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The Pitfalls of Arguing Against Nuclear Energy

There’s little to agree with in Lucy Birmingham’s editorial against nuclear energy in Time, but I must admit, I enjoyed it. She argues her points with reasonable data points, not as common as one might hope, even if the conclusion she comes to doesn’t really follow the data.

As Sandy made landfall on Atlantic City, Oyster Creek nuclear power plant nearby was fortunately on a scheduled outage. But Indian Point 3 in Buchanan, N.Y., Nine Mile Point 1 in Scriba, N.Y., and Salem Unit 1 in Hancocks Bridge, N.J., all experienced shutdowns because of high water levels or electrical disruption.

This is all factual – a nuclear facility will also shut down if winds heading toward it surpass 75 miles per hour. This happened at Waterford 3 in the face of Hurricane Isaac. This is what you want to happen. Birmingham, however, sees this and harsh weather in general as dangerous to nuclear energy plants.

Equally dangerous are drought and record heat conditions the U.S. experienced last summer. In August, one of two reactors at the Millstone nuclear power plant near New London, Conn., not far from where I grew up, was shut down because water in Long Island Sound needed to cool the reactors got too warm.

Again, this isn’t a negative action on the part of the facility. I agree that terrible heat conditions can be dangerous, but not due to its effect on a nuclear facility. As you can see, Birmingham is sticking to a correct fact set – it’s a fact set that leads me to an opposite  conclusion than hers, but there you go.

Another good approach she uses is to acknowledge the benefits of nuclear energy. When you want to make a case, it helps credibility to not demonize your opponent.

Of course, nuclear power can bring significant economic benefits. The Nuclear Energy Institute states that every year the average U.S. plant generates about $470 million in sales and services and about $40 million in total labor income to local communities.

There’s more along these lines, too, with information gleaned from NEI – don’t want to get too horn-tooty, but it’s all true.

But then the entire argument goes to pieces in the clutch.

But we must weigh the risks. It’s estimated that superstorm Sandy will affect more than one fifth of Americans and cost up to $20 billion in damages. Imagine the addition of a major nuclear accident, potentially more lethal than Three Mile Island.

Here’s the thing: Three Mile Island was non-lethal. No one died as a result of it. That not corporate spin – that’s the fact. Allowing that to be written in Time does no favor to the magazine’s credibility. That’s the one major fail in this article, but it’s a big one.

But more relevant to the overall thrust is that Americans have weighed the risks against the benefits and decided that nuclear energy, as run by the U.S. industry, is safe. Not “safe enough” – safe. (If you don’t want to depend at an industry-sponsored poll to show this, here’s Gallup.) This factors in reactions to the accident at Fukushima Daiichi, of course, and while it’s not dismissed, it is also not seen as determinative on views of the American industry.

Now, I read a lot of ridiculous screeds against nuclear energy, full of fear mongering and, shall we say, inventive fictionalization. But Birmingham has racked up the pros and cons in a reasonably fair way and come out, in her case, con.

That’s allowed – it just doesn’t align with what the facts mean to most other people, much less myself, and it depends on hypotheticals that the industry already handles quite well. There may be reasons to fear the weather – but  nuclear energy is not one of them.


trag said…
Time has always been anti-nuclear. I remember an article in the early 80s about nuclear power and the author kept going on suggestively about his "ominous yellow cloud" that a nearby resident say mysteriously emerging from the plant on some occasions.

No actual investigation into what it might be. No acknowledgement that the only thing coming out of a nuclear plant is steam. Just this suggestion that something horrible and yellow must be coming out of the plant.

That's Time Magazine. I am sad to read that they have not changed one iota in 30 years.
Nathan said…
I really don't see how plants shutting down due to a big storm is an indictment of nuclear safety. The plants responded exactly as they were designed to do, and therefore are unsafe? Does not compute.
jim said…
They've never responded to my Letters to the Editor either. I beseech NEI to mail Time copies of this article and the fine prior one, "The Hurricane This Time". They seriously need rebutting; they influence too many people to go totally unchallenged, especially by main supporters of nuclear energy.

James Greenidge
gmax137 said…
Another thing: when the plant shuts down due to "grid disturbance" that can mean that the grid went down so there's no place for the plant-generated electricity to go. Why is that interpreted as a plant problem? The coal and gas fired units shut down when they aren't needed too.

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