Jewish World Review May 2, 2005 / 23 Nissan 5765
Exorcising America's many nuclear demons
Adult Jane spent many of her middle years justifying her own stupid behavior in Vietnam. Ditto American Baby Boomers although their behavior did not usually range to posing for photos with North Vietnamese anti-aircraft guns.
But there is a final Jane-related challenge still confronting the U.S. It is a challenge that Congress is reviewing as it moves forward on energy legislation, and it is one that President Bush will discuss with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at an upcoming summit of the Group of Eight in Scotland.
It is America's "China syndrome."
The China syndrome has nothing to do with China. The name comes from Fonda's 1979 Columbia Pictures film about a massive meltdown at a nuclear power plant, in which a reactor core burns deep into the earth, or "all way to China" (hence the title, "The China Syndrome"). The film featured Fonda with bright red hair and the giant hoop earrings that were popular that year a year when there was a revolution in Iran and the gasoline price soared.
Two weeks after "The China Syndrome" opened in New York theaters, there was a genuine nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, outside Harrisburg, Pa.
Small amounts of radioactivity escaped into the atmosphere. This created, as Fonda puts it, "the most shocking synchronicity between real life catastrophe and movie fiction ever to have occurred." Shares in nuclear power companies plunged. Shares in Columbia Pictures rose. Fonda and her then-husband, the activist Tom Hayden, embarked on a 52-city anti-nuke tour.
The nuclear disaster in Chernobyl in Ukraine that came half a decade later reinforced the prejudice against the industry, even though U.S. standards were far higher than Soviet ones.
The introduction of new plants ceased; the authorities suspended projects under construction. The most spectacular of these suspensions was Long Island's Shoreham nuclear power plant. Lilco, the utility, spent more than $5 billion on the plant, only to see regulators decommission it.
This anti-nuclear attitude seemed affordable as long as other fuels existed. There was always coal. In the past decade, American power companies leapt into the natural gas business. Gas-fired plants were less likely to attract demonstrators.
Investors wanted to avoid a Shoreham repeat hundreds of thousands of hours and billions of dollars committed only to confront failure.
But, as Peter Huber and Mark Millsremind us in their book "The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why we will Never Run out of Energy," (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.) considerably less self-indulgent than Fonda's, the substitution has been outrageously wasteful. It takes four tons of coal to provide the power needs of one inhabitant of Chicago's Lake Shore Drive for a year. A few ounces of uranium could cover the same need.
There is also the damage to the environment. The central hypocrisy of the green movement in our era is that anti-nuclear policy has driven the U.S. to use the hydrocarbon fuels so much opposed by the anti-global warming movement. Or, as Huber puts it: "If we had simply built all the plants that were in the pipeline at the time of Three Mile Island, then we would have reduced current coal combustion sufficiently to satisfy the Kyoto treaty."
Meanwhile, over decades, U.S. nuclear-power plants operated successfully and increasingly efficiently.
The mood is now changing and the energy options open today are far more numerous than in the 1970s or 1980s. Scarcity, once the premise of all energy policy, can now be questioned: New technologies mean that the U.S. may never run out of energy.
As for the China syndrome, the U.S. is beginning to overcome it. Useful changes in the law made over a decade ago mean permits can be granted up front, allowing companies to avoid a Shoreham experience.
Now several consortia are seeking permits for new plants. James Lucier of Prudential Equity Group predicts that a site permit will be issued in the next year.
The Bush administration backs increased use of nuclear energy. The energy bill is likely to provide investment tax credits for new plants. This month Bush argued for the nuclear components of the new legislation. On Friday, Vice President Dick Cheney spoke about getting past the Three Mile Island experience.
But the White House needs to be more aggressive. In coming weeks we will hear a lot about a "nuclear option" in the Senate, the phrase referring to the White House's intent to escalate its procedural war against Democratic filibusters. Let the White House also go "nuclear" on nuclear energy. After all, anti-nuclear romanticism can always come back into fashion.
Hoop earrings have. And, as Fonda proved in her day, vehemence can be very effective.
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JWR contributor Amity Shlaes is a columnist for Financial Times
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The Greedy Hand: How Taxes Drive Americans Crazy and What to Do About It. Send your comments by clicking here.