With climate change looming large in the national consciousness, nuclear energy is experiencing a PR makeover. This Monday saw the first proposal for new reactors in America since the Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979. We look into the evolution of nuclear energy's image.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Remember when Nixon's reputation was rehabilitated? Well, now it's nuclear power's turn. On Monday an electric company called NRG Energy filed an application to build two new nuclear reactors in Texas, the nation's first since 1979. That is, since Three Mile Island's partial meltdown in Pennsylvania, which occurred a mere 12 days after a movie was released about a fictional meltdown in California.
The China Syndrome, starring Jane Fonda, combined with real life Three Mile Island, formed what Freakonomics co author Stephen Dubner calls a solar eclipse of bad publicity. [CLIP FROM THE CHINA SYNDROME]: JANE FONDA: What did he say to you, Mr. Spindler? WILFORD BRIMLEY: Said he thought this plant ought to be shut down. JANE FONDA: And you agree with that? Should it be shut down? [SHOUTING, HUBBUB] MALE CORRESPONDENT: State police were notified this morning of a general emergency at Unit Two of Three Mile Island. MAN: They detected a small amount of radioactive iodine on the ground. It may show up in the milk.
MAN: The situation is more complex than the company first led us to believe. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: After that — plus all the heat already generated by the anti nuke movement, the nuclear power industry melted down. SCOTT PETERSON: It kind of gave everybody who was on the fence thinking, geez, I don't know if it's safe, I don't know if it's the right thing — kind of gave all of those people a push to say, you know what, I think now that it's not. And the plans that were on the drawing board for a whole lot of nuclear power plants were basically abandoned. Financing dried up. BROOKE GLADSTONE: It wasn't supposed to go down that way. President Eisenhower wanted to use the power of the atom for good. PRESIDENT EISENHOWER: It is not enough to take this weapon out of the hands of the soldiers. It must be put into the hands of those who will how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace. SCOTT PETERSON: From the very beginning of our industry there's been two images when people think about nuclear power. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Scott Peterson is the vice president for communications at the Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear power lobby. SCOTT PETERSON: There's the image of electricity production, sort of the good image, and there's the image of nuclear weapons, obviously the bad image. [CLIP]: MAN: [SHOUTS]No! No! No! [WHIRRING NOISE] [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: One word answer — Incredible Hulk. Good for the industry? Bad for the industry? SCOTT PETERSON: Bad. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, elaborate on that. [LAUGHS] SCOTT PETERSON: [LAUGHS] One word answer! Anything that has a mutation involved in it, it's probably bad for the industry. If you ask people for an image of what used fuel might look like, people have a general impression it's green ooze, rather than it's a ceramic fuel pellet that is pretty benign in nature. From a color standpoint, there's a lot of imagery out there that's simply not correct, and is really a function of things like The Incredible Hulk or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what would you like to come to mind when we think of nuclear power? SCOTT PETERSON: I would like it to be blue skies. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Journalist Charman says the nuclear power industry's claim that it produces no greenhouse gases is misleading. True, they don't pour out of smokestacks, but — KAREN CHARMAN: The production of that uranium fuel requires enormous amounts of electricity most of that, coal fired electricity. About 10 years ago, the head of the U.S. Uranium Enrichment Corporation at Paducah, Kentucky, told me that the Paducah plant was the single largest user of electricity in the country. BROOKE GLADSTONE: As for safety, in March of 2002 at the Davis Besse Nuclear Power Plant in Ohio, a delayed inspection found that erosion had eaten away six-and-a-half inches of the reactor pressure vessel head. It was apparently 60 days away from being a Three Mile Island like incident.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission ranked it the fifth most dangerous incident since Three Mile Island, but studies of Three Mile Island have concluded that it was not nearly as grave as was believed at the time.
True, some in the community claimed that they suffered radiation poisoning and higher rates of cancer. Some settled out of court, but the terms of those settlements are secret.
Karen Charman. KAREN CHARMAN: I think if we're talking about something as potentially dangerous as nuclear power, these incidents need to be part of the national conversation, and they're not. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Fact is, these days the conversation about nuclear power is pretty upbeat.
Scott Peterson. SCOTT PETERSON: In the last couple of months alone, there have been cover stories in Fortune, in The Economist, and The Washington Post and many other newspapers, and from the research we've conducted, we know that the more people read or see information about nuclear energy in the media, the more favorable they become. BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Nuclear Energy Institute offers tours of power plants to legislators and journalists. It works with groups like The National Science Teachers Association to develop classroom materials. They've even created a Boy Scout nuclear merit badge.
Polls suggest that public support for nuclear energy just keeps growing. It already supplies 20 percent of America's electricity and an even higher percentage of Japan's. If any nation should be leery of nuclear technology, it's that one. And 80 percent of France's power is nuclear.
Stephen Dubner. STEPHEN DUBNER: The bottom line is that nuclear energy is far, far, far less dangerous, in practice, in aggregate, than the average American thought 30 years ago. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But Karen Charman says, still, that shouldn't end the conversation. KAREN CHARMAN: There's a comment by the Bush Administration's point man on nuclear power, the deputy secretary of energy, Clay Sell, who says, quote: CLAY SELL: No serious person can look at the challenge of greenhouse gases and climate change and not come to the conclusion that nuclear power has to play a significant and growing role in meeting that challenge worldwide. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Karen Charman says that statement dismisses serious critics of nuclear power. And she hears it so often, she's convinced it's an industry talking point. [CLIP]: MAN: If we're serious about environmental protection, then we must seriously question the wisdom of that — [END CLIP] [CLIP]: MAN: You can't be serious. You can't be serious about reducing the effect of greenhouse — [END CLIP] [CLIP]: CONDALEEZA RICE: We must be serious about expanding our nuclear power generating capacity. [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dubner says it's neither public relations nor a compliant press, nor national amnesia that has weakened our opposition to nuclear power. It is fear – of the incalculable risk of global warming, fear expressed on magazine covers and in such films as An Inconvenient Truth and The Day After Tomorrow. We prefer the devil we know, Teenage Mutant Ninja Power, to the devil we don't. STEPHEN DUBNER: That's essentially my point, which is that this thing that was feared because it was risky is now feared less because there's a new risk, global warming, that is not only risky, but the risk is uncertain, and uncertainty is scarier [LAUGHS] than a certain kind of risk. BROOKE GLADSTONE: That is, as long as you don't rent The China Syndrome. [CLANGING BELLS UP AND UNDER] We just did, and believe me, that movie is scary as hell. [CLIP, THE CHINA SYNDROME]: [SHOUTING, PANICKED VOICES, MANY AT ONCE] [END CLIP] [CLIP, THE SIMPSONS] HOMER SIMPSON: Gotta think, gotta think. Okay, somewhere there's a thingy that tells you how to work this stuff.
Who'd have thought a nuclear reactor would be so complicated! [END CLIP]