It is now 30 years since the No Nukes Concert, held on September 23, 1979 in Madison Square Garden. That event, held in the shadow of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, was a call to arms against nuclear energy, and featured such musical luminaries as Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, Crosby Stills and Nash and the Doobie Brothers.
The accident, which had occured a six months earlier, involved a partial core meltdown of a nuclear generating station in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, near Harrisberg. It was the most significant accident in the history of the American commercial nuclear power generating industry and was further illuminated by the Jane Fonda/ Michael Douglas movie The China Syndrome, an American thriller that revealed safety coverups at a fictional nuclear power plant in North Carolina. The film was released only 12 days before the actual incident at Three Mile Island and jump started a national alarmist movement to combat the proliferation of nuclear energy.
Not many people, however, remember the aftermath of that incident. The reactor was quickly brought under control and an extensive investigation by the Kemeny Commission Report concluded that ” there was no case of cancer detected or the number of cases will be so small that it will never be possible to detect them. “
Several epidemiological studies in the years since the accident have supported the conclusion that radiation releases from the accident have had no perceptible effect on cancer incidence in residents near the plant.
But none of this would affect the No Nukes campaign and its determination to impede the proliferation of nuclear energy in the United States.
Reading the liner notes from the No Nukes album, released in November of that year, we can obtain an appreciation of how certain were these latter day Chicken Littles that nuclear energy was going to hasten the end of the world. Jesse Colin Young comments:
“I’m afraid we’ll live to see a terrorist atrtack on a nuclear facility in our lifetime.”
And Jackson Browne:
” We have these multinational corporations that control the energy telling us that we have to become self- sufficient. They’re not talking about people. What they’re talking about is protecting their profits. I guess I think of the corporate mentality as the enemy. These people have to be called the enemy, because whether of not they are consciously trying to kill us , they threaten our very existence and they threaten the life of this planet.”
And John Hall:
“The energy situation presents us simulateneously with a deadly threat and the promise for a near Utopian solution. Its clear the alternatives to nuclear energy are so plentiful and promising that we are by no means released to the ” last resort.”
Graham Nash adds this slice of ineluctable pop star wisdom:
” The cartels and multinationals and the oil companies have billions of dollars invested in the nuclear program and they’re not about to come off it. The only thing we can defeat them with is the truth. ”
The “truth” – or at least these rocks stars’ version of it, won. The nuclear energy industry was stopped in its tracks and after 1980 no further federal licenses were granted for the construction of new nuclear facilities in the United States.
But that didn’t stop the existing nucelar facilities from operating and continuing to produce clean and efficient energy for Americans. So much so that by 1990 America’s 110 nuclear power plants set a record for the amount of electricity generated, surpassing all fuel sources combined in 1956 – which is when the first nuclear power plant had been built.
A great deal has changed since 1980. Computer technology, which had barely penetrated the nuclear industry in the 1970s, has developed to such an extent that no event as occured at Three Mile Island could possibly occur today given the extensive monitoring capabilities of networked security systems.
The problems associated with nuclear waste have also almost been eliminated by reprocessing technologies developed by the nuclear industry. According to William Tucker in this Wall Street Journal article reprocessing reduces the volume of spent fuel—already remarkably small—by 97%. “The French,” Tucker explains, “ reprocess and store all their high-level waste from 30 years of producing 70% of their electricity beneath the floor of one room in their La Hague plant.”
The fears of a successful terrorist attack on a nucelar reactor, similar to the ones of 9/11, have also been put to rest. Consistent studies have shown that a jetliner crashing into a reinforced concrete wall at 700 mph would have almost no affect on the wall, but would certainly cause the jetliner to disintegrate upon impact. It has to be remmbered that the 9/11 attacks were launched against buildings whose exteriors were 90% glass and not against bunkers whose outer shell is composed of tens of feet of reinforced concrete.
In addition, wind and solar power, as the No Nukes folks once argued, can simply not compete with nuclear energy for sheer economy, efficiency and environmental protection. To match the power produced by one reactor at a cost of $6 billion to $8 billion, we would need a wind farm spanning 200,000 acres and as much as $12 billion in investment capital, plus natural gas-fired plants to back up wind turbines that are idle the majority of the time.
Imagine the CO2 that would spew into the environment from such an installation.
Today, nuclear reactors produce more than 70% of the carbon-free electricity in the country. According to Patrick Moore in this Los Angeles Times article,
” California would have to remove more than half a million passenger cars from its roads to eliminate the amount of carbon dioxide prevented by the state’s four nuclear reactors.”
It is any wonder then that President Barack Obama last week, apparently freeing himself and the country from the No Nukes headlock, could announce that the federal government would guarantee loans for two advanced-design nuclear plants in Georgia and that many more are on the way.
Still, the No Nukes lobby rolls on. An example is this argument from Chip Ward, a founder of Heal Utah and author of the anti -Yucca Mountain nuclear dump polemic Canaries on the Rim:
“Nuclear power generates a radioactive waste stream from hell that will threaten even our grandchildren’s grandchildren. We still have no repository for the waste and no plan to dispose of it. It also costs 30% to 35% more than power produced from coal or natural gas plants. Delays and cost overruns are common in nuclear plant production. ”
Time and time again in reading through these objections, you find 1970s arguments applied to 21st Century conditions. They take almost no account of the advances in monitoring capacties, waste removal, reprocessing technologies or the increasing economic benefits of nuclear energy. After a while you get the feeling that the real objection is not to nuclear energy at all but rather to the perceived ” cartels and multinational corporations” who stand behind it. With corporations as the designated “enemy”, there will be nothing to convince the likes of Jackson Browne, Graham Nash, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Sierra Club or Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen that anything the nuclear industry suggests, proposes or offers will be of benefit to Americans.
Fortunately their influence is fast waning and a new era, providing Americans with safe, clean and economically efficient nuclear energy is moving towards us after thirty years of false alarms and overblown fears.