclear power becomes a “Republican” or “conservative” orthodoxy, it hurts the cause of reasonable debate just as much as the assumption that “liberals are opposed to nuclear power.”

  4. 4
    nucleardreams Says:

    I completely agree. It’s important to discredit their poorly-conceived pro-nuclear arguments. The problem as you mentioned is that because these arguments are so poor, they are easy to knock down. In general we need a dose of reason to be injected into the debate. But it seems that in this debate as in many others today, reason is on vacation. Unfortunately, as long as it is politically convenient for people to take sides, they will. It is up to non-political people like us to interrupt their constant connecting of politics and objective assessments. I do hope however that Obama if he becomes president will bring some reason to important scientific debates in general.
    On a somewhat related note, do you have a link to a map that shows the state-wise consumption of electricity from nuclear energy in the US? Which is the state that gets most of its electricity from nuke?

  5. 5

    In terms of consumption or generation? It starts getting really complicated because electricity doesn’t respect state (or national) borders. I think I’ve seen a map for % generation, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one for consumption. My cursory googling didn’t turn up what you seem to looking for. As for the state with the greatest percentage of nuclear generation, I believe it’s Vermont- I think Vermont Yankee is the only large power plant in the state. (Even though it’s small as nuke plants go.)

  6. 6

    Thanks. Yes, I meant generation because as you said, consumption crosses boundaries.


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