Monday, September 17, 2007

Blame It All on Jane Fonda?

When it comes to the troubles of the nuclear energy industry in the 1970s, Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt have decided on the #1 culprit:

If you were asked to name the biggest global-warming villains of the past 30 years, here’s one name that probably wouldn’t spring to mind: Jane Fonda.
Read it all to the end. I'm curious to see what folks think. For those of you too young to remember Three Mile Island, click here for the NEI fact sheet.

For other views, see We Support Lee and Peter Magnuson.


Headless Blogger said...

It wasn't Jane Fonda, we did it to ourselves.

As much as I despised that movie, I now know it tells a realistic story from the safety conscious work environment standpoint. The normalization of deviation is something to be guarded against in the face of budget and schedule pressure.

Technically the movie has been discredited. But imagine our protests in 1979 if the story was about a hole growing in the reactor vessel head to the size of a football as management and plant personnel rationalized the symptoms.

I had better stop before I break down in hysterics. That story is simply too far-fetched for anyone to buy.

robert merkel said...

To be fair, neither the nuclear industry nor the anti-nuclear lobby knew about global warming back in the late 1970's.

You could fairly blame the anti-nuclear movement for thousands of premature deaths caused by pollution from fossil fuel power stations, though. That was well understood, even back then.

Incidentally, I'm currently in Beijing. Today is the first day in more than two weeks where the visibility has been more than a mile. I almost missed the Olympic stadium because it's invisible in the smog. Your hair and clothes start to stink, and I'm sure it's doing terrible things to my lungs. It puts non-problems like nuclear power plants into sharp perspective, so to speak.

Anonymous said...

Jack Lemmon's character in that film could stand as a lesson for anyone working in the nuclear power business. Unfortunately, he didn't realize the problems until it was too late.

I think we need to stop bashing that movie. In other words, let's move on. So it didn't get all the technical details right... instead, it shone a light on what has always been the weakest link in our business, the people side.

Our technology has inherent risks. We cannot afford to toe the company line if it compromises safety. Headless blogger is completely right in mentioning normalization of deviance and safety-conscious work environment.

Ask yourself honestly... what would the US nuclear industry be like today if TMI had not happened, and if that film had not raised the profile of that event?

Doug said...

Global warming was known in the 70s, just not widely. (I didn't really become aware of it until the late 80s). Watch the movie Soylent Green some time, it's mentioned by name, albeit in passing, and of course the city is a hothouse throughout the movie. My favorite line is when Leigh Taylor Young cranks up the AC and says "Let's make it cold, like winter used to be!"

Joseph said...

To be fair, neither the nuclear industry nor the anti-nuclear lobby knew about global warming back in the late 1970's.

IIRC, Isaac Asimov wrote a column in the 1960s on why nuclear energy was needed to prevent global warming.

Stewart Peterson said...

Robert, they thought the world was cooling down, not warming (albeit with less enthusiasm). If global warming had been raised as an issue, it would have been dismissed as a fabrication designed to sell more nuclear power plants and roundly condemned by anyone with any left-wing credentials. There is a slight possibility, however, that they would have simply used a flawed, dumbed-down, and misinterpreted version of global warming to attack nuclear power using the same arguments we're seeing today ("nuclear power isn't nuclear enough," waste heat, and cooling tower water "emissions"). Either way, it backfires.

The debate would have probably divided the environmental movement, with birdwatchers on one side (backed by the nuclear industry) and hippies on the other (backed by the oil industry, who would look to ensure that natural gas was seen as clean energy). The birdwatchers would have gotten their clocks cleaned.

I don't say this with any bitterness at all. That's a perfectly reasonable tactic for them to use, considering what they actually opposed--the people in charge--which they were unable to separate from a debate over the merits of the technology.

futurepundit said...

The biggest problem with nuclear power in the 1970s came from massive construction cost overruns.