Ch. 4 – The Nuclear Energy Option



We have seen that we will need more power plants in the near future, and that fueling them with coal, oil, or gas leads to many serious health, environmental, economic, and political problems. From the technological point of view, the obvious way to avoid these problems is to use nuclear fuels. They cause no greenhouse effect, no acid rain, no pollution of the air with sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, or other dangerous chemicals, no oil spills, no strain on our economy from excessive imports, no dependence on unreliable foreign sources, no risk of military ventures. Nuclear power almost completely avoids all the problems associated with fossil fuels. It does have other impacts on our health and environment, which we will discuss in later chapters, but you will see that they are relatively minor.

However, regardless of such rational arguments, we must recognize that acceptance of nuclear power is largely an emotional issue. Nuclear power cannot have a future in the United States unless the public at large is ready to accept it. Pollsters have been busily trying to determine the status of this question. Let’s examine what they have found.


A Gallup poll taken in February 1989 asked “How important do you think nuclear energy plants will be in providing this nation’s electricity needs in the years ahead?” The same question was then asked about coal-burning plants. The results are given below for the first question, with the results for coal-burning plants in parentheses.

a. Very important 45% (29%)
b. Somewhat important 34% (37%)
c. Not too important 10% (17%)
d. Not at all important 6% (8%)
e. Don’t know 5% (9%)

Combining a with b, we see that 79% thought nuclear would be important, while only 66% thought coal, which now provides most of our electric power, would be important. Combining c with d, only 16% thought nuclear would be unimportant versus 25% for coal. Moreover, younger people are more favorably disposed toward nuclear, with 81% in the age range 18‑34 versus 75% over age 55 believing that nuclear would be important.

In July 1989, the polling organization TeleNation Market Facts asked a cross section of the American public “How important a role should nuclear energy play in the U. S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Strategy for the future?” Responses were:

a. Important 50%
b. Somewhat important 31%
c. Not too important 8%
d. Not at all important 8%
e. Don’t know 3%

The results of a May 1989 survey by another professional polling organization, Cambridge Reports, were not quite as impressive, but still encouraging. It asked a representative sample of the American public “How important a role should nuclear energy play in meeting America’s future energy needs?” The results were:

a. Very important 38%
b. Somewhat important 31%
c. Not too important 13%
d. Not at all important 14%
e. Don’t know 4%

At the same time, Cambridge Reports asked another representative sample “How important do you think nuclear energy plants will be in meeting this nation’s energy needs in the years ahead?” Replies were:

a. Very important 50%
b. Somewhat important 27%
c. Not too important 10%
d. Not at all important 9%
e. Don’t know 4%

To summarize these surveys, 69% to 81% of the public think nuclear power should be important, while 16% to 27% think it should be unimportant. When asked whether it will be important, 77% to 79% said yes, while 16% to 19% said no.

These surveys refer somewhat indefinitely to the future. But what about the very near future that must be actively planned for now? In May 1989, Cambridge Reports asked “Which one energy source do you think will be our primary source of electricity 10 years from now?” The interviewer did not name any sources. The results were:

a. Nuclear energy 28%
b. Solar energy 18%
c. Hydroelectric 6%
d. Coal 6%
e. Oil 6%
f. Natural gas 4%
g. Fusion 3%
h. Wind 1%
i. Other 5%
j. Don’t know 23%

Note that nuclear energy is by far the leader, and its lead over coal, oil, and natural gas, which experts would all agree are the only practical alternatives for the near future, is especially impressive.

In November 1989, Cambridge Reports asked “Do you think the nation’s need for nuclear energy as part of the total energy mix will increase in the years ahead?” Of those polled, 77% said yes, 15% said no, and 8% were not sure.

One might still wonder whether the public is in favor of constructing any new power plants. The May 1989 Cambridge Reports poll also asked how serious a problem are energy supplies in the United States. Responses were

a. Very serious 48%
b. Somewhat serious 32%
c. Not very serious 11%
d. Not serious at all 6%
e. Don’t know 3%

The 48% vote for “very serious” is up from about 33% during the 1983-1986 time period.

All of this leads us to believe that the overwhelming majority of the American public will not be surprised or offended by more nuclear power plants being built in the near future and is ready to accept them. Since there has been little publicity about the new developments, these attitudes are based on current nuclear power plants. When the public is informed about the new super-super safe plants to be described in Chapter 10, it should be even more favorably inclined.

While public support of nuclear power has only recently been turning favorable, the scientific community has always been steadfastly supportive. In 1980, at the peak of public rejection, Stanley Rothman and Robert Lichter, social scientists from Smith College and Columbia University, respectively, conducted a poll of a random sample of scientists listed in American Men and Women of Science, The “Who’s Who” of scientists.1 They received a total of 741 replies. They categorized 249 of these respondents as “energy experts” based on their specializing in energy-related fields rather broadly defined to include such disciplines as atmospheric chemistry, solar energy, conservation, and ecology. They also categorized 72 as nuclear scientists based on fields of specialization ranging from radiation genetics to reactor physics. Some of their results are listed in Table 1.


Proceed rapidly 53 70 92
Proceed slowly 36 25 8
Halt Development 7 4 0
Dismantle plants 3 1 0

From Table 1 we see that 89% of all scientists, 95% of scientists involved in energy-related fields, and 100% of radiation and nuclear scientists favored proceeding with the development of nuclear power. Incidentally, there were no significant differences between responses from those employed by industry, government, and universities. There was also no difference between those who had and had not received financial support from industry or the government.

Another interesting question was whether the scientists would be willing to locate nuclear plants in cities in which they live (actually, no nuclear plants are built within 20 miles of heavily populated areas). The percentage saying that they were willing was 69% for all scientists, 80% for those in energy-related sciences, and 98% for radiation and nuclear scientists. This was in direct contrast to the 56% of the general public that said it was not willing.

Rothman and Lichter also surveyed opinions of various categories of media journalists and developed ratings for their support of nuclear energy. Their results are shown in Table 2.


Category Number
Nuclear scientists 72 7.9
Energy scientists 279 5.1
All scientists 741 3.3
Science journalists 42 1.3
Prestige press journalists 150 1.2
Science journalists at New York Times,
Washington Post & TV networks
15 0.5
TV reporters, producers 18 -1.9
TV journalists 24 -3.3

*Scale runs from +10 for perfect to -10 for complete rejection.

We see that scientists are much more supportive of nuclear power than journalists, and press journalists are much more supportive than the TV people who have had most of the influence on the public, even though they normally have less time to investigate in depth. There is also a tendency for science journalists to be more supportive then other journalists.

In summary, these Rothman-Lichter surveys show that scientists have been much more supportive of nuclear power than the public or the TV reporters, producers, and journalists who “educate” them. Among scientists, the closer their specialty to nuclear science, the more supportive they are. This is not much influenced by job security considerations, since the level of support is the same for those employed by universities, where tenure rules protect jobs, as it is for those employed in industry. Moreover, job security for energy scientists is not affected by the status of the nuclear industry because they are largely employed in enterprises competing with nuclear energy. In fact, most nuclear scientists work in research on radiation and the ultimate nature of matter, and are thus not affected by the status of the nuclear power industry. Even among journalists, those who are most knowledgeable are the most supportive. The pattern is very clear — the more one knows about nuclear power, the more supportive one becomes.

But the attitude of scientists is largely irrelevant. The decision on acceptability of nuclear power will be made by the public. The most important point is that the public is now becoming supportive. If that support is maintained and continues to grow, the future of nuclear power is certain to be bright.

Strong public support for nuclear power is not a new phenomenon in the United States. In the 1960s, the public viewed nuclear energy as the great new wave of the future, the answer to all energy supply problems. Candidate communities vied for the honor of being chosen as a location for a nuclear plant. Mayors and governors offered tax concessions and pulled political strings to get them.

All of that changed when groups opposed to nuclear power formed and gained support from the media in depicting it as a dangerous technology operated by incompetents. Public opinion was turned around, with disastrous consequences. It has taken many years for the nuclear industry to recover public support.

This support could be lost again if the opposing groups and the media were to perform as they did in the 1970s and early 1980s. But there is evidence that this may not happen. Environmental groups are now truly concerned about the greenhouse effect, acid rain, and air pollution and, on weighing the alternatives, are becoming more opposed to coal burning than to nuclear energy.

According to polls by Cambridge Reports, in the 1983-1986 time period, which was 4-7 years after the Three Mile Island accident but before Chernobyl, 60% of the public recalled seeing or reading news stories about nuclear energy within the previous 6 months, and over two-thirds of these stories were “mostly unfavorable.” However, in May 1989, only 51% recalled stories and only 25% viewed them as unfavorable.

In the 20 polls taken between 1983 and 1989, this May 1989 poll was the first in which less than half of the stories were unfavorable. This gives grounds for optimism. Since many stories are neutral, there are still more unfavorable than favorable stories, so the decrease in total number of stories is also a positive development. Perhaps the media and the public are ready to base decision making on nuclear power on scientific information. If so, decisions will be made on the basis of material we will explore in the remainder of this book.

But public support of nuclear power is fragile, and suspicion abounds. In a February 1989 Gallup poll, people were asked whether selecting nuclear power for large-scale use was a good choice, a realistic choice, or a bad choice. Replies were:

Good choice 19%
Realistic choice 50%
Bad choice 25%

It seems like the public is not in love with nuclear power but is ready to accept it as the least of the available evils. The public prefers to avoid risks in any shape or form but is coming to recognize that some risk is unavoidable. We will explore this matter in Chapter 8.

This February 1989 Gallup poll asked people how they would react to having a nuclear power plant in their community. Replies were

Favor nuclear plant 17%
Oppose nuclear plant 23%
Reserve judgment 59%

This hesitancy to have a plant in one’s own community is a pervasive attitude known as the NIMBY syndrome — Not in my back yard. It extends far beyond the nuclear industry to any industrial activity that is viewed as something less than pristine. It is therefore encouraging to see that a strong majority of the public is at least willing to reserve judgment on a nuclear power plant in their community. In 1981, 56% were opposed.

Perhaps the best way to summarize the poll results presented in this chapter is to conclude that the public is receptive to, and even supportive of, nuclear power, but it is suspicious and can easily be swayed in either direction. Presumably, the heavy majority that is reserving judgment is waiting for more information on the subject. Providing that information is my main goal in writing this book.


I have been doing research and teaching on the health and environmental impacts of nuclear power for the past 17 years and have been constantly dismayed by the vast gulf of misunderstanding by the public. Perhaps the most important misunderstanding is about the dangers of radiation. The public views radiation as something highly mysterious, very complex, and poorly understood. Actually, it is one of the simplest and best understood of all environmental agents, far better understood, for example, than the biological actions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, or any of the other chemical agents discussed inChapter 3. The next chapter represents my effort to clear up the public’s misunderstanding of the hazards of radiation.

Another important misunderstanding is the danger from reactor meltdown accidents. Many people view such an accident as the ultimate disaster, picturing tens of thousands of dead bodies strewn about the landscape, something like what may be expected from a nuclear bomb attack. Actually, it is impossible for a reactor meltdown to cause anything approaching that level of disaster. In fact, deaths among the public from a meltdown accident would be similar to those from the air pollution caused by coal burning. They would be predominantly among the elderly, and only very rarely would they be recognizably connected with the accident. The major difference from the air pollution analogy is that there would be only a tiny fraction as many deaths. For the number of deaths from reactor meltdown accidents to be equal to the number caused by coal-burning air pollution, there would have to be a complete meltdown accident somewhere in the United States every few days! But after more than 30 years of nuclear power, we haven’t even had the first such accident yet.

Chapter 6 explains reactor meltdown accidents, including their potential causes, their estimated effects, and estimates of how often they may be expected. This is followed in Chapter 7 by a description of the Chernobyl accident in the Soviet Union, including a definitive answer to the question: Can such an accident happen here?

The third major misunderstanding results from the failure of the public to quantify risks and put them into perspective with other risks. Chapter 8 represents an effort to lead the reader through this process, allowing the risks of nuclear power to be expressed in terms of extra cigarettes consumed by a regular cigarette smoker, extra weight gained by an overweight person, or driving in a small car rather than a midsize car. We then turn to the question of cost effectiveness of life-saving measures, comparing the number of deaths that are being averted by spending a given amount of money to improve the safety of nuclear reactors and of radioactive waste from the nuclear industry with the number that could be averted by spending that same money on medical screening or highway safety programs, or even on reducing our radiation exposure from radon in homes. The facts leading to the conclusions I draw in Chapter 8 were absolutely astounding to me when I discovered them. Perhaps they will serve as eye-openers to the reader.

The fourth major misunderstanding is of the hazards associated with radioactive waste, which is the subject of Chapters 11 and 12. Much of the public views this as an unsolved problem, with horrible consequences a distinct possibility if it is not solved satisfactorily. Actually, it is a rather trivial technological problem, and it can be shown that the health risks are trivial compared with those due to the waste from burning fossil fuels. Elucidating these matters is the principal agenda of Chapters 11 and 12, but the story involves several side issues that are also covered there.

Even if these four major areas of misunderstanding are cleared up, the public will still not accept nuclear power if the financial cost is too high. As of now, the costs are too high, or at least somewhat higher than the costs of electricity derived from burning coal. This situation has only come to pass recently — until the mid-1980s, nuclear power was cheaper. The reasons for that turnabout are the topics forChapter 9.

The solution to the cost problem is given in Chapter 10, which describes the new generation of nuclear power plants being developed for the 1990s and beyond. They will not only provide electricity at a lower cost than coal-generated electric power, but they will also be a thousand times safer than plants of the present generation. Why this is possible and how it will be done will be described in some detail.

Some other misunderstandings of nuclear energy that have received less attention recently, the hazards of plutonium and the possible role of plutonium from the nuclear industry in making bombs for terrorists or for nations that do not now have nuclear weapons, are the topics of Chapter 13.

But even if all of the misunderstandings are cleared up, some people would still hesitate to accept nuclear power because they prefer solar energy instead. Is that a real option? Or will it become a viable option in the foreseeable future? Is it really as environmentally benign as most people believe it to be? All of these matters are considered in Chapter 14.

Unfortunately, some of the discussions must become rather technical. I have done my best to avoid this without leaving out essential points. Some of the technical details have been relegated to the Appendixes. But, to a large extent, each chapter stands by itself, and in most cases, can be read without having read the previous chapters.

With these preliminaries out of the way, we are ready to begin our discussion of the public’s misunderstandings about nuclear power. We begin with the question “How dangerous is radiation?”

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