3 min read

Nuclear Power Used to Be a Science Issue, Now Its Economic

Nuclear Power Used to Be a Science Issue, Now Its Economic

Nuclear power was a science issue until is wasn’t. In the 1950s, policymakers agreed that nuclear energy could harness the destructive power the American military and scientific establishment unleashed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to produce electricity instead. We would tame the atom and use it for peace. Ford even toyed around with the Nucleon, a nuclear-powered concept car.

Feel free to bring this up any time someone says electric vehicles are impractical.

But nuclear power policy shifted in the 1960s and 70s. Citizens wanted more of a say in how nuclear power plants were sited and operated. The environmental and peace movements questioned the utility of nuclear technology itself, especially as the Soviet Union and United States adopted positions of mutually assured destruction. Eventually, Congress sundered the duties of the Atomic Energy Commission — which promoted and regulated nuclear power and made nuclear weapons, too — and created the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. After the Three Mile Island accident, U.S. nuclear power plant construction ground to a halt.

Two political scientists argue in a seminal work on policy change in the United States that this change-over is one of many examples of the punctuated equilibrium model of evolution playing out in U.S. politics, rather than in the Galapagos Islands. As more people found they had a stake in the nuclear power debate, the more diverse and chaotic the debate became, until a new order was established. Along with that shift, the influence of science reporting on the topic diminished as political debates intensified and as more people focused on the running and regulation of nuclear power rather than the promise of nuclear technology.

That history has long informed my skepticism when I talk to advocates and scientists who are enthusiastic about nuclear power. I sympathize with them, though: I grew up in a nuke plant town; the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station was part of the landscape along Highway 9. We paid little mind to the sporadic evacuation drills at school in the event of a nuclear accident. And while a few parents pulled their children out of our high school on September 11th because they had heard false reports that nuclear power plants would be targeted next, I remember shrugging it off with a few of my buddies — why would anyone attack South Jersey when they were that close to Philly and New York?

I have classmates who’ve worked as security guards at the plant — obviously security stepped up after the attacks. Years after graduating high school, when reviewing an NRC safety incidence report from the plant, I recognized the name of another classmate’s father. In nuke plants towns, it’s our neighbors who are in charge of keeping the plants safe.

My home town seal even features an atom:

Yeah. yeah, I know the atom doesn’t have enough dots! Also pictured: sailboat, pheasant.

So my problems with nuclear power plants that exist today are narrow: let’s make sure the safety engineers and inspectors at the plants can do their jobs, by all means. And let’s figure out the waste problem, at some point, please.

But as far as climate change goes, there is something kind of nice about nuclear power plants that are operating today: they’re producing low-carbon electricity and they’re already paid for. But when we talk about the future of nuclear power, it’s not science or even safety that dominates the debate — it’s economics.

To no one’s surprise, it’s remains stupendously expensive to create a facility that uses controlled fission reactions to boil water and make electricity. And, in an essay for Gullies.org, I argue that that’s where opeds in favor of nuclear power should focus. It’s too easy to assume that green skepticism about nukes is what’s holding the technology back — that’s the sort of simplistic “but you’re a hypocrite” rhetoric that plagues our politics.

When it comes to curing energy production of its carbon blues, we need cogent arguments on economics and, indeed, economies of scale. Such arguments are becoming easier to make for wind, solar and renewables. And in a world with many energy options, the renewable success story makes the argument for nuclear power worse.

You can read the essay here. Enjoy!

Thanks for reading. You can subscribe to receive updates.

Subscriptions are free, but you can provide monthly or annual support.

You can also leave a one-time tip using the links below. Your contributions help cover the cost of hosting.

If you're interested in hiring me for consulting work or have an institutional home for writing like this, please contact me.

$1 tip $5 tip $10 tip