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2005-2006 Brown Bag Discussion of "Rethinking Science in Society"
November 4, 2005

Drew Mirante
"Nuclear Energy:
A Necessary 'Evil' for Human Advancement?"

(Powerpoint Presentation)

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum


Unlike last week's discussion about genetic engineering, today's topic has not been in the headlines recently, although it "belongs" there. Drew began discussion with his "punch line": the U.S. needs to expand use of nuclear power for creating electricity, in order to keep (or advance?) the lifestyle to which we are accustomed. Why is this not the common assumption? Why is the first image that arises when we hear "nuclear energy" that of Nagasaki, the second that of Chernobyl--when there have only been three nuclear accidents reported @ power plants (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Japan in 1999)? Compare how many accidents have occurred on oil rigs and coal mines.

What causes this negative reaction? Well, the technology was "born out of killing people" (the U.S. is the only nation to have used atomic weapons against mankind), and was followed by the Cold War. "This is not good marketing." Also, nuclear processes are "ephemeral" in nature, which may be another reason that they scare us: we can't see them. Another common concern is getting rid of waste. There are environmental issues, and potentially severe accidents, in the disposal, storage, and transport of waste material.

But we can think differently about nuclear energy, which now provides only 17% of the power in U.S. We get the rest from non-renewable sources. Given that the world's petroleum-producing regions have been politically unstable since 1948, isn't it in the national interest to develop alternative energy sources? To maintain more nuclear power plants would not be a panacea: hydro, solar, geothermal, wind, tidal sources are all also important. But the infrastructure for nuclear power is already in place (although it has been crumbling for 40 years), and nuclear power gives off no greenhouse gases.

Looking at projected carbon dioxide emissions for 2025 shows that coal is the "big player" (it's hard to turn a coat plant on and off); these emissions have only become a concern during the past 40-50 years; before that--and continuing--are questions about the non-renewability of the resources we are using. To build a case for nuclear energy, we need to argue that the processes for obtaining it are fundamentally different from most processes used by humans in the past: it doesn't produce the same radioactive pollutants. We need to be more inclusive in our thinking, taking into account all by-products. Thinking in terms of long-term environmental sustainability, what does it really cost, to produce different forms of energy, and how should the calculations be done?

A particular concern has to do with emerging industrialized nations like India and China, which, during the next twenty-five years, will compete directly with us for oil. Looking at projected energy consumption in 2025, it's clear that emerging Asian economies--where energy needs are increasing daily--are going to need more oil than we are, and that we are going to be in direct competition with them for coal.

But--although there has been a big backlash against our dependence on Middle Eastern countries-- increasing atomic energy use will not decrease the use of oil. The "weak link" here--until a decent storage battery or fuel cell is developed--is our vehicular use; at present, we have no better way to convert energy into work than the internal combustion engine. Were such an alternative to be developed, there would be a potential for crossover, and electric power generation could be shifted into the realm of vehicles. Since we are such a "car culture," this is important; "our country is too big" for us to stop using our cars.

There are 136 reactors in this country; 1/5 of them (31) are shut down, decommissioned, suspended, or cancelled. Some could be reactivated, but it is not feasible to do so for most of them, which have a limited lifespan; the "technology gets old." For political reasons, most of the non-operative plants are on the west coast. There was some discussion about why Pennsylvanians are "more willing to rely on a higher percentage of nuclear power": is it because we have lived with the consequences of coal burning and extraction? Or because most of us "don't know what's happening?"

Since all such decisions are political, discussion turned to the compatibility of science and politics. Is the core of the argument that most politicians--like most of their constituents--have not actually done a careful, systematic balancing of the pros and cons of various energy sources, leading them to "over-dramatize" the cons of nuclear energy, while ignoring those of other sources? Most scientists, who think it makes sense to use more atomic energy, are at an impasse with politicians, who either don't listen or don't integrate what is said. Is it the case that "science has a longer view," a vision "more far-reaching than the next election cycle"? Or is it that obstructing nuclear power now involves taking a very long view for political gain? Perhaps the problem originates in human preference for known rather than unknown evils. We can smell smog, see the destruction of the countryside, suffer from black lung disease. But we are more uncomfortable about the "invisible hazards" of nuclear energy, which we handle by asking for 100,000-year safeguards that the waste products of nuclear reaction won't continue to be a problem in the future. (Maps of nuclear plants are also maps of accumulated waste, which is just left on-site.)

There was a European conference last year exploring nuclear options; the reluctance to develop atomic energy is peculiar to the U.S. (Is this because we are the only country that has used it as a weapon? Is Europe more open to the idea, because they are "downwind" of wastes carried by the Atlantic Ocean currents?) There seems to be a particular reluctance, in this country, to make information about nuclear energy more available. There is a fear that that, since we "just didn't know" the costs of the energy we used in the past, we will have similar regrets, in twenty-five years, about nuclear power. The worst case scenario, if a nuclear plant blows up, is much worse than the destruction of a coal plant.

But why do we assume the worst case scenario? Science has advanced; techniques are safer than they have been in the past. Perhaps what we distrust is the actual execution: that contractors will cut corners, strict regulations not be enforced. There's lots of well-placed skepticism about whether "the way we do business can pull this off." Such questions are particularly relevant because the costs of not developing nuclear power are substantially greater.

With coal, we know what the risks are. But in the case of atomic energy, it feels as if the risks are "something we have to be told about"; we have no direct sensory experience of the dangers. Education is required. But so too is a change in orientation within the scientific community. Science has long been engaged in an initiative to teach people about the hazards of which they are unaware. Perhaps it is the success of this educational program which has given rise to all the concerns about atomic energy: it's the result of a massive campaign about unseen activity.

So now we "need to do a flip" in terms of educating people regarding such dangers. Because we have been burning coal for 150 years, we got very used to its costs; only in the 1950 acid smog event in London was the "toxic stew" in the air recognized. More studies need to be done. Swarthmore College, for instance, is conducting an analysis of how many people die in the immediate vicinity (mostly from respiratory problems) as result of coal-fired electricity. How many might be saved, if we were 5% more energy efficient ? We need to educate about such unseen negative consequences--which are actually quite difficult to prove.

Science persuaded people to question the hazards of nuclear energy; such a campaign now needs to be countered with one to persuade people that it can be useful. But both these positions are short term. Science has not successfully gotten "anyone" to think long term. Science may, however, have helped people become more "distrusting." The general population now expects that information will be hidden from them, and falsified, by both the government and industry. They have been trained not to believe what they are told. What is the quality of scientific analysis, relative to the political agenda? Who do you believe? Politicians will play to their constituencies, both to people's fears and to their faith in scientific information. But a cognitive dissonance remains: people perceive risks, but they weigh them in non-scientific ways.

This conversation is invited to continue on-line, and the brown bag discussions will continue in person next Friday, November 11, when Doug Blank and Rebekah Baglini will lead a conversation about "The Internet and the Open Source Movement."

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