Nuclear advocates claim to find empirical data in an imagined past

Much has been written lately about the nuclear propaganda “documentary” film Pandora’s Promise. When CNN announced that it planned to air the film, activists sprung to action and made sure CNN would give time to experts from the other side who wanted to rebut many of the film's assertions. CNN agreed to the request and aired a debate on the show Crossfire.
 The two hosts, Brian Schweitzer and Newt Gingrich, seemed to be on-side with Pandora’s Promise, but the former at least posed some challenging questions to the side he was favoring. I won’t rehash all the arguments against the film that have been done thoroughly elsewhere (see Beyond Nuclear’s work, or listen to the excellent interview with a spokesperson from this organization on the Nuclear Hotseat podcast). In this post, I’ll just discuss a few unusual remarks that appeared in CNN’s debate between Ralph Nader (anti-nuclear) and Michael Shellenberger (pro-nuclear).
This wasn’t the forum for a thorough discussion of all the important considerations to cover when asking whether nuclear is a solution for global warming. There was a short time constraint, so both men were hurrying to make their points rather than addressing everything that came up in the conversation.
The interview made it clear that the pro-nuclear movement is playing with a weak hand because Shellenberger had to resort to some dubious tactics. First, he flattered Nader for his famous work in the 1960s in consumer advocacy, but it was a backhanded compliment because the intent was obviously to set Nader up as yesterday’s man. Next, he sank to a lower level which can be understood if you think of a familiar scene in the movies, or maybe in real life, when you see a bitter old couple saying things like, “You would have been nothing without me. You’d still be doing _______ if I hadn’t come along.” Yes, Shellenberger stooped, not for the first time, to basing his argument on supposed “facts” based on past hypothetical speculations. He was citing the work of one of his familiars in nuclear promotion, the former NASA climate scientist James Hansen, as he claimed the science shows that existing nuclear energy plants in the USA saved 1.8 million lives the lives that would have been taken by carbon emissions, if the electricity had been generated by other means. For some reason, in the case of nuclear accidents, no single death can be attributed to radiation, but when it is convenient to demonize another source of energy, individual deaths can be attributed to the coal industry. In this case, pro-nuclear people don’t say that coal miners smoke and drink too much, or that their maladies are caused by anxiety arising from an irrational “carbonphobia.” Shellenberger went further with his speculative “facts” and claimed that the anti-nuclear movement caused even more deaths by shutting down development of nuclear energy from the 1980s onward.
Nader let the comments pass because he had better points to make, and better things to do than argue about past hypotheticals, but I’ll say the obvious rebuttal here. Past hypotheticals don’t belong in the discussion because the imagined alternate past didn’t happen. There is no empirical evidence there to base an argument on. The perfect reply is that one or more nuclear meltdowns were avoided because those extra nuclear plants were not built. There’s no reason to hold back. We could say anything we want because it’s all about making things up and calling them facts. Perhaps every acre of farmland in the country was saved from nuclear contamination. Or we could say millions of lives could have been saved by stopping the coal industry decades ago and investing massively in alternative energy. We could have saved all those lives by improving energy efficiency and not building sprawling suburbs full of oversized foreclosed houses. We could have stopped American car manufacturers from making the SUVs that took over the roads in the 1990s. If only Ronald Reagan hadn’t ripped Jimmy Carter’s solar panels off the White House roof!
Nonetheless, Shellenberger may be onto something. It is a good exercise to speculate, as long as we can distinguish between fact and imagination. As I read the news from the Philippines today about the strongest typhoon in history, I’m glad that Marcos’ dictatorship was overthrown in 1986 and his nuclear project, the Bataan Nuclear Power station, was shut down by the incoming government. If climate change is bringing these monster storms, it’s a good thing if nuclear plants are not in their path.
Another lame tactic was employed by Shellenberger when the topic of terrorism came up. We know what happened in the past can’t be changed, so we shouldn’t waste too much time worrying about what might have been, but Nader made the excellent point that we should worry about what could happen in the future. All nuclear power plants are targets for terrorists, not to mention targets in a future air war, should there ever be one in which a state with nuclear power plants is vulnerable to attack. Nader made the striking point that I’ve not heard too often in such discussion: Why do you think Israel never built a nuclear power plant? The absence of them is more striking in light of the fact that Israel has a couple hundred undeclared nuclear weapons. Israel has had a few wars since it was founded in 1948, and they are vulnerable to attack by states with the power to strike from the air, not to mention attacks by rogue elements. If America had been considering building its first nuclear plant on September 11, 2001, would the plan have been rejected outright? D’oh! Forget it. That’s a past hypothetical.
When Shellenberger heard the word terrorism, he jumped at it but inadvertently seemed to score an own-goal. “There was an attack, actually, on a nuclear power plant with a bazooka. It was by Greens in Germany!” he interjected. The conversation moved on, so the audience never learned what he was referring to, but the point supported what Nader was saying about the danger of a terrorist attack. However, what Shellenberger was referring to was actually a bit of nuclear history that underscores just how strong the public opposition to nuclear has been. Furthermore, just to get the facts straight, it was a matter of a Swiss citizen who attacked a power plant in France. But maybe Shellenberger was just sure it had to be those crazy Germans because they were foolish enough to abandon nuclear energy.
By bringing up this incident, Shellenberger was trying to insinuate that it was Greens who attempted to terrorize a population by spreading nuclear contamination across “Germany,” but in fact the motive of the 1982 attack was to destroy the reactor before it was loaded with fuel. The attack was planned for a time when no one was in the building, and its aim was to shut down the Superphenix fast reactor (more details here). I don’t condone the tactics, but it’s kind of a shame for France that the plant wasn’t destroyed. The bazooka missed the mark. The Superphenix was soon completed, but it ran intermittently only for a decade and it is said to have consumed as much energy as it produced. After years of political opposition and technical problems, it was shut down in 1997, and now (and for many more years into the future) work continues on removing the fuel and the irradiated, highly volatile sodium coolant.
And what is the promise of Pandora’s Promise? None other than a retread of the fast reactor technology that France, and many other countries, tried but failed to master in the past. Don’t worry, though. This time it will be different, right?

If you didn't like the nuclear debate on CNN, go to this classic duel from 1979. Not much has changed, except the record of disasters.

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