The Chronicle Review

A Charged Relationship With Nuclear Energy

Kiyoshi Ota, Bloomberg via Getty Images

At an evacuation center in Japan's Fukushima Prefecture last month, a man underwent screening for possible nuclear irradiation.
April 10, 2011

A couple of weeks after the earthquake and tsunami that triggered Japan's continuing nuclear crisis, I took a poll among 45 students in my history-of-science-and-technology class: How many of you, I asked, think the United States should build more nuclear plants to fulfill its energy needs, as President Obama recommends? Almost every hand shot up. No surprise there. Most of these young people are engineering majors, who believe in technology's power to improve our lives.

Then I asked how many would mind living as close to a reactor as I do. Philipstown, N.Y., the Hudson River hamlet where my family makes its home, is less than 10 miles north of the Indian Point Energy Center (which in turn is about 35 miles north of midtown Manhattan). After much squirming and face wrinkling, fewer than half of the students raised their hands. I don't blame them. I've been reporting on nuclear energy for three decades, and I'm still ambivalent. Or rather, whenever I arrive at a fixed position, something happens to nudge me out of it again.

I first covered nuclear energy in the early 1980s for IEEE Spectrum, an engineering magazine whose readers tended to be nuclear enthusiasts. In 1984, I wrote a retrospective on the five-year anniversary of the Three Mile Island event. With two colleagues, I traveled to the nuclear plant and toured it. Engineers there and elsewhere insisted that they had learned their lessons, and that such an accident could never happen again. Moreover, not a single person had died or even been severely injured in the accident.

After the Chernobyl reactor exploded, in 1986, American nuclear scientists claimed that the disaster exposed not the risks of nuclear energy but only Communist incompetence; the Russians hadn't even encased the reactor in a containment building, which was a requirement for all U.S. plants. The style rather than substance of those reassurances bothered me. Nuclear proponents struck me as arrogant in the way they defended their industry, made excuses for their mistakes, and discounted public fears.

Meanwhile, in the 1980s, the nuclear industry suffered financial and political meltdowns that were arguably worse than Three Mile Island. Public protests prevented the Shoreham plant, on Long Island, from opening, after it had already consumed $6-billion in construction funds. A lesser-known debacle was the collapse of a multiplant project in Washington State. The Washington Public Power Supply System project, which critics inevitably called Whoops, bogged down in cost overruns and culminated in one of the biggest municipal-bond defaults in U.S. history.

Utilities also poured billions—in vain—into a plan to bury spent fuel beneath Yucca Mountain, at the Nevada Test Site, where for decades the United States tested nuclear weapons. In the late 1980s, reporting for Scientific American, I stood atop Yucca Mountain while a geologist for the Department of Energy extolled its merits as a repository. Looking out at the bleak desert, I could not imagine a more appropriate place to dump radioactive waste; the Nevada Test Site is already riddled with contamination from hundreds of above-ground and underground nuclear detonations. But Nevada state officials resisted, so nuclear facilities kept storing their literally hot spent fuel in pools on their sites.

When I moved to Philipstown, in 1990, I didn't have serious concerns about raising my family so close to Indian Point; after all, evidence suggests that the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history, at Three Mile Island, had negligible health effects. Then came September 11, 2001. One jet flew down the Hudson River, just a few hundred feet above the water, past Philipstown and Indian Point on its way to the World Trade Center. Afterward, U.S. officials discovered that Al Qaeda had contemplated flying a plane into a nuclear plant to create a dirty bomb.

Once again we heard the reassurances: Even a jumbo jet loaded with fuel could not penetrate the containment buildings. And the plant's security would thwart a terrorist ground attack. My kids' school nonetheless handed out potassium-iodide pills—which block the absorption of radioactive isotopes by the thyroid gland—and the state sent us directions on how to evacuate if Indian Point was attacked.

Although I didn't join protests demanding that Indian Point be shut down, nuclear energy suddenly seemed much riskier. So I was upset when President Obama announced in February 2010 that the United States—which needed a clean, safe alternative to fossil fuels—would provide loan guarantees to utilities building nuclear plants. Obama is also trying to close Yucca Mountain as a repository, meaning that waste would continue piling up at facilities around the country, where it could be targeted by terrorists. I criticized his decision in Scientific American and on, an online video-chat show. The world was simply too dangerous for more nuclear plants, I argued.

Afterward, I heard from several nuclear proponents, notably Gwyneth Cravens, a journalist who wrote a book, Power to Save the World (Knopf, 2007), about her transformation from antinuclear activist to advocate. Rather than simply denouncing my ignorance, as most proponents did, Cravens politely allayed my concerns by giving me information about nuclear energy and its main competitor, coal, that I had not absorbed in all my years of reporting. Here are some highlights from her book:

First of all, research refutes the widespread belief that even low levels of radiation increase your risk of cancer. Radiation exposure is typically measured in millirems. Americans receive an average of 620 millirems a year from radon gas and other background sources, cosmic rays (doses rise at higher elevations, where there is less atmospheric protection), consumer products (like smoke detectors) and medical procedures. A set of dental X-rays delivers up to 39 millirems. Background radiation from natural sources varies around the world from less than 100 millirems a year to over 10,000 millirems, and yet cancer rates are not higher in regions with higher radiation.

Federal regulations permit nuclear workers to receive up to 5,000 millirems a year, but there is no clear-cut evidence of adverse health effects from radiation at levels below 100,000 millirems a year. (Getting that dose all at once would definitely be harmful, however.) The Chernobyl explosion resulted in the immediate deaths of 50 workers from acute radiation exposure. The plume from the explosion contaminated more than 77,000 square miles with radioactive fallout. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, of the World Health Organization, the fallout caused an increase of cancer in the affected population. But the increase was several thousandths the size of that caused by smoking in the same population.

Even discounting global warming, coal-burning plants are much more harmful than nuclear ones. Coal plants emit far more radioactive materials than nuclear plants do; each year a 1,000-megawatt coal plant disperses about 27 metric tons of uranium, thorium, and other radioactive substances. Coal plants also emit mercury and other toxins, in addition, of course, to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Tens of thousands of Americans die prematurely each year because of pollution from coal plants; in China, the number is in the hundreds of thousands.

I found Cravens so persuasive that I invited her to give a talk on my campus last fall. We also toured Indian Point together. Moreover, I spoke on with Rod Adams, a former officer on a nuclear submarine and pro-nuclear blogger, who convinced me that Indian Point and other nuclear plants represented much less of a security threat than I had feared. Far from imperiling the planet, he argued, a revival of nuclear power would make the world safer by reducing the reliance of the United States and other countries on oil imports.

So I jumped on the pro-nuclear bandwagon, along with environmentalists like James Hansen, the NASA climatologist and global-warming expert, and Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog (who wrote a blurb for Cravens's book). I was still congratulating myself for my open-mindedness when the tsunami smashed into Japan, which had been a paragon of nuclear competence.

Nuclear proponents are delivering the familiar responses: The tsunami was a freakish event; something like this could never happen in the United States, the Fukushima plants were old and outmoded, the radiation releases haven't seriously hurt anyone yet. I was especially concerned that fuel was overheating in damaged waste-storage pools, which I'd been convinced were safe.

So should we forge ahead with new nuclear construction, as Obama has advised?

Here's what I say to my students: I wish I could encourage you to make a career in nuclear power. Given the current limits of wind and solar energy, we need more nuclear generators to reduce our reliance on coal and other fossil fuels and to curb the effects of global warming. But given the checkered history of nuclear power both in this country and elsewhere, I don't blame the public for opposing new plants, or for not wanting to live as close to one as I do.

This opposition may thwart the nuclear revival in America. If you want to help solve our energy problems, I tell the young engineers in my classes, you should probably look for a more stable industry. In short, I'm staying on the nuclear bandwagon, but I'm not encouraging anyone to join me.

John Horgan is a science journalist and director of the Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology. His books include The End of Science (Addison-Wesley, 1996) and Rational Mysticism (Houghton Mifflin, 2003).