After Fukushima, What about Nuclear Power?

104 nuclear power plants provide about 20 percent of the electric power for the United States. Only coal and natural gas provide larger shares. Nuclear electric power has been controversial since its introduction more than half a century ago. Public concern and scrutiny has grown since March 2011, when an earthquake and tsunami crippled several reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi site on Japan’s east coast.

Most of the points of contention around the use of nuclear power can be grouped under one of several headings:

  • Economics
  • Energy Independence and Climate Change
  • The Fuel Cycle, Reprocessing, and Waste
  • Diversion, Terrorism, and Weapons Proliferation
  • Environmental Impacts during Routine Operation
  • Mishaps and Natural Disasters: Vulnerability and Mitigation

When and Where? – The year’s first JMuse Café event is Wednesday evening, October 19 from 7:00 until 8:30 PM in the Flex Space of the East Campus Library. Come and join other members of the campus community for a lively exchange on the issues surrounding nuclear power.  Refreshments will be served.  Because space is limited, reservations are required.

Guest Speakers’ Abstract

Note: Two guest speakers started the October 19 JMuse Cafe program: Dr. Steve Whisnant (JMU Physics and Astronomy) and Dr. Kevin Borg (History). Dr. Borg has provided the following abstract and references.

The point of this brief provocation is to point out the political ramifications of adopting nuclear power.  Drawing on arguments made by Lewis Mumford and Langdon Winner, we must acknowledge that nuclear power is an inherently political technology.  That is, to embrace nuclear power (or weapons), is to also embrace strong and centralized political power, both in order to make it “work” and to ensure our own safety.  This runs counter to the current political climate in the U.S. of anti-government rhetoric and budget cutting, so I ask if this is where Americans, and the world, are ready to go—and to remain far into the future.  Also, combining Ulrich Beck’s notion of a “risk society” with Charles Perrow’s theory of “normal accidents” in highly complex systems, we must consider that nuclear power (like the excessive burning of fossil fuels) introduces a historically new scale of risk in human affairs, one that perhaps transcends our current, regionally-based political institutions’ ability to adequately address or resolve.  I urge those present to consider more than the economics or technical feasibility of nuclear power.  Merely technical or economic viability matters little if you have inadequate or unstable political structures or if you desire to have decentralized political power.  Nuclear power technology is inherently inflexible in terms of the political environment within which it will work safely.  And, if human history shows us anything, it is that political structures are not fixed and stable.  The end of history has not arrived.  In the 1970s the US allowed the sale of a nuclear power reactor to the Shah of Iran.  Look at Iran now.

Here are a few of sources on the broader consideration of political structures, nuclear power, and risk:

Langdon Winner, “Do Artifacts have Politics?” Daedalus v. 109 (Winter 1980)

Langdon Winner, The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in the Age of High Technology (University of Chicago Press, 1989)

Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (Sage, 1992)

Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies (Princeton, 1999)

Lewis Mumford, “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics,” Technology and Culture v. 5 (Winter 1964).

On the centrality of WWII, the Manhattan Project, and the ensuing Cold War to the economic and political environment that fostered nuclear power generation—that transformed nuclear technology into what we think of today, rather than the glow-in-the-dark watch dials and x-rays we saw before the war—see:

M. Joshua Silverman, “Nuclear Technology” in Carroll Pursell, ed., A Companion to American Technology (Blackwell 2005).

Carroll Pursell, Technology in Postwar America (Columbia University Press, 2007)

Thomas Hughes, American Genesis: A Century of Technological Enthusiasm, 1870-1970 (Penguin, 1989). See especially chapter 8.