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How Not To Debate Nuclear Power

by Michael Levi
March 28, 2011

Frank von Hippel had a smart and sensible op-ed on nuclear power in the New York Times last Thursday. Alas the letters to the editor in response, published this past Saturday, make me doubt that serious discussion will emerge from the current situation.

I wasn’t entirely surprised to see Scott Peterson, Senior Vice President at NEI (the nuclear industry association), respond critically. Frank is skeptical of nuclear power; he used to refer to himself as “anti-pro-nuclear”, which is accurate. But the details of the response are maddening. Peterson writes that “America’s nuclear power plants are well equipped to handle the impacts of severe events, whatever the cause”, but adds that “our industry is taking steps to make nuclear energy facilities even safer”. Well, which is it? If the facilities are already invulnerable, what could make them safer? Perhaps they aren’t actually invulnerable? I’ll hazard a guess that people would trust the industry more if it admitted that it wasn’t perfect. Instead, we’ve seen an increasingly defensive approach, which only hardens peoples’ views.

That said, the anti-nuclear letter is even more frustrating. James Quigley, a university lecturer, bizarrely labels von Hippel an “advocate for nuclear power”, presumably because he admits that nuclear power isn’t 100% evil. Quigley asks “Are we to take seriously Frank N. von Hippel’s argument that the ultimate deaths of a mere 10,000 people as a result of Chernobyl, compared with the tens of thousands of people killed by particulates from coal, suggest that the nuclear industry is ‘remarkably safe’?”, but ignores the fact that Frank describes that as “one point of view” and notes that “for most people [presumably including himself] this kind of accounting is beside the point”. Quigley also criticizes von Hippel for his correct assertion that “running nuclear power plants is ‘relatively cheap’ once construction costs have been paid”, arguing that that “conveniently ignores the costs of decommissioning, security for the plant post-closure and radioactive waste storage in perpetuity”, which it doesn’t.

Here we have, in two letters, everything you need to know about why the debate over nuclear power is so painful. Most advocates can’t admit that there are any downsides to nuclear power. Most opponents can’t accept that nuclear power has anything going for it. When someone like Frank steps in to offer up some moderate proposals, he gets savaged from both sides. That does not augur well for U.S. efforts to learn new lessons from Fukushima, rather than to just relitigate old debates.

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by Michael Wara


    Isn’t, at the end of the day, this all about opportunity cost? Cost of extending existing reactors’ licenses versus replacing them with new capacity of one sort or another. Cost of building new reactors as a source of carbon free electricity (the nuclear wedge) versus alternative low-carbon technologies or efficiency or both? I find von Hippel’s, Quigley’s, and Peterson’s comments to be beside the point – at least if the point is solving America’s energy and climate dilemma.

    Perhaps this is understandable given what is going on in Japan – but thoughtful debate requires asking the cost question first – not after we have a societal discussion about relative risks.

    Just my two cents.


    [ML: I agree with you that cost is peculiarly missing from all three pieces. But it seems to me that we need to address both questions at the same time, no? People care about things other that just energy and climate. Those concerns are reflected in things like safety regulations. Those regulations, in turn, affect cost. It’s impossible to fully separate the cost discussion from the safety one.]

  • Posted by Darlene Buckingham

    Nuclear energy is not working. You have challenged those who are anti-nuclear to say something good about nuclear. It is an engineering feat – nuclear reactors are very complex and speak to humanity’s ability to build incredible machines. The problem is uranium – it is unstable and uncontrollable. If nuclear engineers used their expertise to build technology that harnessed the sun, wind, tides, the warmth of the earth than everybody would be happy. Uranium and the daughters of uranium harm organic life. The more we release into our water, air and soil as is happening now in Japan the sicker we will become as well as endangering the health of our children and grandchildren for generations to come. Uranium is known to cause cancers, damage DNA and cause sterility. In evolutionary terms this is a fatal flaw if we continue to use uranium. We will either blow ourselves up or contaminate our water, air and soil past the tipping point for healthy organic life and die slow painful untimely deaths. Renewable energy please!

  • Posted by Roger Pielke Jr.

    Michael W-

    The recent Baden-Wuerttemburg election and promises made by the Green party regarding nuclear suggest that explicit issues of cost are not a determining factor in nuclear power decisions, at least in this part of Germany. (Nor apparently are the consequences for other commitments, like rapid decarbonization.)

    At the same time, I’d venture that many debates about risk are really about costs, just in a different language and using currencies other than dollars.

    All best,


  • Posted by Jim


    Please “google” LFTR and study the given sites. Study the ORNL papers and also the statements by Wigner, Weinberg, and Teller. See what you think.

    I don’t see a short term solution; but long term solutions will never come, if we never start.

    Thanks for Your time.


  • Posted by David B. Benson

    There are the direct costs that the power producers have to pay (and so pass on to customers) and then there are the external costs. A serious attempt to determine external costs for electricity production is
    with some (to me) surprising results but do check the limitations in the FAQ.

  • Posted by lee coulson

    With respect, respondents seem to be missing the most most important aspect of this debate – proliferation of nuclear power may inevitably mean proliferation of nuclear weapons.

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