A common critique of the Right by the Left is that many Republicans, Tea Partiers, and other conservatives or reactionaries deny or distort inconvenient facts and assert convenient fabrications shaped by their ideology to support their political positions. I share in that critique. And I agree with Lawrence O’Donnell, among other commentators of the Left, who repeatedly offers up a quotation attributed to his former employer the late Senator Patrick Moynihan against the Right: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
But everyone is everyone, not just one side or the other. Truth and fairness require that the same may be alleged against the Left, though less often. On one subject in particular, many on the Left have been crazed and given to serial lying and incessant fear-mongering for decades. That subject is nuclear power, and Rachel Maddow is as dishonest, though with greater subtlety, on this subject as Wayne LaPierre is dishonest about guns.
I once opposed nuclear power; I now support it; so I know well the arguments on both sides of the issue. My first large and long-term consulting project involved a multi-volume Department of Energy (DOE) study about nuclear proliferation through abuse of civilian nuclear fuel-cycle systems. At the end, my client asked me what I thought about nuclear power, and I astonished him by answering that I opposed it. My answer did not reflect an abhorrence of nuclear weapons—I later worked on two, high-level, classified studies of the US nuclear weapons program—but about the management of the entire fuel-cycle. In the following decade, several consulting projects at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) gave me no reason to change my position.
Soon thereafter, a DOE client sent me to an unusual conference on nuclear power because it included representatives from industry, environmental groups, universities, and federal and state governments, including regulators. After the second day, with my client disappointed that I had said nothing, my moment arrived as the conference summarized its discussion. My sardonic comment was surprisingly well-received: if the country had tried to design a nuclear power regime to fail, it could not have done better than deploy the one which it had deployed in the previous 35 years.
Over this decade, I changed my position on nuclear power for two reasons. As this conference indicated, the nuclear power regime was applying lessons learned in planning for the future. And, on the basis of later consulting work on almost all other energy fuel-cycles, I developed a matured and balanced understanding of energy and related issues: technical, environmental, health and safety, economic, and political. I now favor most fuel-cycles, some more, some less, than others. Although I acknowledge its problems, I favor nuclear power because I believe that its problems have solutions and that its benefits outweigh its costs, including its risks.
Anti-nuclear zealots believe neither that the problems of nuclear power can be reduced or solved nor that their preferred alternatives have problems of their own. In effect, they deny that energy issues are complex and consequential. Their simplistic and inflexible ideological approach to those issues is no different from that of other parties with uninformed perspectives, limited agendas, or special interests.
My first in-your-face confrontation with the Left in its public campaign against nuclear power occurred while I was unsympathetic to it. An anti-nuke activist whom I had previously met came to my residence—the visit was a surprise to both of us—and handed me a brochure. While he was there, I read the first sentence, which claimed that it takes more energy to build a 1,000-megawatt nuclear power plant than it will generate over its lifetime (nominally at least 30 years). When I challenged him on this point, he said that he had a report which proved this claim. I requested it, he promised it, but he did not deliver. Of course: there was no such report (not even one on some liar’s blog because the Internet did not then exist). In case you wonder whether the claim could be right, consider that hydroelectric dams require even more energy to build, but no one claims that they produce less energy than their construction required.
Which brings me to Chip Ward’s 5 March 2010 editorial in the Los Angeles Times. Ward, an author of blogs and books opposing nuclear power, decries its expense, mining hazards, carbon footprint, and radioactive waste. None of his concerns is baseless, but all are unreasonable in one way or another.
First, expense. If Ward expressed a bona fide concern about expense, he would not have an issue. For power companies and state regulators would know that nuclear power is not economically feasible for shareholders, utility users, or the economy more generally. But they know to the contrary, and robust nuclear power regimes in other countries testify to their economic viability and responsible deployment.
Second, mining hazards. All mining is dangerous, deep-pit mining, common in Eastern coalmines, especially so. But most uranium mines are surface or shallow-pit mines which present relatively modest safety, health, and environmental problems readily addressed by affordable efforts. How the safety and health hazards of the nuclear-power fuel-cycle compare to similar hazards of other fuel-cycles has not been comprehensively studied. Whether the hazards of the nuclear-power fuel-cycle are larger or smaller than those of other fuel-cycles is unknown, and an assertion that they are worse is simply special pleading.
Third, carbon footprint. The claim that the carbon footprint of constructing nuclear power plants exceeds the avoided carbon footprint of their operation is a lie. Like the bogus claim that the energy to build a plant exceeds the energy generated by it, this claim pretends that the fossil-fuel exhausts from construction vehicles, equipment, and tools used to build a nuclear-power plant exceed the fossil-fuel emissions avoided by the power which it generates. Carbon pollution comes in many forms; the breath exhaled in lies uttered by environmentalists is one of them.
Fourth, radioactive waste. America has failed to solve its radioactive waste problem for political, not technical, reasons because many Americans, out of ignorance or fear, associate uranium and plutonium radioactivity in waste with nuclear weapons. Few know that, by law, the country keeps its civilian and military nuclear programs totally separate; many believe that nuclear power plants can explode like nuclear bombs. So opponents of nuclear power imply a connection between spent fuel and weapons to perpetuate a sense of an ominous and impending threat. Wayne LaPierre has nothing on them when it comes to representing an implausible fear as a clear and present danger.
Just recently, I received an anti-nuke article from a local Leftist. Among many hypothetical and alarmist claims about the purported dangers of New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), one is that “there are enough plutonium isotopes in any one load [of transuranic waste from military production reactors] to make a fair “dirty bomb” should someone desire that.” I do not have a kind word to say about plutonium, but it is not a simple matter of someone sitting around and desiring to make a bomb. Though a load of waste may contain enough of plutonium to make a bomb, it mixes forms of plutonium both suitable and unsuitable for a nuclear weapon. So it is a long, hard, dangerous way from accessing buried and encapsulated waste containing mixed forms of plutonium to separating them to fabricating weapons-grade plutonium powder into plutonium metal to shaping it for a weapon. But the writer and those who circulate his writings are talking about radioactive waste in the same hysterical or dishonest way some people talk about “tyrannical government.”
Special pleading and scare talk are no more attractive, persuasive, or reasonable on the Left than on the Right. This debased rhetoric arises to promote ideology-based, emotion-driven suspicions of big government and, when linked with it, big business. Ironically, at the extremes of the political spectrum, Far Left meets Far Right in distrust of the federal government and, in those outer precincts of anti-government thought and feeling, a distrust of democracy.