This is based on my own experiences. I am sure there are several reasons and some of those reasons are commonly known. But I have still always been surprised and intrigued by why members of the liberal intelligentsia display a consistent aversion to nuclear energy. Here is my own list based on my personal interactions with reasonable and intelligent people who argue against nuclear power.
1. Ignorance: This simple reason remains pervasive. I am not trying to sound preachy or elitist here but reading two or three books would greatly benefit people who have a gut reaction against nuclear energy. The whole set of misconceptions about any kind of radiation being harmful, about nuclear plants releasing large amounts of radiation (when in reality they release fractions of what everyone naturally gets from the environment), about nuclear waste being a hideously convoluted and insoluble problem (the problem is largely political, not technical) can be dispelled by reading some basic books on radiation and nuclear energy. The most important revelation in this context is how, in our daily lives, we face risks that are hundreds of times greater than those from nuclear energy (transportation, air pollution etc.) without getting nonplussed.
There are of course many books for understanding such concepts, but for a general overview, I would recommend Richard Rhodes's article in Foreign Affairs and his book Nuclear Renewal, Samuel Glasstone's timeless classic Sourcebook on Atomic Energy for basics, and Gwyneth Cravens's very informative book which I am currently reading. Another informal, breezy and excellent treatment is Scott Heaberlin's A Case for Nuclear-Generated Electricity: (Or Why I Think Nuclear Power Is Cool and Why It Is Important That You Think So Too). For those who are ok with a little heavier dose of science, I would strongly recommend David Bodansky's Nuclear Energy.
2. Bad connections: There are two bad connections which many liberals automatically make, both of which are unjustified and contribute to their dislike of nuclear power. One is the connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Again, knowing the basics about how different weapons are from reactors can contribute to mitigating this misunderstanding. Somewhere, I think there is also this connection between nuclear power and nuclear proliferation. While there is some truth to this, the fundamental thing to be understood is that every power source carries some risks, and the danger from nuclear proliferation mainly exists because of human stupidity and its manifestations, not because of some inherent problem with nuclear energy. The thrust should be at maintaining an international system that safeguards nuclear material from being used for weapons, not to ban the material itself. And even with the proliferation risks, the benefits of nuclear power far outweigh the risks.
Another bad connection is between environmentalism and boycott of nuclear power. Environmentalists are mainly responsible for reinforcing this connection, with their decades-long opposition to nuclear energy, which started with some reasonable premises, but then mainly descended into irrational, uninformed and exaggerated polemic. Helen Caldicott, whose opposition to nuclear weapons is commendable, is a prime example of peacemongers gone awry. Her latest book warps and misrepresents facts grossly in some cases and demonstrates simple ignorance of matters, not to mention cherry picking. One expected better from such people whose original intentions were honorable. Liberals need to know that nuclear power is completely compatible, if not especially so, with environmentalism. It releases very little greenhouse gases and is a model for power efficiency.
3. Waste: A point again related to 1. Many people think that this is the single greatest threat from nuclear power, that we will all be inhabiting vast atomic wastelands if we allow nuclear power to flourish. Again, read some books! It's not a trivial issue, but mostly a political issue that's also related to inefficiency and increased proliferation threats from burying valuable plutonium-containing nuclear waste.
4. Damn dem Republicans: There is actually a third connection- that between nuclear weapons and right wing belligerent political leaders, mostly Republican. If the erroneous connection between power and weapons is made, then it is not too difficult to perceive a connection between power and right wing fanaticism. It does not help that some leaders such as Republican Senator James Inhofe who is vehemently and stupidly against global warming, are also pro-nuclear power. The only way to stop oneself from treading this false path is to be reminded that this is not a political issue. Just because some environmentalists oppose nuclear power does not make it flawed, nor does Inhofe's support make it promising. The merit of nuclear power lies in science, and thus bows to no political or partisan mongering, and especially not to hacks like Inhofe.
5. Fear of the unknown: Again related to 1. above. I was at a climate change dinner and happened to have an amiable journalist covering the event sitting at my table. We got into discussing the merits and problems with nuclear power and what she said still simply captures the sentiments of many reasonable and intelligent but anti-nuclear people. She said "I am just afraid of something I cannot see". Well, if there's one thing that distinguishes man from other species, it is his ability to uncover nature's secrets and appraise and harness them, especially the ones that cannot be seen. Man's great capacity to face unknown challenges, understand them and use them to his benefits underpins much of our technological prowess. We cannot see x-rays, yet have no problem having x-ray scans (ironically something that delivers a greater dose of radiation than nuclear power plants). Only increased and better dissemination of knowledge about nuclear energy can dispel such doubts of the unknown, something which we should be proud of doing in the past.
The simple fact that a piece of uranium the tip of your finger can deliver as much energy as almost 2000 pounds of coal should be evidence of man's astounding achievement in wresting nature's essential source of energy from her. In the discovery of nuclear power we have done the unimaginable. We have brought the sun and the stars to our world. Extinguishing their flames will be conduct unbecoming of our vast and unique place in the universe, and a very great tragedy.
Gotta get one of these! Starry, starry bike path
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