from Energy, Security, and Climate and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

How Not To Debate Nuclear Power

March 28, 2011

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Nuclear Energy

Frank von Hippel had a smart and sensible op-ed on nuclear power in the New York Times last Thursday. Alas the letters to the editor in response, published this past Saturday, make me doubt that serious discussion will emerge from the current situation.

I wasn’t entirely surprised to see Scott Peterson, Senior Vice President at NEI (the nuclear industry association), respond critically. Frank is skeptical of nuclear power; he used to refer to himself as “anti-pro-nuclear”, which is accurate. But the details of the response are maddening. Peterson writes that “America’s nuclear power plants are well equipped to handle the impacts of severe events, whatever the cause”, but adds that “our industry is taking steps to make nuclear energy facilities even safer”. Well, which is it? If the facilities are already invulnerable, what could make them safer? Perhaps they aren’t actually invulnerable? I’ll hazard a guess that people would trust the industry more if it admitted that it wasn’t perfect. Instead, we’ve seen an increasingly defensive approach, which only hardens peoples’ views.

That said, the anti-nuclear letter is even more frustrating. James Quigley, a university lecturer, bizarrely labels von Hippel an “advocate for nuclear power”, presumably because he admits that nuclear power isn’t 100% evil. Quigley asks “Are we to take seriously Frank N. von Hippel’s argument that the ultimate deaths of a mere 10,000 people as a result of Chernobyl, compared with the tens of thousands of people killed by particulates from coal, suggest that the nuclear industry is ‘remarkably safe’?”, but ignores the fact that Frank describes that as “one point of view” and notes that “for most people [presumably including himself] this kind of accounting is beside the point”. Quigley also criticizes von Hippel for his correct assertion that “running nuclear power plants is ‘relatively cheap’ once construction costs have been paid”, arguing that that “conveniently ignores the costs of decommissioning, security for the plant post-closure and radioactive waste storage in perpetuity”, which it doesn’t.

Here we have, in two letters, everything you need to know about why the debate over nuclear power is so painful. Most advocates can’t admit that there are any downsides to nuclear power. Most opponents can’t accept that nuclear power has anything going for it. When someone like Frank steps in to offer up some moderate proposals, he gets savaged from both sides. That does not augur well for U.S. efforts to learn new lessons from Fukushima, rather than to just relitigate old debates.