A recurring theme on Atomic Insights is that nuclear energy is a disruptive technology that has the potential to reshuffle the wealth and power underpinning what my generation called “The Establishment”, which is essentially the same as what some now call the 1%.
Though it may be a bit of an exaggeration or over simplification, modern society rests on a hydrocarbon foundation. Without the reliable energy provided by burning vast quantities of stored material, the earth’s ability to sustain its human population would be severely diminished. The corollary to the fact of society’s hydrocarbon dependence is that extracting and delivering fossil fuels is one of the world’s largest and most profitable industrial activities. It has been that way since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. It is difficult (though not impossible) to find any part of The Establishment whose wealth and power is not somehow related to financing, finding, extracting, protecting, refining, transporting, or consuming coal, oil and natural gas.
Many parts of The Establishment prosper when hydrocarbon prices rise. Higher prices result in a more rapid torrent of money from consumers to suppliers because demand is only modestly affected by price signals. As is the case for any commodity, energy prices are driven by the balance (real or perceived) between supply and demand – when actual or perceived supply is slightly lower than demand, prices rise as a result of competition for that supply.
Recognizing this reality drove me to my theory that liberal environmentalists and gentle grannies are not the real strength behind the world wide opposition to the use of nuclear energy. Instead, effective opposition to nuclear energy is a very logical activity for The Establishment. It is not a particularly admirable activity, however, so the opposition is not expressed openly. Well-educated members of The Establishment understand that subtle digs can be more effective than sign-carrying protests, especially when they can also convince others to carry the signs for them.
Members of the fossil fuel industry dependent Establishment have no desire to allow anyone else to have access to nearly unlimited power. “Power to the people” means less power for the people who have it now. The Establishment has no desire to compete in the market against fuel sources like uranium, thorium and plutonium that together have the triple play advantage of being inexhaustible, emission free, and reliable. They know that their favorite fuel sources are inferior in all of those measures of effectiveness.
During the past 24 hours, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about ways to share my theories to wider audiences. Those focused thoughts were stimulated as a result of reading the Wall Street Journal weekend edition for August 18-19, 2012. The Journal, arguably the paper of record for the economic establishment in the United States, published a special section that I believe was aimed squarely at subconsciously supporting existing fears about nuclear energy.
The front page article of the special section was a piece titled The Panic Over Fukushima. Though I normally read my news online, I happened to be spending part of the weekend in a hotel that provides free copies of the Wall Street Journal to its guests. When I opened the paper version of the weekend edition, the first thing that struck me was a nearly half page sized version of the below graphic element.
The eye-catching, scary, red-tinged graphic was accompanied by a piece by Richard Muller ostensibly aimed at explaining why he thought the world might have overreacted to Fukushima. However, the message I got from the piece was that Muller and the Wall Street Journal were subtly working together to damn nuclear energy with faint praise. Based on email conversations about the piece, I am pretty sure that many nuclear energy advocates will disagree with my interpretation, but here are some quotes from the article that might encourage others to rethink their initial impression.
The most thoughtful high-number estimate of deaths that will be caused by the Fukushima disaster comes from Richard Garwin, a renowned nuclear expert. He has written that the best estimate for the number of deaths is about 1,500—well above my estimate but still only 10% of the immediate tsunami deaths.
I don’t dispute Dr. Garwin’s number, but I believe it has to be understood in context.
Even though Dr. Garwin predicts 1,500 eventual deaths from the nuclear accident in Japan, he says the figure is small enough that the long-term evacuation of Fukushima itself would probably cause more harm than good. Evacuation causes disruption to lives that is hard to quantify but very real.
Some people believe that the proportionality assumption about radiation should be made because it gives a “conservative” estimate of possible risks.
Another way to overestimate the deaths is to use a much higher value for the induced cancer risk than has been determined by the best scientific studies. I think the most useful estimate is the one I’ve given: From the radiation so far, perhaps 100 induced cancers. Residents of Fukushima who are concerned that residual radiation will cause additional risk can avoid that by leaving, but they need to recognize that any additional cancers will be statistically unobservable, hidden well below those of natural cancer and the other dangers of modern life.
Aside The first time I heard of Richard Garwin was when I read Muller’s piece. Though I do not know every nuclear energy expert, I have been closely following and writing about the field for about 20 years. End Aside.
After reading the article, I watched the accompanying video, which is embedded below.
Though it is possible that the interviewer was simply asking leading questions and was not revealing his true feelings about nuclear energy, the words he spoke indicated a strong sense of distrust.
Gary Rosen: So Rich, the upshot of your piece is that we have panicked in response to Fukushima and that your concern is that this will, in a certain way bring an end to the development of new nuclear reactors around the world. Why is that a bad thing? Why should we want to promote this seemingly dangerous, relatively dangerous form of energy?
Though the interview only lasted for 5 minutes, I was quickly infused with a desire to interrupt and ask the interviewer why he thinks that media coverage should dictate whether or not people are afraid. As a media person himself, he has to realize that there is a difference between story telling and reality.
Gary Rosen: Now Rich, part of this book is, in a way, a defense of the nuclear industry and in particular a response to what happened in Fukushima. Now we all saw the coverage of this awful event. Are we not right to be very concerned about the lasting impact of that radioactive dispersal there?
There is one other subtle aspect to this article. On the web version, there is an accompanying slideshow that includes two images from the atomic bomb files of devastation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those images would not have been included if the goal of publishing the piece was to assuage fear, uncertainty and doubt about nuclear energy. (See slide 4 and slide 5. Please tell me if you agree or not with my assertion that they are not appropriate illustrations for this article unless the goal is to instill fear.)
Perhaps I am being unfair to Dr. Muller and the Weekend Edition editors. However, when I compare this piece to other recent interviews in which Muller is persuasively advocating a rapid shift of electricity production from coal to natural gas, I see this article as, at best, lukewarm support for nuclear energy. I am certain that many readers will remember the figure of 1,500 predicted deaths and remember that Muller gave credence to that calculation. They will forget some of the additional words he wrote and they will forget that the calculation includes a long tail of exposure well below the level that has be proven to cause any harm.
In today’s world, lukewarm support translates into a mistaken impression that nuclear energy is too risky and too expensive to trust. That is especially when ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and all of their media and political buddies keep telling us all – in both paid and unpaid advertisements – that the US has enormous quantities of “clean natural gas”.
What the commercial messaging does not tell us is that selling shale gas will produce a lot more wealth for The Establishment if nuclear energy is distrusted because it is believed to have the ability to cause thousands of cancer deaths, even in a “western” designed power plant. The commercials also do not tell us that the “century of natural gas” is really closer to 80 years at current consumption rates and a lot less than that if consumption increases as a result of successful marketing efforts.
A vague distrust of nuclear energy results in the technology being kept under wraps and not allowed to participate in the energy market to its full potential. Muller’s piece only reinforces that distrust and supports the Establishment message that we need to keep depending on fossil fuels for all of the good things that we take for granted about modern living.