Dr; Scott and Peter, I completely agree that the waste issue is important, very. It is, however, complex and cannot be handled responsibly without addressing not only the science, but also security issues and the public's perceptions. As Feynman might argue, it requires addressing the issues completely, not just with a summary overview. That, however, makes a much longer piece than is appropriate for this forum. There is a major study looking at all industrial toxic waste problems that hopefully will be out before the end of next year. Meantime, it's worth looking at the mining, refining, and decommissioning waste associated with just solar panels.

Expand full comment

It makes it impossible to credit this writer's position that he so totally ignores the biggest political and environmental issue which has interfered with the development of nuclear power for decades: disposal of its toxic waste. We are still storing it on-site, a dangerously unstable non-solution. No state is willing to allow disposal within its borders, nor do any wanted it trucked on its roads (let alone flown overhead). This issue has raised enormous emotion, which has only receded because the very real issue on the ground is being ignored. This essay seems way too much like an industry propaganda piece, complete with straw-men, for me to have confidence in any part of it. I'm embarrassed for Persuasion that you have presented it.

Expand full comment
Dec 29, 2020Liked by W D. Budinger

Thanks for publishing this. The way that nuclear energy inspires fear has always struck me as odd. Sure, there's danger, but if you look at deaths just from inhalation of particulates from coal plants, there's just no comparison.

Even the waste disposal discussions seem to go off the rails. I've read extensive debates about how we're going to warn our descendants in a thousand years to avoid our disposal sites. They're actually really interesting from a linguistics and technological perspective but seem a bit overwrought. There's vastly less attention paid to how we store, say, stuff like organic mercury (which, by the way, is an utterly terrifying compound). There's just something about radiation that really gets people going.

John's and Leslie's points about institutional decay are great, and I have no faith whatsoever in the government or public health to manage any kind of complex disaster. The disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina is probably an even better example than the COVID screwups, because it was localized and did not directly affect the wealthiest and most powerful.

That said, government and institutional incompetence is NOT a reason to avoid nukes. We have oil spills by incompetent companies, chemical releases like Bhopa, dam failures like Vale's. The EPA itself caused a massive toxic spill in 2015 at an abandoned mine due to the same staggering incompetence we see at CDC, FDA, and basically every other government agency. Despite all that, we're not shutting down every mine in the country or every chemical factory or dismantling every dam. So let's soberly analyze the costs of failure---assuming a typical (high) level of governmental and institutional incompetence---and go from there.

I'd trade a Three Mile Island every fifty years and a Chernobyl every century if that meant we could retire fossil fuel electricity production worldwide.

Expand full comment

I basically agree with Budinger's perspective, but feel that his arguments are slightly skewed. While superficially strengthening his case, the advocacy-related slant is liable to reinforce the concerns of anti-nuclear activists. Feldstein's not-unreasonable comment below is an example. While I think Mr. Feldstein overstates the flaws, I agree with his concern about Budinger's "tone."

For example, plutonium is widely used in nuclear weapons, and is produced in nuclear reactors. Indeed contemporary power reactors are not optimal for this purpose, and it's neither easy nor simple to extract bomb-grade plutonium from spent nuclear fuel, but I'd say Budinger's comment about plutonium is misleading. Nuclear reactors were originally designed precisely to produce plutonium, and the main reactor designs now in use reflect that original goal. Also, while I'd say that Budinger's assertions about reactor-related deaths provide a useful antidote to ridiculous alarmist estimates, it is in fact very difficult to determine the underlying facts, and reasonable estimates of nuclear industry-related deaths vary a lot.

On the other hand, while Feldstein is correct in pointing to nuclear waste as a serious problem that must not be ignored, I believe he overstates the problem. The Yucca Mountain underground salt dome was a reasonable solution, thwarted by a combination of irrationally anti-nuclear activists and the fact that Harry Reid, a powerful Senate Majority Leader, represented the views of Nevada citizens in opposing the site. Points to keep in mind in evaluating dangers of waste disposal include a) even though radiation is persistent, it decays over time; b) long before it reaches levels that I would want in my food, the total amount of radioactive flux from the waste becomes less than that from the material mined to produce the fuel in the first place, which was far less sequestered from the public; and c) modern reactor technologies produce far less plutonium and related persistent radioactive elements than do the old-fashioned pressurized water reactors.

Expand full comment

The problem with nuclear power is ... distrust of institutions very generally, specifically, those associated with regulation of technology, including power and chemical plants, to be abstruse about it: the management of complexity at scale very generally. For such enterprises, we put our trust in lawyers, bankers, and other contingent fee hucksters or speculators.

Some of these enterprises are managed by specialized and proficient organizations, especially those with a culture of engineering excellence rather than of financial gamesmanship or personality cults. But, even these, are large organizations -- "too big to fail" compared with the small-scale enterprise of political cronyism.

The most recent example was BP in the Gulf of Mexico -- a notorious bad actor offshore of Galveston. It was a firm with no business even being out there, but -- as "Anglo-Iranian", it was and is a sleazy Cold War relic, nobody can dispose of by political or market means. It is protected by an Anglo-American military, political, and financial establishment. In fact, the Obama administration jettisoned penalties and bent over backwards to protect BP when the Prime Minister intervened with a threat lay-off BP or we exit Afghanistan.

Craven Republicans and Hold Harmless Democrats rely on unwritten rules and gentlemen's agreements to extract, protect, and share monopoly rents from large organizations, even when, especially when, their crony capitalist parasites are revealed to be negligent, criminal, or treasonous.

Our equivalent of "oligarchs" -- legatees of a Cold War academic-military-industrial complex -- operate with economic privilege, legal immunity, and criminal impunity. We have the form of a republican democracy but operate on Federalist-Whig obscurantism that is inconsistent with complex, technical undertakings of any sort.

Expand full comment

Although I share Budinger’s basic views, I agree with Peter Feldstein’s complaint. I would even add that Budinger’s argument leaves out another crucial concern. If a few thousand deaths had been caused across Europe over the next 35 years, it would be statistically undetectable. So when he says “no clear, measurable increase in cancer rates” he is right, but he is being selective in what he reveals.

Feldstein’s point is so important that it was central to one of Richard Feynman’s most famous lectures. (To put Feynman in perspective, think of this sequence: Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, Feynman.) The lesson is central to the topic of persuasion, especially if one hopes to persuade honestly.

Feynman was discussing a kind of fake science that goes through the motions but misses the essence — look up “Cargo Cult” for a fascinating analogy. Budinger is not doing fake science, but this lesson in persuasion still applies.

“There is one feature I notice that is generally missing in Cargo Cult Science. … we never explicitly say what this is, but just hope that you catch on. ... It is interesting, therefore, to speak of it explicitly. It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backward. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked—to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given if you know them. You must do the best you can—if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong—to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it. … In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another."


Expand full comment

Environmentalists appear to be moving away (grudgingly, I grant you) from kneejerk opposition to nuclear. (I used to be antinuke myself.) People are enthusiastic about getting a vaccine--a genetically engineered vaccine, no less. Science is back, baby!

Expand full comment

To those who are worried, nuclear has the lowest mortality rate per KwH:


Expand full comment

You all might like this POD Cast for the MIT Energy Initiative: http://energy.mit.edu/podcast/game-changing-fusion/

Expand full comment

We cannot seriously address climate change without nuclear. That's the main issue. Solar and wind are not enough. Hand wringing about small risks misses the point entirely. We have an epochal crises on our hands and the means to solve it, if irrationalists of Left and Right will get out of the way. Good work Mr. Budinger. Keep it up. It's exactly these type of persuasive efforts that are needed.

Expand full comment

Development of new and safer reactors can only be a good thing. The long halflife of radioactive waste makes it uniquely dangerous and there is no way in sight, to detoxify it. The USA still has no proper plan for storage of the growing amounts of waste produced every day. It is reassuring to read the relatively low number of deaths associated with Chernobyl, at the moment. (Can we rely on the numbers from Russia?) That story has just begun. The exclusion zone will be dangerous for many generations to come and the effects of the disaster will only be fully understood as time passes. I think nuclear power is a little too good to be true. The longterm dangers outweigh the shortterm advantages. I am more optimistic about growing new developments in green energy.

Expand full comment

As our government does not function in transparency with protecting the public as its highest goal, it is difficult to imagine it serving us in something as critical as a nuclear disaster. Lawyers would go into damage control, selective science would be employed, and something as simple as distributing iodine tablets would not happen since that would be dealing realistically with the problem. Consider how we reacted to covid as a case example. Also, the incidence of thyroid disorder clusters near Three Mile Island has been documented in at least one study I am aware of.

Expand full comment

Logic is greater than emotion, but unfortunately many people have it backwards. Perhaps if we start teaching critical thinking we'll turn this around.

Expand full comment