Emotional evaluation of risks should favor nuclear energy

Sabine Roeser, a philosopher, provided a thought-provoking talk at TEDx Delft on the importance of including emotions in debates about risky technologies. Though my initial response to the early part of her talk was defensive, I kept on watching and ended up concluding that I agreed with the vast majority of her message. Though it is not a short piece and will never go viral, I recommend that you set aside the time to watch the video if you are interested in effective communications and effective decision making on complex topics involving judgements about risk and technology.



My hope is that you have watched the video before scrolling down to my commentary; if you haven’t, this is a spoiler warning. In case your time is limited and you want to skip around to the key segments, I have added time stamps in the discussion below.

Sabine Roeser starts her talk by singing the praises of the technology that brings instant communications, travel and shelter, but then points out that there is no technology without risk. Out of all available images to demonstrate that technology can be risky, Sabine chose to use a picture cooling towers that may or may not be a part of a nuclear power plant installation and a picture of a devastated landscape with people wearing what appear to be World War II era gas masks.

With those images in the background, Ms. Roeser asked if nuclear energy was “just great” and then stated that “nuclear power plants can explode.” All that had already occurred within the first minute and 22 seconds of her talk. You can see why I was initially defensive.

Sabine goes on to describe the conflict about risky technologies that occurs between the public and the experts. In the interest of time and getting to the point of her talk, she generalized to describe the experts as making emotionless decisions based on complex scientific concepts like “quantum physics” and the public as making decisions based on emotions and gut reactions generated by “fear, anger or disgust”.

After acknowledging that neither the public nor the experts rely solely on either emotion or objective reasoning, Sabine points to enlightening psychological research showing how people who have no emotions at all make really lousy decisions. Emotions like “sympathy, compassion, feelings of responsibility, shame and guilt” help people to understand wider implications of practical decision making. As Ms. Roeser says (7:10), “leaving risk judgements to people without emotions would be a huge mistake.”

She then goes on to make the following important statement:

(7:25) “Now you might ask, what does risk and technology have to do with morality and ethics? Everything. Technology is great, but technology can also be risky. Technology affects our well-being. It shapes the way we lead our lives. Technology has values incorporated into it.”

Sabine points out that traditional cost benefit analysis does not take into account whether the benefits and the risks of the technology are fairly distributed and balanced; in some cases a small number of people get most of the benefits while a different group of people assumes most of the risks. Spreadsheet-only cost benefit analysis does not allow a cell or formula that accounts for fairness.

Then came the statement that provided the “ah ha moment” and completed the process of making me realize the value of her research.

(11:30) We can appeal to our emotions and train our emotions in order to critically assess our initial emotions. For example, in the case of nuclear energy, our fear of nuclear energy should be corrected by compassion for victims of coal mining and climate change.

As Sabine counsels, debates about risky technologies (13:50) “should not ignore emotions”, they should start with emotions to find the moral values about technology that people consider important. By starting with emotional responses, it might be possible to identify misinformation that can be corrected, but it is also possible to identify fears and apprehensions that are based on real concerns that must be addressed before the technology can be deployed.

Once again, Sabine referenced nuclear energy as an illustrating example, mentioning concerns about the impact of waste on future generations as a legitimate issue that must be addressed in an emotionally accessible way.

Watching this video reminded me of the importance of understanding emotional responses and in using factual information that will appeal to people who tend to make judgements based on reaction instead of deep thinking. In other words, it brought me back to my belief that the nuclear industry needs to recognize the importance of taking advantage of the skills that can be acquired on Madison Avenue and in business marketing classes to share correct, but emotionally accessible information about our technology.

From long association with people who work hard to remove emotions from their own thinking processes — I am, after all, a former career naval officer with a large base of friends and acquaintances with a similar background — I understand that there is an ingrained distrust of marketing, advertising and salesmanship among certain segments of the population. I recognize that those segments have had a large influence on the established nuclear industry. We tend to want to do our jobs well and believe that people should figure out for themselves that our technology is better than any available alternative.

Our competitors, however, figured out a long time ago that they could obtain emotionally positive responses for their products with colorful pictures, brief video, and appealingly short statements. They have captured widespread acceptance through reminding people about the benefits frequently enough that they accept the risks as something worth taking.

Some of the professional opponents of nuclear energy have also recognized the importance of appealing to emotions like fear and concerns about the unknown. They have experienced substantial success in spreading misinformation based on those appeals largely because the industry has not effectively countered with its own legitimate, emotionally appealing story.

We have to stop trying to achieve success without comparing our technology to the other ways of generating power and without explaining the sense of responsibility for others that drive us to work as hard as we do to make nuclear energy more accessible to more people.

Nuclear fission is worth my time not simply because it provides useful heat, but because it provides useful heat that is better than any alternative way of producing that heat. One thing that is a little difficult to explain is my own sense of being responsible for others. Starting at a very young age, continuing through my formal education at the US Naval Academy, and on through my career as an officer (and as a parent) I have been inculcated with the notion that I have been gifted with privileges that come with a heavy dose of responsibility. From my very first days at the Academy, we were reminded that “Rank has its privileges (RHIP) and rank has its responsibilities (RHIR).”

I feel a moral responsibility for the health, safety and prosperity of people who had the misfortune of being born in poverty; lower cost, cleaner and more accessible energy is a great tool for improving their lot in life.

Generational responsibility is high on my personal list of priorities. I invested in raising children; I have spent a fair portion of my career in training young people, and I have one extant grandchild with another on the way. I come from a long-lived family and can reasonably expect that my grandchildren will be alive at the turn of the next century. If we do not change our current course and speed, we will have run out of accessible oil and natural gas in the US by then.

I often worry about the long term impact of continuing to dump at least 30 billion tons of fossil fuel waste into our shared atmosphere every year. I am no climate expert, but I have experienced the negative impacts of routine air pollution. I believe the warnings of the thousands of people who are climate experts.

It makes deep emotional sense to me to use an available alternative that produces power that is even more reliable and potentially less costly but does not include the negative risks of dumping huge quantities of gaseous waste products. Some of those inevitable waste products — like CO2 — have a steadily increasing concentration because the removal term is inherently lower than the addition term in the differential equation.

My well honed sense of fairness contributes to my status as a fission energy fan. When society agrees to enable companies to build nuclear power stations, the benefits are widely shared in the form of cleaner air, lower cost electricity, reliable power, and large work forces each of whom collect salaries that are sufficient for raising families.

The stories from nuclear plant workers at Vermont Yankee that Meredith Angwin has been posting on Yes Vermont Yankee are not unique. Most of our nuclear power stations have similar work forces that are also active in their local communities. That is the kind of people that the industry attracts, with its durable, productive power stations that sometimes employ two or three generations of hard working technical and professional employees.

Based on numerous conversations with my colleagues who are nuclear energy professionals, my emotional reasons for working hard at my craft are not unique, but, as an industry, we have done a poor job of sharing those particular bases for our career decisions with the public.

We have a moral imperative to do a better job of communicating the multiple emotional reasons why we believe that using more nuclear fission energy as a replacement for some of the less advantageous alternatives will make the world a better place. The alternative to success in our efforts is to condemn society to having less and less available power to do work. We will also condemn our fellow citizens to continued dependence on the good graces of the money focused people who tend to dominate the fossil fuel extraction, transportation and distribution business.

About Rod Adams

25 Responses to “Emotional evaluation of risks should favor nuclear energy”

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  1. James Greenidge says:

    But you know, this isn’t rocket or shrink science. If you laid out to people certified facts and industrial mortality comparison charts and public health records and rad effects evidence against all the “what if’s” and off-the-wall speculative nightmares of anti-nukes, chances are facts will win out each time. This is what happened with hyper-liberal Paul Newman (a potential ultra-valuable nuclear Carl Sagan had he lived on), turning pro-nuke in his tracks. You present the case right and facts can win out over fear and jitters, and it’s not even using the sly salesman who sells ice to Eskimos tactic either. The problem with nuclear energy’s Darth Vader image is the facts and records are RARELY ever laid out toe-to-toe against the likes of Arnie and Helen whose FUD literally run rampant totally unopposed in the media or forums. I mean give the devil his due, they know how to win over people and media en masse, and it’s up to the nuclear industry/organizations, not Tinkerbelle, to set the slander and lies straight and put FUD down via serious (not cutesy) massive nuclear education PSAs and active local nuclear hearing representation. I might not like the gas and oil industry’s ad-blitz, but it gets results (even when workers and public are killed in their operations!) and I can’t begrudge them for taking the guts and bucks to advance their interest. Nuclear energy can take the lesson out of kindergarten.

    Have a happy turkey day and support Xmas-free Octobers and Novembers!

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

    • Joris van Dorp says:

      James, in my job I get to put together medium to long term energy master plan concepts for airports, industrial park developers, university campusses, hospitals and datacenters. I try to include the (micro)nuclear option in these plans, but it is incredible how much resistence I meet. I’ve told (right from the top) to cease and desist a number of times because clients are were appalled by seeing the word ‘nuclear’ in the work we do for them. I’ve been called evil for even mentioning nuclear as an option. And I don’t know how many times I’ve told by clients that not only do they not want anything to do with nuclear power, but that I should learn to understand that nuclear power is obsolete, meaningless and an unwanted distraction. And these are the top management of major energy using centers in our society telling me this. They want me to concentrate on biofuels, windturbines and solar power and use those to provide them with roadmaps to 100% co2-free and autarchic local energy solutions, because that is what they have been fooled into thinking is possible, and they expect the costs to be close to what they are used to paying.

      I write this because I agree with you that the facts are enough (in principle) to make the nuclear option attractive for many applications. But I know from experience that just to get to the stage where the client becomes interested in even *considering* those facts is a large challenge in and of itself.

      • David says:

        Hi Joris,

        Thanks for continuing to mention Nuclear. I understand the reactions. The image of Nuclear power is so negative in the minds of most that it is apriori EVIL. This is mainly due to the fact that the authoritative voices in our modern society say so. That is – they rarely if ever come out with a genuine support of Nuclear power. Instead, according to the current meme – Nuclear can be an evil path taken to avoid a more evil path – Like CO2 but it can NEVER be a good choice.

        This is reinforced by movies that constantly portray these types of energy choices as being possible but forbidden by more civilized societies. I can’t think of a specific name right now but several of the Star Trek movies and TV shows have this theme.

        When you have been labeled as Evil – how do you reverse that?

        In my case it was from a great deal of study, but I am a geek in that regard. I have worn out my family and friends talking about this so I don’t go into it often now. (I do hang out on blogs and continue to try to convince others). My energy study was started by living in an energy poor country in South East Asia. I began to look at every renewable type of energy on the basis that once installed they could provide power to these back water villages. A couple of years of hobby research into every conceivable type of power generation left me with a deep respect for the energy content and portability of gasoline and diesel fuel. About 2007 I ran across an MIT sponsored design for a modular Nuclear Power Plant. I knew nothing about Nuclear at the time but began to read. After a while I came across Adam’s Atomic Engines and then from there Rod’s blog. I took the time to listen to every single pod cast, to read some of the books he recommended and to look up basic information.

        It was Nuclear medicine that finally tipped the scales from being interested to seeing the deep lie that is the current state of radiation protection. Somewhere in the long hours of podcasts, I heard a medical doctor say that they expose a tumor to 2 grays and the surrounding tissue gets 1 gray. The healthy tissue recovers in about 10 hours from the exposure and they continue the process 24 hours later. The tumor dies while the healthy tissue recovers. I was amazed at this and checked with a fellow church member who work in nuclear medicine to see if this was correct. He verified it. At that point I knew that the “protection” we are asking from Nuclear Power Plants is literally 1000 times what is necessary to protect anyone from actual radiation sickness.

        I have lived on islands and visited many islands where Electricity from Diesel costs 40 cents a kwh. When the generators run. I am deeply attracted to Hyperion’s design and Rod’s Atomic Engines because these type of simple designs can be run safely by people with a few months of intensive training and are still safe even if people walk away from them. I love the simplicity and I love the reliability.

        I have become a nuclear Nut case.

        I pray that you will be very effective as you present options for those looking to power various sites.

        • Rod Adams says:

          @David – May I have your permission to elevate this comment to a guest post?

          • David says:

            Yes, Rod, you are welcome. I cannot identify myself openly because of the work I do. So any thing I do that has some measure of political impact has to be done a bit quietly.

        • Joris van Dorp says:

          David, fascinating, I have walked pretty much the similar path as you, I think, although in my case my energy study into nuclear power was triggered by a rabid determination to do the best job possible in my work as energy and sustainability technical consultant. Not just to serve the client, but also because I am concerned with the way energy matters are (mis)treated today, which I fear is risking putting us on a road to very serious problems in the near and far future. I have children in am interested in protecting also their future, as well as of all children of course. Rod’s work on this site provided a large boost to my understanding of nuclear energy as well, on many different levels. It is a treasure trove including the excellent commentary on the articles. Not to try to be flattering to Rod and the commenters, but the value of the site is that noteworthy I think.

  2. Gareth Fairclough says:

    I was in a psychology lecture a few days ago when the lecturer said something that has stuck in the back of my mind; “We do not ask questions, we answer them”.
    I think it stayed in my mind partly because of this blog and partly due to a good friend friend who is a marketing student and tries to pass on some of the marketing ideas over a beer or two. One such idea was the saying “Don’t answer them, ask them.”. It’s a parallel with the idea that the best defense is a good offence which in my admittedly limited view is not something the nuclear industry is doing. The few times I have seen any pro-nuke pieces in the press they have been written as responses to previous pieces or to press campaigns.

    If you ask me, we should crow about the best things fission has to offer as well as the worst the hydrocarbon industry has to offer. We need to attack! I say that both as a student and a 6 year veteran of the British armed forces. I challenge my fellow commenters to name just one successful leader from any point in history who achieved their success without at some point attacking in some manner.

  3. John Tucker says:

    Really she is actually proposing that emotions be incorporated if evaluated on a technical level. The unspoken requirement again is that all evaluation of communal projects and risk absolutely rests on a foundation of logic and reason.

    And speaking of which congratulations to you nukers and those of us advocating serious environmentalism and energy security on the recent Obama Administration commitment to developing and deploying a new generation of reactors. ( http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2012/11/20/obama-doe-fund-modular-nuclear-reactors/1717843/ )

    • Rod Adams says:

      @John Tucker

      Though I must admit my bias and potential conflict of interest, I also admit that I am celebrating the DOE SMR announcement. There are many smiles at Ramsey Place.

      • John Tucker says:

        Even without the benefit of the clean energy just the exploration of the new tech is worth it IMHO. Compact sources of high energy and associated technologies are required for the various endeavors of exploration, resource extraction and habitation of near earth space and the habit of containing and recycling all wastes is a necessary lesson we have put off far too long.

        This needs to move forward rapidly.

  4. Gareth Fairclough says:

    One other thing, I found a news story that you might find interesting that has to do with natural gas.

    http://news.slashdot.org/story/12/11/21/1839242/thousands-of-natural-gas-leaks-found-in-boston?utm_source=rss1.0mainlinkanon&utm_medium=feed

  5. Joris van Dorp says:

    I really like this article Rod. I also saw the Roeser video, a few days ago via another nuke-blog, and I think you did a great write-up on it. Thanks.

    IMHO it remains a pity though that Roeser made that statement that nuclear plants can explode. It ruins her story a bit, because it seems ludicrous to expect that people could somehow emotionally accept ‘exploding nuclear power plants’, by whatever process.

    Hopefully, people will realize from the context of her talk that the risk of ‘exploding nuclear power plants’ is actually negligible, if not entirely unthinkable, and that even if an NPP does ‘explode’ – like Fukushima – the consequences are relatively benign and insignificant compared to the routine nuisance caused by alternatives to nuclear power such as coal and (for as long as it lasts) natural gas.

  6. Daniel says:

    While this blog is progressing nicely, Al Gore is regressing. He thinks nuclear is on its way out.

    Why ? Cos wind and solar are now riding down a ‘Moore’s Law Jr’ costdown curve while nuclear’s cost are going up.

    That’s right. Large Scale Semi Conductor technology being transmuted stupidly to energy.

    William Tucker wrote about Gore’s lack of intellectual rigor a while ago. And I quote:

    Moore’s Law is about information, not energy. The reason computer chips have gotten smaller and smaller is that we keep using less and less energy to store the same amount of information. Think of each logic gate as a light bulb that can be turned on and off to represent a “1″ or a “0.” The original computers used vacuum tubes that consumed lots of electricity. Now we use transistors printed on microscopic circuit boards that require only the faintest electrical current. We may eventually get down to the level of individual electrons, but the point is that all this is accomplished by using smaller and smaller energy differentials to represent the ones and zeroes.

    When you go looking for energy, however, you can’t do that. You can’t go down, down, down into the microcosm using less and less energy to produce more and more energy or even the same amount of energy. Energy is energy. You’re stuck with what’s available.

    So that’s what a Nobel prize is worth nowadays.

    • Michael R. Himes says:

      You can go down down and down with nuclear energy. Distributed nuclear energy in the form of beta decay Ultracapacitors in cars, truck and buses for starters. It would seen there is a host of isotopes available for the task. Qynergy is a company in New Mexico entering this market using an Ultracapacitor using Tritium as fuel. With slight modification, Thorium Dioxide will charge an Ultracapacitor if subjected to resonant magnetic vortex to accelerate beta decay. I am suggesting a reversed cyclotron accelerater to stimulate beta decay. Nano technology is the down sizing of nuclear energy to a level that any one of us can manage.

      • George Carty says:

        Could either of the common isotopes in spent fuel (Cs-137, Sr-90) be used in an ultracapacitor? It would be great if we could turn trash into treasure!

      • David Walters says:

        Tritium runs about $40,000 an ounce. I would hope there would be other isotopes that work!

  7. Jason C says:

    I was with her message up to a point. She seems to think that if the dialogue exchange improves then understanding across both sides will improve.

    There are a few problems with this: 1. the quality of the dialogue between nuclear energy experts and the public is either poor or so scant it doesn’t make much of a blip on the radar. 2. There are sworn lifetime foes of nuclear energy who runs their anti-nuclear campaigns with religious fervor. Reason 1 is possible to fix. Reason 2 is not, unless you are so successful with the public relations campaign that anti-nuclear fanatics are largely ignored and only appeal to the fringe. So, from that point of view, I think she’s being a bit overly optimistic about this being an avenue for change.

  8. John Tucker says:

    If past movements in society are any indication the ONLY way to resolve this and move forward is relegating them to the fringe. The gay rights movement springs immediately to my mind as something ive lived but the history surrounding minority rights, fluoridated water, immunizations etc. all involved similar circumstances and opposing belief systems.

    The velvet gloves need to come off, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor, and if the forum is not defined as reasonable above all else every disruption and ridicule should be fair game and employed as opposed to letting a uneven and unreasonable discourse stand as valid.

    Indeed those ignorant enough to believe and those misled into thinking civil discourse is the solution here and it precedes a need for the reasonable follow a tradition of failure in public argument and assist in manufacturing doubt and are the reason important issues like climate change and acidification have not been dealt with until now. Not to mention our collective failure at creating a energy plan cohesive with a continued expansion of humanity.

    Im sure it sounds mean and “in your face” offensive, but that’s how it has to work.

    Besides, while civility can occur from time to time in unreasonable discourse it can only originate and be maintained in a reasonable and logical environment.

  9. EZ says:

    I’ve been thinking about how nuclear power can escape the unfair position it’s been put in. It seems to me that the people who oppose nuclear power can be put into four categories. The ignorant, the hard core anti nuclear(for ideological or other reasons), the people who benefit from nuclear not being used and the people who don’t know or care much about energy issues but who are also scared of nuclear power. Each of these different groups needs to be dealt with in a different way.

    The ignorant can be educated, but first trust needs to be established. It’s impossible to teach someone if they don’t trust anything you are saying. The video Rod embedded had some good ideas on how to establish trust.

    The hard core anti nuclear people, and the people who are following their own self interests, can’t realistically hope to be won over so as John Tucker said they need be relegated to the fringe. One way I think this could be done would be to attack their morality like they attack the morality of pro nuclear people now. Much of the damage done by green house gasses can probably be placed on them. Also, I think the poverty that could be alleviated by a bountiful affordable energy source can also be placed on them.

    The people that don’t really care about energy, but are afraid of nuclear power need to be calmed and made aware of how nuclear power is in our own best interest. I think one reason nuclear is such a tough sell is that in the minds of many people it has come to be associated with ‘otherness’. People have come to view it as some kind of outside force that they can’t understand or trust. This impression is constantly being enforced in pop culture by TV shows like the Simpsons, various movies and even things like comic books. I think this impression needs to be fought. On way I think this could be done would be by making more people aware of the natural background radiation all around us because by doing so we can help associate the words natural and radiation together. Another idea would be to demonstrate safe levels of radiations with physical objects whose sizes correspond to different doses. Physical objects don’t have the sense of otherness that radiation inspires in people. My last idea involves the sun. The sun is nuclear and is not associated with otherness by people so why not associate nuclear power with the sun. Rod had an idea for bumper stickers a while back which called nuclear power the new fire. Instead of that how about this “nuclear, powering the earth for billions of years” with a picture of the sun in the background, or maybe “nuclear, the power of the sun in the palm of our hands” with a picture of the sun grasped in someone’s fist.

    • David says:

      @ EZ,

      Yes, to your last paragraph, (though your whole point is well taken). Which is why I have recommended dressing up with a covering of Bananas – say over 100 (which would be quite a bit of weight actually) and then Carry a sign saying – BANANAS – MORE RADIATION THAN FUKUSHIMA. Off the top of my head I don’t have the right numbers it would take, but wearing more than a few bananas would raise your radiation levels more than most of the evacuated areas around Fukushima.

  10. Daniel says:

    In any debate, in order to influence you have to adopt a mental position ‘to be influenced’ yourself. This opens the door to a whole array of outcomes. Listening skills are of paramount importance.

    When I watch the work of the pro nuclear side, with those who gravitate around Rod for example, I find the level of civility quite high. Opponents are treated fairly and there is little censure.

    We do have a critical mass of expertise worldwide. What we need is a tipping point. Will it be based on anti nuclear & pro renewables failed economics as witnessed in Spain-Greece-Germany-Japan, SMRs (long overdue), leadership (Gates and Branson – Show me the influence money) or a miracle ? Who knows.

    But a bottom up movement is needed. The information IS out there. The lack of curiosity of the masses is worrisome. Radiation levels in Fukushima and Chernobyl are trivial in most cases yet we still live in fear.

    My point is that the press is failing us. These guys a duty. When I wrote to Ray Suarez of PBS a while ago to ask him why nuclear was not mentioned in an hour long report on energy in the US, he told me that natural gas was the story and the news at PBS was driven from the outside in. Well there you go.

    Is there a journalist anywhere with some major league clout that will do the needful ?

  11. Michael Turner says:

    “a bottom up movement is needed” – absolutely. But it has to start from a very low point indeed, in terms of reputation.

    Fukushima Dai-ichi converted me from faintly skeptical about nuclear to guardedly positive about it. But that’s only because I dug into the numbers available from credible sources, and applied a sense of proportion, with other technologies in the balance. (And perhaps I only did that because I have a contrarian streak to begin with.)

    I concluded that, in the long run, Cs-137 pollution over a relatively tiny area will cause a smallish fraction of the deaths that were caused more directly by the precipitating events — a big earthquake and the ensuing tsunami. Japan’s response has been disproportionate: to shut down all nuclear power (with only one recent and still-uncertain restart of one facility) and burn more fossil fuel. Even with the Japanese economy crashed in the wake of the disaster (and with factories running below capacity anyway with the yen so strong), Japan’s oil consumption increased. They were burning oil for electricity, at a scale not seen perhaps since the 1970s. The added deaths globally from the added GHG emissions? Not easy to estimate. But they are possibly much higher than the number who died in tsunami, not to speak of the much smaller expected long-term mortality from light radiation pollution.

    Here’s a big problem, though: how many people have the appetite for that kind of reversal of opinion based on facts and reason? I haven’t met many. I haven’t met many who are even willing follow the argument. It’s not that they’re stupid. It’s something else.

    Our risk perceptions naturally (but irrationally) skew away from fearing the risks we personally undertake. I smoked for many years; idiot!. They naturally and irrationally skew toward fearing the risks imposed on us by others — even I, at the height of the Fukushima Dai-ichi crisis, worried that the Japanese government and TEPCO might be covering up something far worse than what was hitting the news. So the problem is: how do we make “them” more of a “we”?

    I think people need to be able to identify personally somehow with how nuclear is governed, before they can accept it more readily. I don’t think superficial marketing campaigns will work. There have been plenty of those already. They only backfire, actually: “You told us it was safe! It all looked so pretty!”

    So how’s this for an idea: nuclear democracy? I’m basically pro-market, but I’m not sure the current economic arrangements of power really work in the case of nuclear, which (not least by virtue of the WMD potential of the fuel source) is a very special case. Here in Japan, I get the feeling that nuclear is basically a government service, and that leaving it to TEPCO et al. in a seeming “arms-length” relationship means the government can escape some of the wrath of the public when something goes wrong. They can blame it on a nominally private-sector operation. But in fact. nuclear power plant operators, as regulated monopolies, are basically just part of the government, aren’t they? They can’t be very strongly motivated as “greedy corporations” if their profits are in fact limited by law.

    So if nuclear power (and any major energy source from a utility) is basically a government service, in a democracy, why not go the whole hog? Why not have pure democratic deliberation over the course of nuclear implementation?

    I understand: nuclear requires deep expertise. But what if some random sample of the population periodically had to look into the eyes of testifying experts, as they talked about the design and operation of nuclear power plants? (And of the opponents making their own case to the contrary.) Nuclear engineers know that they themselves are human beings, with flaws and virtues, and with no motivation to harm others; they their own children would have to live with the toxic legacy of any serious disaster. But your average person never meets a nuclear engineer. Very few of us are ever held to the task of hearing out the case for nuclear. What if many of us were? And what if we voted accordingly, as if nuclear were literally and perpetually on trial? THEN — as it’s periodically acquitted of unreasonable charges — there might be some basis for saying that nuclear has support “from the bottom up.”

    • Jason C says:

      Excellent comment! I like the point about nuclear democracy. Nuclear, as you point out has a special circumstance in the “current economic arrangements of power”. We have seen various economic models surround the technology all with government safety regulation in common. If “providing power to the people” means a gov’t. planned model of energy infrastructure and distribution, we have seen real-life models, again, shown to be very successful.

      I imagine we are still quite far away from having a France-like model in the United States. I think we will always have a sprinkling of local-state-federal gov’t regulators mixed with municipal and commercial power providers. Personally, I would favor any changes that bring a greater abundance of clean nuclear power at a low cost to everyone. Power bills should be low to non-existant as electricity is a necessity!

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