Field of Science

Top 5 reasons why intelligent liberals don’t like nuclear energy

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.


  1. As an Organic chemist I demand the world stop using carbon-based fuel sources!!!!!! Time to go totally metallic!!!!

    I'm going to start an organization called S.O.O.C.E.M.P..

    Stop Oxidizing Our Carbon for Electricity and Mechanical Propulsion!!!!!!

    Seriously though, even as a right-wing nut, I must admit France is right on this one. Nuclear is the way to go. Science wins this one over my ultra-conservative, far right wing ideology.

  2. Thanks for your excellent article. I think your analysis is sound---certainly it explains what we see around us. Also, thanks for the book recommendations. If you don't mind, I could also recommend a book I have from the public library, A Serious But Not Ponderous Book about Nuclear Energy by Walter Scheider. He doesn't discuss the politics or the pros and cons, just the physics; but he explains it in terms people with ordinary educations can understand. He includes a detailed chronology of the Three Mile Island accident.

    Patrick Moore, the Greenpeace founder who now works for a pro-nuclear lobby, contends that environmentalism has changed and now is driven by ideological aims instead of scientific. He knows more than I do, but from this end it seems as though there are two branches of environmentalism. One branch is studying environmental systems for understanding so as to protect them better. I think that generally this branch favors nuclear energy, or at least doesn't adamantly oppose it. The other branch seeks to drive the world toward particular economic constraints; as I read the supporters' literature I get the impression they attempt to use science, or something with a scientific appearance, in pursuit of their political objectives. To them nuclear energy is the enemy which must be vanquished at all cost.

    The split in the public media is different. People who work in the media tend to be uneducated about science, so their views about nuclear energy are based more on ideology than science. I think the split may be more important to journalists than it is to private citizens. As I talk to people, the impression I get is that most of them are open to nuclear energy and are aware that the news media haven't done a good job of covering the subject.

    This little ramble should close by saying that your article is contributing much by pointing us readers in the direction of good information.

  3. chemgeek: You seem to be one reasonable and intelligent ultra right wing conservative ;)

    craig: thanks for the appreciation and for the book references. you have an excellent blog too. i have linked to it. it's nice that you have talked about bernard cohen's work.
    you are right about there being a very dogmatic environmental faction as well as a relatively reasonable one. unfortunately the dogmatic faction is lent great voice by people like caldicott whom i just don't understand anymore. how can she be so unscientific? you are also right about people in the media usually being scientifically uneducated. the main problem often seems to be that they do understand that media viewpoints are biased, but don't know exactly where to get more information. i would be happy if blogs such as ours can make even a minor contribution.
    by the way, my main blog for nuclear matters is actually but i usually cross post articles here too.

  4. You make some really good points, and I think you've hit it dead on. A lot of people are misinformed and frightened. (For my part as a superliberal treehugger, I'm pro-nuclear energy...cautiously.)
    Red Craig is definitely right about the split in environmentalists! An alarmingly large number of them seem to think that all chemicals, everywhere, are horrible evil things. Superstition abounds in this crowd. Then there are those of us with more of a scientific slant...who understand what the real risks are and don't get as paranoid.
    (and I really hope you're using "liberal" as an adjective and not as an invective)

  5. Very nice. You've just given 5 reasons why the term 'intelligent liberal' is an oxymoron. Thanks.

  6. BTW, I just want to make it clear that I exaggerated my political leanings (significantly) for effect. and perhaps a cheap laugh? When has an ultraconservative, far right-wing nut job ever agreed with France or Science?

    Anyways... Red Craig makes a very good point in that your post has great value in pointing the reader to information and is not a hollow rant.

  7. Thanks for the link, Ashutosh. I'm pleased to return the compliment.

  8. psi*: As chemists, I am sure we understand the irrational reactions many environmentalists have against nuclear energy, or against the chemical industry for that matter as you said. the problem is that the much-touted renewables are not going to solve the problem. also, you must have noticed how the media calls almost everything "chemicals" without discussing the diverse nature of the specific compounds involved, many of which are quite harmless.

    chemgeek: correct. and i doubt if ultra right conservatives regularly read my blog!

    anon: that's a little harsh! i should have probably just said "intelligent" people. but i usually was under the impression that liberals (emphatically not the extreme-left "liberals") are usually more open to discussion and objectivity than right wingers. however, there seems to be a split among the liberals themselves in this country, with most left wingers also calling themselves liberals, which i don't think they exactly are.

  9. I agree with most every point you name in your article, as the facts that you write about in regards to Nuclear Power are pretty much right on. However, I am curious why you don't use the same intellectual honesty and fact based thought process when it comes to global warming. I noticed you wrote, "stupidly against global warming". It is not logical to say someone is against global warming, the earth heats up and cools down by many natural phenomenom, such as during the winter and summer months in the North, as well as thoughout history there have been ice ages, and global warming. I think what you must be referring to is that some disagree that the cause of the recent warming is mad made or by natural weather cycles of our planet. I will not try to persuade you on this topic, but I encourage you to do some more research and keep an open mind and you might be surprised with what you find.

  10. Global warming certainly is cause for concern especially if you don't want an enviromental crisis to end humanities potential progress I am saddened to read these thoughtless articles advocating the use of nuclear power when it is obviously so dangerous and you cannot build a plant that is indestructible there will always be flaws, as in the case of the "unsinkable" Titanic. How can we not learn from history? The people of Russia are still recovering from the Chernobyl disaster and there have been leaks in Canada too eg. the Chalk River nuclear facility in November of last year. Very high occurrences of illnesses such as cancer for the residents surrounding a nuclear plant are well documented. Why are you trying to argue the case for nuclear power, is it the latest fad in a time full of environmentally unfriendly trends, are you trying to be "unique" by advocating something that would not usually be advocated by any sane member of society? What ever the reason I think it is very important to do your research before making false claims, usually made by people who have never visited a nuclear site or done the appropriate environmental research in their lives so I hope you will change your minds. By the way , there is nothing "breezy" about nuclear power and no one would write a title like that unless they were a power crazed and controlling individual.

    1. Arging against nuclear power based on Chernobyl is like arguing against avaition because a Ford Tri-Motor crashed and we want to build 747's.

      There are reactor designs that are light-years ahead of anicient 1950's Soviet graphite-moderated reactor designs like Chernobyl and Chalk River too would be comparable to a DC-3.

  11. Paul: I have should have been more clear about the "stupidity" regarding global warming. I am not referring to those who argue about various details; I won't call them stupid. As you indicated, I am referring to those who simply deny that it is man-made, or that man has engaged in enough activity to seriously change the climate. Inhofe quite decidedly is in the second category. I don't hesitate calling him stupid.

    Green: I have done my research. I would like to see yours which indicates that nuclear reactors have claimed an unusually high number of human lives. Even assuming that a reactor is not an entirely safe entity, would you mind telling me how reactor safety and lives lost because of reactor meltdowns compare to lives lost from coal pollution and automobile accidents? Also, you probably really need to do research if you think that Chernobyl (an anomaly that can be easily avoided) and Chalk River (an incident that was nowhere as bad as Chernobyl) are representative of everything that can go wrong with nuclear reactors. These two incidents compare extremely favorably against the overall record of nuclear power plants. Chernobyl was very bad, no doubt about it, but think of the dozens of chemical industries polluting the air and water. As they say, one sparrow does not make a bird.

    Instead of accusing me of not doing research, you need to come back with some of your own that clearly indicates that nuclear reactors are dangerous and have led to a great loss of life.

  12. As a pro-nuclear liberal, I agree with this article.

  13. Disagree. Title should be more like "Top 5 reasons why ignorant liberals don’t like nuclear energy"
    Intelligent liberals are 100% for nuclear (intelligent people enjoy science, or like myself have a bachelors in science).
    From a political standpoint it may have dissuaded us from invading the middle east multiple times, and it is the only practical way (smart liberals know wind/solar energy are only good for remote locations) we can stop the all too powerful oil companies from destroying the atmosphere/oceans. (BP GULF SPILL)


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS