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Effects Of Nuclear Power On American Society Politics Essay

Info: 5573 words (22 pages) Essay
Published: 1st Jan 2015 in Politics

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The issue of nuclear power has always been at the center of attention and public dispute, especially nowadays with the energy crisis and the limited fossil fuels. It is mainly countries within the western system, such as the US, the UK and France that have acquired the technology to support nuclear power. [1] American society and identity have been shaped by a self-portrait of super-power that keeps the order. [2] Nuclear power has been one of the most powerful ‘weapons’ that consolidated American identity and established her as the big power of the world. During the Second World War American power was shown to the world with the testing of the first A-bomb. During the Cold-War era the USA competed with the USSR and Great Britain, as to who had the best and nuclear weapons and plants as part of the deterrence doctrine. [3] 

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Today nuclear energy is spreading and the USA is thought of as its motherland with the largest number of plants in the world. America presents its need for nuclear power with emphasis on the words ‘security’ and ‘economic leadership’: ‘To maintain our economic leadership and strengthen our energy security America must start building nuclear power plants […] Your industry has come a long way during the recent decades and I am confident that greater progress lies ahead. By expanding our use of nuclear power we can make energy supply more reliable, our environment cleaner and our nation more secure for future generations. May God bless you all’. [4] There is a massive debate about how safe production of energy from nuclear power is and if it is worth the financial and environmental cost. Emblematic is the Three Mile Island Plant that was at the same time both a failure and a success story as it recovered from the accident when President Carter visited the station and continues to operate efficiently to the day.

The question this essay poses is: To what extent does nuclear power affect American Identity? In this essay I will set out to look into the ways that nuclear power has affected, and is affecting, American society. How this technological society has accepted its nuclear future and how nuclear power is becoming the new emblem of the ‘New American Dream’ as part of an energy-autonomous and sustained America. . Emblematic is the Three Mile Island Plant that was at the same time both a failure and a success story as it recovered from the accident when President Carter visited the station and continues to operate efficiently to the day with a license extension until 2034. [5] 

Three Mile Island [6] today

Main Body

The “New Energy Regime” and the ‘New American Dream’

The World today suffers from economic, climate and energy crisis. The energy crisis is a major global problem since fossil fuels in general are limited and do not constitute renewable sources, as do solar energy and wind. However, extracting and storing solar and wind energy is not considered very efficient. Therefore nuclear energy, as supported by many scientists is a way to solve this crisis. The research about nuclear power started in the 1940s for military purposes and more specifically for the atomic bomb, which was based on the chemical process, which is called nuclear fission. The first nuclear power station was founded in the 1950s. U.S. power plant performance has steadily improved in the past 20 years. The USA is the ‘performance leader’ among the other countries that produce electricity from nuclear energy. Twelve out of the twenty-five top reactors in the whole world are American. Moreover, especially after the establishment of hydroelectric plants, the cost of production of electrical power with nuclear energy is cheaper than the cost of petrol and CO2. Howeve the cost of construction [7] , investments for security and technology (which are not always reliable) are immense making the actual cost of effective nuclear power a burden for society. [8] Investors consider the high capital costs and the risks of decommissioning cancellations making federal loan guarantees an economically safer option. [9] This means that funding basically comes from tax collection. “For 10 years now, lobbyists favoring a “renaissance” in building new U.S. reactors have been lining up financial help from taxpayers. They need this help because these new reactors are far more expensive than other ways of generating or saving electricity. Consequently, private investors won’t take the risk of losing a lot of money.” [10] [delete?[The question is, if the cost is too high, is it socially beneficial?]]

The basic argument for the “new energy regime”, for this very important shift in energy dependence, is climate change. Focusing on the environmental hazards that oil poses while stressing advantages of nuclear power answers well with the American public and its identity as a clean and progressive society. This was evident with the positive response to the documentary “Inconvenient Truth” that spread ecological consciousness all over the country. Furthermore, taking into consideration that America is a technological society, a society that cannot function without “winning” [11] technology, the combination of clean technological championship makes it self an appealing part of the New American Dream [12] , as David Crane puts it ‘a carbon-free American Dream’ [13] 

Crane: [W]hat I call the “Gore Approach” [is] based on self-denial: Let’s all go back to living without air conditioning and to drying our clothes on the clothes line. There’s another option, though: the “Schwarzenegger Approach.” It’s the American Dream, but it’s the carbon-free American Dream.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What do you mean by that?

Crane: He’s like, I want to drive my Hummer and fly my Gulfstream 4, I just don’t want them to produce any greenhouse gas… I think it’s very difficult to get the American people to engage in self-denial. It’s just not the American way. The American way is based on consumption. You don’t want to change the American way of life, you just want to show them a better way to get there, and nuclear power is a key part of that. The first breakthrough for nuclear power was the connection with global warming.

President Barack Obama’s speech also finds recurring words in American discourse that point the public’s attention to a better life with the right to consumption in an open future of a new world of abundance: ‘To create more of these clean energy jobs we need more production, more efficiency, more incentive. And that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country’ [14] (my italics)

The ‘American way’ then is that of Consumption and along those lines we observe a paradigm shift in the same pattern: from oil to nuclear. With the financial crisis nuclear power seems as a way re-invent the economy and the American Future. It is not only environmental concern but a need of energy-independence and the self-sustainability given by autonomy so as not to be dependent on other countries for energy provision: “The road to global security lies in lessening our dependence on Middle East oil and making sure that all people on Earth have access to the energy they need to sustain life.” [15] This passage among others reflects the ‘new product’ within American society that will provide for all the basic luxuries of the American home through nuclear powered electricity and that will in turn be sold on to the rest of the world. [[Moreover, nuclear power holds a key to national safety by threats from the East which lead American opinion into feeling safer knowing that the country holds the leading nuclear power in the world.]]

Environment, Health and Hazards

Among the advantages of nuclear energy is that it has much less organic gas emissions than carbon. As far as pollution is concerned, air pollution in the case of the nuclear reactor is minute as opposed to oil and CO2, while nuclear waste takes up much less volume. Nuclear stations however show high thermal pollution especially in the summer season when demand is higher and droughts challenge the capacity. [16] There is the risk of radioactive pollution in the case of an accident or leak, not to mention that most plants are situated on rivers for cooling purposes. Not much has been said about the dangers connected to water contamination and its flow into inhabited areas. Nuclear energy might be more friendly to the environment however it is “certainly not green”, as mentioned by scientist and writer Conrad Miller, MD [17] . Radioactive waste, which is a product of the nuclear process, is dangerous to humans, animals and plants. [18] According to Miller “If you stand three feet away [from radioactive waste] for ten seconds it will kill you.” [19] One very important fact is that the harm of radioactive waste can last from 240,000 to 480,000 years. [20] Research has shown that such waste is a cause of many types of cancer and also genetic paramorphosis due to the emitted radiation. In fact babies located near plants have been found to have strontium-90 contaminant in their teeth. [21] 

Waste disposal is of the major problems that advocates of nuclear energy have to face since there is no actual solution at the moment. The Yucca Mountain that is currently used for waste is a problematic area and most of the plants keep waste on site. [22] 

The possibility of an accident is another danger posed by the use of nuclear energy. A possible ‘meltdown’ could be caused by faults in the reactors or of course by a simple human error. Moreover, if the control rods happen not to function perfectly, then we will be faced with an uncontrollable chain reaction; namely a nuclear bomb. This was the case with the well-known Chernobyl incident. [23] 

American discourse stresses the limitations in security and maintenance of the Chernobyl Power Plant, implying the advantages of American high security and the notion that such accidents could not occur. However, accidents did occur, four of which took place in the U.S. [24] One of these incidents took place in March 1979 at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, which is near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania [25] . It has been characterised as ‘the worst nuclear accident in American history’ according to the documentary “Meltdown at Three Mile Island (1999). [26] Problems in the function of the cooling system caused automatically an immediate shut down of the reactor. [27] Consequently, there arose a ‘public relations crisis’ [28] . Finally after numerous actions the temperature dropped stabilizing the core. Great contradiction characterizes this incident, as there was the question of political image at stake. Washington D.C could not decide whether to evacuate or not. The public grew anxious with the limited evacuation that was ordered and the contradictory suggestions by the scientists. President Jimmy Carter was invited to the site six days after the incident to cool down public opinion and agitation, ‘marking the end of the crisis’, despite the fact that radioactive water rested on the floor of the facility. The core meltdown was denied it ever happened. However, in 1982 a camera was placed inside the core that showed severe damage, with 50% of the core having been melted down. It turns out that 20 tons of melted uranium reached the pressure vessel making it a ‘core meltdown, no question about it.’ [29] 

The book written in 1982 by Philip L. Cantelon and Robert C. Williams about the incident, entitled Crisis Contained, The Department of Energy at Three Mile Island, is the official history of the Department of Energy’s role during the accident. The book among other things says that there were no city-evacuation plans and if there were, they were soon abandoned. It is claimed that there was no evacuation but a weekend exodus based “on what government officials and the media imagined might happen. On Friday confused communications created the politics of fear.” [30] The insistence to disprove any evacuation plans shows that primary concerns are public relations rather than extreme precaution with whatever the cost on the image. We can therefore see how nuclear plants have become a signifier of American advance and images of infallibility.

In February 1st, 2010 the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant suffered an accident when underground pipes deteriorated causing a leak of radioactive tritium into the groundwater supplies. [31] [change source?]This made drinking water poisonous for use, thus affecting all living organisms in the area. The Vermont Yankee officials claimed that tritium did not reach the water. The cleanup was still in progress when another leak was found of a more potent radioactive isotope, strontium-90, linked to causes of cancer. [32] On the 29th of May, contaminated water was found (containing 13 different radioactive substances) coming from a pipe near the hole that was dug to clear up the initial leak.

[delete?[The ‘Entergy Nuclear’ officials had given ‘misleading information’ about the existence of underground pipes that were indeed the cause of the leak and contamination of the area. [33] This shows how power plants are not as safe or highly preserved as the government wants to emphasize, while the officials go out of their way to ‘mislead’ and misinform. In addition to the health and environmental hazard the repeated leaks and the cleanup cost 10 million dollars, which the government pays as guarantee of the government-industry partnership and for which it taxes the citizens. Although Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant had been given permission for extension in operation for 20 years after 2012 after the incident a resolution was passed to block the operations. The owners still pressure to have another vote in order to get the permission for the extension. During 2010 protests took place to prevent the passing of the vote, while citizens have been active in the area to influence a shut down of the plant since 1979. [34] ]]

There are a lot of scientists who are in favour of nuclear energy. Patrick Moore chairman and chief scientist of Greenspirit Strategies Ltd with Christine Todd Whitman are co-chairs of a new industry-funded initiative, the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition that supports the nuclear energy ‘renaissance’. Patrick Moore published an article in the 16th April 2006 arguing that although back in the 1970s he was totally against nuclear energy, the past 30 years have changed his views. [delete?[He empowers his position by saying that US CO2 emissions are at a rate of 36% produced by coal-fired electric plants, while 103 nuclear reactors produce 20% of America’s electricity with zero C02 gas emissions]]. As he reports the public response to nuclear power plants is welcoming. Eighty percent of residents within the range of 10 miles from nuclear plants support them, workers not included in this number. [35] 


Moore believes that the dangers of nuclear power are very small in the USA. He commented the will of Iran to have nuclear energy by saying: ‘And although I don’t want to underestimate the very real dangers of nuclear technology in the hands of rogue states, we cannot simply ban every technology that is dangerous.’ [36] This somewhat contradictory statement shows how the West has assumed the right to advanced nuclear technologies with, while other states are not qualified enough to do so as they do not belong in the Western canon. Professor of International Politics Keith Krausse has pointed out how, after the Cold War, the communist threat was replaced by the threat of the ‘rogue states’ in order to fill in the ‘threat vacuum’ that justifies many sinister actions and the presence of nuclear proliferation. [37] Moore supports that things have changed since the time of the Cold War when everything linked to nuclear power seemed to be catastrophic for the whole world. However, as Krausse shows this is not the case, especially when it is American governmental discourse that tries to equate nuclear power in the hands of the rogue states with ‘weapons of mass destruction’. American foreign policy and public relations still rest on the ‘deterrence doctrine’ to maintain a super power image and continue to use military and nuclear resources. US policy-making reflects the aspects that define a society and affect it in ways that will support strategy and its validity. Therefore, US society and self-definition as a major nuclear power (that can defy the Non-proliferation treaty for security) can verify the actions of the state and place the norms for the global structure of international relations. More importantly, Krausse points out that the ‘shaping of the new discourse of danger’ can justify today’s existence of high technology military and nuclear forces that were already existent during the Cold War and continued to be of use in the modern era as a basis for the energy project. There would have been an economic and power vacuum if these resources were not taken advantage of. [38] If after the end of the Cold War there was no re-use of all the nuclear resources and discourses in relation to power and enemies of the state, then there would have been a drastic change in the character of the American society. [39] 

Public Opinion and the “The Generational Change”, 1970s vs 2000s

[delete?too strong?[ “The economic requirement for the protection of major capital investments is a more demanding constraint than public acceptance” [40] 

Before observing how nuclear opposition during the 70s became minute in the 2000s one should question whether it matters at all. For example, legislation on safety issues and nuclear plants as John F. Ahearne indicates gives power to the legal system “making decisions about public interest” whereby “with regard to public participation the majority’s decision effectively denied public an opportunity to participate further in a regulatory process on a significant safety matter.” [41] ]]

A very recent poll conducted in the USA by Bisconti Research Inc. in March 2010 shows that American citizens support nuclear energy. The graph bellow will illustrate in general the opinion that American citizens annually have since 1983.

As we can observe 2010 is the year of the highest percentage of public support for nuclear power (74%). More specifically 33% percent out of 74% strongly support nuclear energy, while only the 10% is strongly against. The ratio is 1 to 3. The time when there was the greatest objection to nuclear energy was 1986-1987. It is obvious that this is due to the Chernobyl accident. Since 1988 public opinion has turned in favor of nuclear energy with an increasing rate. [42] The survey also shows that more than 72% of the people questioned, agreed to solutions which nuclear energy gives to reduce greenhouse gasses emission. This survey is entitled “Public Support for Nuclear Energy at Record High”. These figures show how America is becoming a nuclear society with a smashing 70% favoring the building of new plants. [delete?[What is not clear is whether the public perceives ‘the implied future scale of dependence on nuclear energy’ and the ‘social and ethical implications.’ [43] ]]

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A survey conducted by Nelkin and Fallows in 1978 [44] on public opinion and nuclear energy reveals the ways in which the government and nuclear corporations tried to appease the growing opposition that characterized the 1970s. “The government to respond somehow to this pressure tries to reduce conflict, win public acceptance and renew faith in governmental authority […] necessary for continued progress and prosperity” [45] Indeed as Yarrow shows in his article ‘Selling a New Vision of America to the World’ during the 1950s onwards the words prosperity, progress and abundance entered all ranks and sections of American society. [46] Being the ‘envy of the world’ with visions of a ‘fabulous future’, economics, wealth and consumption became the basic ‘approach to the public mind’. [47] 

Nuclear energy was of course a major part of that economic and technological superiority aligned with the ‘abundance’ that characterized American life. During the 1970s the ‘industry was accused to have conducted an unbalanced campaign’ for nuclear energy, stressing the hot issue of employment and economic growth, therefore appealing with the promise of jobs and downplaying practical concerns such as safety, nuclear waste and possible contamination. [48] Today the same concerns about employment and prosperity trouble society in order to maintain the American standard of living.

As Crane points out in his interview with Spiegel Magazine, there is a generational change that accounts for high numbers supporting nuclear power. The new generation does not remember the big accidents, ‘You basically have to be 45 or 50 years old in the US to remember Three Mile Island’

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You mean to say that people are beginning to forget about the dangers of nuclear power?

Crane: There is a perception that the American public is ready for nuclear. It’s a combination of things, and one of them is generational change. The overriding concern in this country, just like in Europe, is global warming.

The 1970s Opposition warned about the long-term consequences that are implied with the formation of nuclear society. The massive security measures meant and of course still mean giving up civil liberties for scrutiny and surveillance as a precaution to potential nuclear terrorism. [49] 

Public Awareness

It is interesting to look into new power discourses that inform public opinion concerning nuclear projects. An article in The Times July 10, 2006 was headlined “Danger from radiation is exaggerated say scientists”. This article announces the documentary Horizon: Nuclear Nightmares [50] that incidentally or even conveniently came out the same week that the government was to announce the ‘start of a new generation of atomic plants’. The Times article and the documentary in question, hold that nuclear danger and the Chernobyl legacy is over exaggerated, while low levels of radioactivity ‘may even be beneficial’. [51] The documentary attributes sickness after the accident not so much to radioactive contamination but to the fear that was harnessed after the Chernobyl incident; namely an ’emission’ of fear and hypochondria rather than radioactivity. The number of the direct and indirect victims is suspiciously reduced while the 4,000 cases of children’s thyroid cancer attributed to the Chernobyl incident are here reduced to 9. The animals that were tested in the area were found to have low radiation levels on their skins, but the evolutionary background of humans and weasels differs greatly.

A letter of complaint was sent on December 2008 by Richard Bramhall of the Low Level Radiation Campaign to the chairman of the BBC Trust, proving that the documentary was ‘scientifically illiterate’ and had a ‘biased stance on Chernobyl’ [52] making it a piece of propaganda. Bramhall accuses the documentary for distorting the Chernobyl Forum Report while the Report it self ‘provides no basis for the statements’ of the so-called ‘radiophobia’ that is to account for the ‘overloading of the health system’. [53] The ‘lack of scientific understanding and objectivity’ makes the whole project subject to heavy criticism.

The only conclusion that can be drawn is that the power discourses need to eradicate any opposition and concerns about nuclear power (since the promise that no accidents will ever happen cannot be sustained), in order to enter smoothly into a new nuclear era with all the consequences that this entails: “Advertising the benefits of an activity increases public acceptance of a greater level of risk.” [54] Nuclear energy is advocated as source of autonomy, development and prosperity, giving employment, economic, scientific and political opportunities – the characteristics of the new American Dream needed to come out of the current recession years. Media and government promote that nuclear energy is used for environmental purposes leaving out the option of soft-technology and renewable resources. Moreover, the fact that uranium is an exhaustible source that will become harder to extract, therefore more expensive and a source of conflict in the future (just as oil has) is not something frequently mentioned. If the public is presented with nuclear power as the only feasible solution that brings about positive effects then it is not surprising that the percentages in support have risen.

Realistic Solutions

Nuclear energy does have its assets, and either way, this form of energy has come here to stay due to the massive investments that have taken place over the years. What seems as a better solution is Adm. Bowman’s proposition for recycling. [55] Since nuclear fuel does not take up too much space, Bowman suggests that the waste should be removed from the neighborhoods and be consolidated in centralized locations away from the public for precautionary reasons. He is careful not to imply that their current locations are dangerous, but not preferable nonetheless. He suggests that the problems of disposal should be reevaluated and that investments should be employed in recycling nuclear plants, in order to ‘recover vast unused energy in the fuel, reduce waste volume and radio-toxicity that mother earth must absorb.’ [56] Currently, 95% of the energy content is being thrown away, which can be exploited and at the same time remove the earth’s heat load. Bowman argues that since America has 300 nuclear plants it is a feasible vision to construct at least one deep geologic repository that will prove more beneficia


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