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Global Warming, Nukes, and the Cultural Police

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4 Responses

  1. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    The arguments against nuclear power are many and varied, not the least of which being that while it is ‘the most heavily subsidized energy technology in the United States, receiving more than $3 billion per year in the form of taxpayer subsidies…it is one of the most expensive energy sources today.’ Why is it the case that ‘in most nuclear nations of the world, there is a government-guaranteed liability limit for nuclear industries, in the event of a major accident[?] In the United States this liability limit amounts to about $8 billion, or about 1 percent of the total losses from a worst-case nuclear accident. The main logical problem with the liability limit is that, if nuclear power is safe, then no liability limit is needed. The main ethical problem with the liability limit is that it threatens the due-process rights of the minority of people who might be nuclear accident victims.’ As Shrader-Frechette also notes, nuclear energy ‘imposes most of its costs on future generations, while present generations receive virtually all of its benefits.’ Indeed, ‘no nation of the world yet has a safe and acceptable method of radioactive waste disposal, and the disposal programs used so far have been plagued with numerous safety problems.’ Finally, and ‘perhaps most important of all…the problem with commercial nuclear fission is that it is not sustainable. Uranium fuel will run out, and radioactive waste will increase, if atomic energy continues to be used. Use of short-term non-sustainable technologies not only imposes disproportionate pollution, resource depletion, and environmental injustice on future generations, but also avoids investment in cleaner, safer, long-term technologies.’ When assessed by standards and criteria derived from ‘environmental justice, economics, climate change, and sustainability,’ nuclear energy remains an unpalatable future energy choice. The quotes are from Kristin Shrader-Frechette, Environmental Justice: Creating Equality, Reclaiming Democracy (Oxford, UK: OUP, 2002). See too her earlier book, Risk and Rationality: Philosophical Foundations for Populist Reforms (Berkeley, CA: UCP, 1991). There are a plethora of arguments that can be rationally assessed without assuming undue or distorting reliance on cognitive heuristics. And the Faustian ecological bargain suggested here is not necessary to tackling the issue of global warming: even corporate America is going green and addressing the problem, as evidenced in this recent article from the Los Angeles Times http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-green4mar04,1,6313305.story

  2. James Aach says:

    Speaking as someone who works in the nuclear industry (but tries to keep an open mind about all energy sources), one of the big problems with any public discussion about nuclear is that most politicians, pundits, press, or members of the public don’t have a good picture of the real world of atomic power, regardless of their position on this issue. There’s little common language or perception – some base their feelings on what they saw in a movie, others on a few quick news items, others on science magazine articles or books by advocates or dissenters. None of these are particularly enlightening sources. It’s difficult to spot the flaws in an argument when the participants don’t have a common grasp of the basic topic (and few have any real insight). This seems to be the case in some science and technical issues where the work is done out of the public eye and requires some scientific perspective to understand (stem cells and global warming may be two other examples, as are other methods for electricity production.) Contrast that with debates on war and peace, or poverty. There’s a set of basic understandings there of what these things are (even if there’s disagreement on causes, usefulness, etc.)

    I’ve provided an insider’s overview of the “real” US nuclear industry in my novel Rad Decision, available online at no cost to readers at http://RadDecision.blogspot.com or in paperback.

  3. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    It is interesting that some forms of science and technology are seen as esoteric (i.e., ‘when done out of the public eye’) and requiring ‘scientific perspective to understand,’ in other words, requiring some level of scientific expertise, until or unless scientists and those with a stake in their activities are seeking funding from a government agency. At such times such expertise is translated and crafted into a ‘public’ language so as to acquire the funds thought necessary for progress in this or that scientific inquiry and endeavor. I happen to think any decently educated layperson can get a grasp of the basics of nuclear power generation and the nuclear power industry if he or she is motivated to do so, hence the knowledge needed to make informed decisions is not that difficult to attain. In any case, and for better and worse, public policy decisions are not simply or solely about the best scientific or technological means to given ends, or else we would defer to scientists in cases involving their expertise. Rather, scientific, technical and professional considerations are balanced with other (sometimes wider and deeper) concerns revolving around, say, health, economic welfare, democratic values and processes and so forth. In other words, such concerns bring into play the common good, public values and ethics that are not the specialized prerogative of scientific experts. Even if laypersons are ignorant of the ‘technical details of the consequences, technologies, and research that they fear [....] members of the public argue that they have the right to decide the risks that others will impose on them, precisely because the justifiability of risk imposition is an ethical, not merely a technical, issue.’ In a would-be democratic regime, it is not only experts that make ethical judgments and decisions that affect the public’s welfare and well-being (and it is necessary to recall, after Kahneman, Tversky, et al., that experts chronically make mistakes, when reasoning probabilistically, even in their own fields of expertise!). And from the side of science, scientific researchers are, or at any rate should be, constrained by the ethics of scientific research, ethics that preclude, for instance, giving their blessings to the resort to national security and the war power to push nuclear power (and related waste disposal) on states that do not want them (a tactic employed in the past and not uncommon today as well, especially in the case of nucear waste disposal [ask the people of Nevada]). It’s simply wrong to invoke ‘national security’ arguments in such an arbitrary manner, wedded to vested interests. Historically, government and industry suppression of information has often meant citizens have been unable to exercise anything truly on the order of ‘free and informed consent’ when it comes to the risks associated with nuclear power generation.

    Readers might also benefit from acquaintance with Daniel Greenberg’s Science, Money and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion (2001), although it does not deal with the nuclear power industry as such.

  4. James Aach says:

    I agree with some of what Mr. O’Donnell says above. A reasonably educated person without scientific/technical training can get a realistic grasp of the basics of nuclear power sufficient to make informed decisions. But there’s one very important caveat from may perspective– essentially it is practically impossible for a lay person at this time to learn the “real world” basics of nuclear power generation because the information is more difficult to attain that you might imagine. There are three major sources – government, propaganda from the two opposing sides, and journalistic reviews (which sometimes end up as propaganda). I read a lot of them – and they don’t present a clear or consistent picture at all, even when it comes down to the most basic factual elements. This is not to say that if everyone had a clear picture they would embrace nuclear power – it’s quite possible and rational to come to the opposite conclusion based on either societal or ethical concerns or technical considerations.

    (I’m also not sure there has been government or industry suppression of information on the civilian nuclear power industry as much as the fact that the documentation provided is dense and relatively meaningless to all but the initiated, and much of the human factors and ethics involved in the decision making process is not apparent. I suspect this may be true of many industries regulated by the government. It may depend on how one views “suppression”.)

    In my view, a problem arises when popular / political decisions are made in the absence of good information and perspective. I notice the issue in the energy field because that’s my area of expertise. As an example, a politician might endorse getting rid of the local large coal plant and replacing it with windmills. Does the public understand what that means in practical terms (probably several thousand large windmills combined with larger battery storage facilities than now exist)? Or do they think it’s an easy swap being prevented only by corporate interests and not by the state of technology today and the constraints of nature itself? If the public does have a clear picture of all the ramifications and wants to go ahead – fine.

    With nuclear you also must factor in “perceived risk” and whatever societal issues arise from it, and “actual risk” based on the best medical data available. With risk, you should also factor in “reward” (limited CO2 emissions, etc.) but those rewards may be on a broad societal scale whereas the risk is viewed as personal.

    The above example also shows why conservation should always be at the top of any energy plan. It’s simpler than anything else. Nature doesn’t play politics when it comes to energy – a lump of coal or a gust of wind has only so much power in it. Society can and should decide whether or not to use the power, but they can’t change how much is there to begin with. A megawatt of clean power may be “better” than ten megawatts of “dirty” power, but it is still ten times less powerful.

    As an aside, I’d also note it may not be widely recognized that decisions in the nuclear arena (and electric generation in general) are already made based on far more inputs than the purely technical. Internal government politics, political relationships between the industry and government, and societal concerns (whether technically based or otherwise) play a large part.

    To try and alleviate some of the information gap I’ve described above, I wrote the thriller novel “Rad Decision”. It serves as a good primer into the technical, political, and social aspects of electric energy in general and nuclear in particular in the United States. (There’s additional commentary at the web site as well if one wants to go further, or you’ll find the paperback’s reasonably priced and I get no royalties from it at this time.) I’ve tried to portray both the good and the bad. Comments at the home page indicate readers are also finding it entertaining.

    If we are going to make the best decisions about our energy future, we need to start by understanding our energy present. Reading Rad Decision is one step in that direction.

    See RadDecision.blogspot.com or go to online retailers, or just type “Rad Decision” on Google.