More on nuclear power

I would appreciate any insights as to why people oppose nuclear power.

Some say they are concerned about nuclear waste.

Since Three Mile Island, some two million Americans have died from fossil fuel waste, just the particulates. Many more have suffered from heart, and respiratory diseases, and cancer. Fossil fuel waste has other problems, and ozone in particular will become increasingly a problem as temperatures rise, and more of it is created.

Ozone causes breathing problems for people with asthma. It causes pulmonary edema and pulmonary fibrosis. Ozone is responsible for 10% to 20% of respiratory emergency summer hospital admissions in the Northeast. Even low levels of ozone can reduce lung function in healthy adults 15% to 20%, and can weaken plants. It rarely kills directly, but rather weakens both animals and plants so that another illness/pest/stress causes death. Ozone costs the U.S. 1 to 2 billion dollars annually in crop losses. The effect on forests and other ecosystems is commensurate; ozone is particularly harmful to long-lived species (trees).

Nitrogen oxides (NOx) contribute to the formation of ozone. NOx cause cardiovascular disease and respiratory disease, but can harm other parts of the body as well. They, along with sulfur dioxide, are a major cause of acid rain (15% to 25%). NOx harm the soil, with great cost to both agriculture and forests.

Sulfur oxides (SOx) are the major cause of acid rain. Distilled water has a pH of 7 (neither acid nor base). Normal rain is somewhat acidic with a pH of 5.6 or higher, between milk and tomato juice. The average rain on the East Coast has a pH of 4.5, and can be as acid as vinegar or lemon juice. Acid rain kills fish in the lakes (fish don’t reproduce if the pH is below 5.4). Acid rain appears to be responsible for the 20% to 30% decrease in growth rate for several species of trees on the East Coast. In Germany, where average rain pH is 3.4, about 70% of trees are damaged. Significant damage to metal and stone is blamed on acid rain, which harms cars, houses, monuments, and Mayan artifacts.

Other problems with fossil fuels include health problems from carbon monoxide from transportation fuels, and heavy metal poisoning of people and the environment.

A typical coal plant produces 100 times the radioactivity of a nuclear power plant, but that’s too far down the list of coal’s sins for anyone to worry about.

Then there’s the carbon. Climate change on our current trajectory is expected to cause problems everywhere on Earth, and possibly accelerated, runaway, or abrupt climate change.

So people who oppose nuclear power did not get there from comparing the relative dangers of nuclear waste and fossil fuel waste.

Some will say that we can get there by improvements in efficiency and the use of solar and wind. I have not seen any analysis that indicates that we can reduce carbon emissions substantially, let alone 70% worldwide in the next few decades, even with nuclear power, without widespread population decreases in the first world or/and behavioral change on a large scale.

Some oppose nuclear power because they see a connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons/proliferation. This is the argument as I’ve heard it: if the US models giving up nuclear power, and the rest of the world gives up nuclear power, then when a country engages in ambiguous behavior, we would all know they were trying to get nuclear weapons, presumably because no one would try to sneak nuclear power by the world, and then we could possibly do something, not sure what that is.

There are the traditional answers that pretty much all of the countries with nuclear weapons acquired them previous to or/and independent of nuclear power. That the only reason that we can inspect Iran and other signatories to the non-proliferation treaty is that we’re trading nuclear power technology for that right. That other countries are not going to give up nuclear power because we do, and that indeed, many countries are increasing their use of nuclear power.

BTW, I am completely comfortable, as is much of the world, in assuming that all ambiguous behavior implies an attempt to acquire nuclear weapons.

A F/friend answers that a better symbolic step from the US, one more likely to appeal to countries worried about their security, would be to rapidly reduce our nuclear arsenal (ditto for Russia and even some of the minor nuclear arsenals such as Britain, etc), and open the remaining weapons to IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspections. Also good is to cut back on gratuitous threats to countries like Iran, so they don’t feel a security need to have nuclear weapons.

She is unclear why Iran and North Korea would cease making nuclear weapons because the US and other countries forego nuclear power. (Lots of us don’t get this point.)

Healthy disagreement allows us to test our understanding. It is vital to academic advancement. Many of the disagreements the public has with scientists (with scientific bodies, not with such practices as individual scientists testing medicines and failing to report bad results) do not appear to be attempts to test our understanding.

These disagreements appear to some extent to be a way of establishing identity. Group identity is important; if nothing else, it gives us a practical method of getting through overly long ballots. But it can have down sides. Jared Diamond emphasizes the effect of group identity on decision-making in his magnificent book, Collapse. Not only did group identity in Greenland and Australia facilitate decision-making, it led to ultimately poor decision-making, because “people like us do such-and-such” is not always a good reason.

Currently many on the right attack scientists as immoral because they believe in evolution. Many on the left attack scientists because they (the scientific bodies, not individual scientists) have chosen “the wrong” problems or “the wrong” solutions. We are attacking the people warning us of incredible, and possibly unsolvable, problems, we are attacking the only group that can provide us with the technical solutions. We as a society are not going to be able to find our way to solutions under these conditions.

Recommended references on nuclear power:

David Bodanksy’s the 2nd Edition of Nuclear Energy: Principles, Practices, and Prospects

Nuclear waste: National Academies Press, written by the National Research Council Disposition of High-Level Waste and Spent Nuclear Fuel: The Continuing Societal and Technical Challenges (2001).

And because I suspect that much of the opposition to nuclear power comes from a lack of awareness that people who are pro-nuclear power tend to be anti-nuclear weapons, some of the groups addressing proliferation issues:

Arms Control Association

Program on Science and Global Security
They also publish a journal: Science & Security

Center for International Security and Cooperation

Institute for Science and International Security

Managing the Atom program (Harvard)

One Response to “More on nuclear power”

  1. Johan says:

    I suspect there are perhaps three basic reasons for this opposition:

    1) Radiation fear: Radiation is invisible. It raises fears that go beyond our rational thoughts. Some of this fear is analogous to the fear of microwaves or the alleged dangers of cell phone use. In the absence of information on scale and strength, such experiences as the precautions taken by x-ray technicians when we visit the doctor or dentist just reinforce the fear. Lack of information about natural sources of radiation also leads to a vacuum in which the fear flourishes.

    2) Anti-authoritarianism: As with fear of radiation, there is truth at the root of this phenomenom. Nuclear power plants are owned and operated by huge organizations and regulated by governments, and many anti-nuke people are viscerally suspicious of all these entities. Why should we believe corporations and governments defending nuclear power when these same entities have lied to us or concealed important information in other areas? Anti-nuclear activists are just as susceptible to group-think as any other social group. Maybe it is time for such activists to stop opposing ALL nuclear power in favor of demanding transparency in all proposals and hearings about the use and regulation of nuclear power. If that transparency is lacking in any specific project, then the activists are right to organize against that project.

    3) History: People still have an image of nuclear power that goes back to Three Mile Island or Chernobyl, and have had little access to information about advances in technology and safety/security. (I found this article fascinating: People may also not be aware of how much energy will be needed by expanding societies in the near future, even at the maximum conceivable level of conservation and adoption of renewable energy sources. Most of us are not forced to face up to these issues of scale and long-term planning.