Wednesday, February 07, 2007

China Syndrome vs Global Warming

ChinaSyndrome5Say what you want about celebrity activists, they do have an impact on public opinion, especially when concurrent events reinforce their message. These days, aside from the always-popular anti-war activism, the trendy issue is clearly global warming, and that is where the movers and shakers among the trendy beautiful people are to be found.

But a generation ago, in the late 1970s, the computer models that predict global warming hadn't been writter yet and other pressing issues lay heavy on the public mind. Actually, quite a few people were worried back then about global cooling caused by particulate pollution in the atmospherere. When combined with the then-also-trendy worries about nuclear weapons you got Nuclear Winter -- a particularly alarming scenario that, as I recall came in second in a poll of issues that the public rated as "most worrisome." To keep this fact in perspective it helps to note that the number one concern was genetal herpes (and, yes, come to think of it that poll might have been taken on college campuses.)

Jane Fonda, one of the most prominent celebrity activists of that era, was looking for a new issue. Her famous and infamous career as an anti-war activist was winding down. The Vietnam war had been over for several years and she was looking for new opportunities. She found her opening in a chance to play a reporter who witnesses an accident at a nuclear plant in Colubmia Picture's film, The China Syndrome. According to a rather nice short history of the film that a Google Search turned up in the University of San Diego History Department, Fonda was attracted to the part because she was interested in doing a film on anti-nuclear activist Karen Silkwood (a role that later went to Meryl Streep). Fonda replaced Richard Dreyfuss in the China Syndrome, who had been cast but had subsequently priced himself out of the role.

The China Syndrome was released on March 17th, 1979 and eleven days later the number two reactor at Three Mile Island had a catestrophic cooling failure, leading to the meltdown of part of the core (see the Wikipedia entry). This came at a time when the US nuclear power industry was slacking off slightly from its peak a few years earlier because of concerns about the rising costs of Uranium fuel. The combination of the publicity for the film -- which had raised public concern about the risks of nuclear power -- and the accident at Three Mile Island, was a perfect storm of bad PR for the US nuclear industry -- a disaster from which the industry still has not recovered. No nuclear plants ordered after the release of The China Syndrome were ever finished. A few projects that were already in the pipeline were completed and commisioned but others were abandoned.

It is difficult to say for sure how much of the impact of Three Mile Island on the nuclear industry can be attributed to the multiplier effect of The China Syndrome. My opinion is that most of the damage to the industry could have been avoided. Without the heightened public concern about nuclear power, the incident could probably have been portrayed as a steam explosion that was successfully contained with no injuries and a minimal release of radiation, mostly in the form of short-lived and quickly dispersed isotopes of noble gasses. The reactor itself was irrecoverably damaged but a whole industry cannot be destroyed by the breakdown of a single machine.

What destroyed the nuclear power construction industry for over a generation in this country was the expense of building and operating a nuclear plant in the post-Three Mile Island environment. Exaggerated public concerns about the safety of nuclear plants allowed the anti-nuclear groups to dictate the regulatory environment in which the nuclear industry operated. The costs of construction doubled and tripled. The compliance costs skyrocketed. Because of these new expenses, nuclear power became expensive compared to generating power from fossil fuels -- a fact that anti-nuclear groups delighted in stressing (while generally omitting their own role in creating the expense). I think much of that increase in expense can fairly be attributed to The China Syndrome. Arguably, hundreds of fossil fuel powered electric plants built in the US in the last quarter century would have been nuclear plants if not for the film.

France gets 80 percent of their electric power from nuclear sources, the US only gets 20 percent. It's not reasonable to expect that, if not for the irrational anti-nuclear policies of the last quarter-century we would be at 80 percent like France. (France is a fossil-fuel poor country.) So, for sake of argument we can split the difference and assume that anti-nuke hysteria explains half the difference. By that reasoning we can thank The China Syndrome for the fact that only 20 percent of our electricity comes from nuclear power, instead of 50 percent.

Let's do a little math. Electrical power plants in the US emit something like 500 million tons of carbon into the air as CO2 each year. None of that carbon comes from the 20 percent that is currently nuclear so 500 million tons divided by 80 percent non-nuclear gives us 6.25 million tons of carbon to generate one percent of the power we use in the US. If we assume that we would be generating an additional 30 percent from nuclear power then we would emit 187.5 fewer millions of tons of carbon each year. It has been 28 years since The China Syndrome/Three Mile Island so we can approximate the cumulative effect by multiplying the yearly emission difference by 28 and then dividing by two. That way we assign one twenty-eighth of the yearly emissions in the first year, two twenty-eighths in the second year, and so forth. So let's see... 187.5 million tons times 28 years is 5.25 billion tons divided by two to allow for our approximation of linear growth gives us 2.625 billion tons of carbon. Assuming each ton is 2000 pounds and bearing in mind that each pound of carbon combines with 2.7 pounds of oxygen to form CO2, we get, lets see... 2.625 billion tons of carbon is 5.25 trillion pounds of carbon -- which is enough to make 19.425 trillion pounds of CO2. Since we are approximating here lets round that to twenty trillion pounds. That's 20,000,000,000,000 lbs of CO2.

So what was the damage done by the accident at Three Mile Island? The number two reactor was damaged beyond repair. Enough radioactivity was released to equal a chest X-ray or two for the operators of the plant. And, thanks to the tireless efforts of Jane Fonda, twenty trillion pounds of extra CO2 were released into the atmosphere over the next twenty eight years.

Way to go, Jane! Who says that celebrity activists never have a real effect!

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