Repost: Stephen King Was Wrong About Nuclear Power

The alarming disaster in Japan and the possible tragedy of one of their nuclear power plants is certainly scary.  However, it’s also gotten me thinking of this post from a year and a half ago, where I analyzed some anti-nuclear predictions from the 80’s and found them wanting.  As real as the danger is in Japan, it might be good to review how safe nuclear power is overall, to temper our worries with some hope. 

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When I was a kid, I read a lot of Stephen King.  One of my favorite sections of his novels was the ten page scene in The Tommyknockers where the dashing, rebellious writer confronts an obnoxious old energy executive with the shocking “truth” about the dangers of nuclear power.  I remember reading that for the first time and just tearing through it, amazed at the strength of the facts on the side of King’s hippie hero.  Surely, I thought, it must be clear to anyone with a brain that nuclear power is bad. 

Of course, I was a kid.  I was easily impressed by messages where emotional young rebels strike out at conservative caricatures.  Actually, that’s why I don’t read much King anymore: I got tired of the constant bashing of conservatives.  Seriously, where would King stories be without insane religious fundamentalists to be the bad guys in almost every book

Anyway, for some reason I thought of that scene recently, and I wondered how it held up with twenty years of hindsight (The Tommyknockers was published in 1987).  I looked it up (I have the original mass market paperback edition, which I think still has the same page numbering as the current editions), and was surprised by how vapid the argument was that I was so impressed by as a teen.  Here are the major points King makes in his screed:

  1. “When you examine the cancer-death stats for the areas surrounding every nuclear power facility in the country, you find anomalies, deaths that are way out of line with the norm.”  (page 101, repeated on 104)
  2. The explosion of the Russian facility at Kyshtym is used as a scare tactic, suggesting that similar things or worse would happen here.  (page 102)
  3. Waves of future cancer rates at Chernobyl are predicted.  (103)
  4. A 1964 AEC report is quoted predicting scary scenarios for US plant meltdowns.  (103)
  5. “At Chernobyl they killed the kids….Most may still be alive, but they are dying right now while we stand here with our drinks in our hands.  Some can’t even read yet.  Most will never kiss a girl in passion.”  (104)
  6. Poor building and mismanagement are again used as scare tactics for possible future problems.  (page 105)
  7. Story told of waste tank being accidentally hooked up to drinking fountains at Three Mile Island.  (page 106)
  8. “Also, you might check the IDS rates–infant-death syndrome, that is.  They go up in plant areas.  Birth defects, such as Down’s syndrome…”  (page 107, repeated on 108)
  9. “Chernobyl’s hot.  It’s going to stay that way for a long time.  How long?  No one really knows.”  (page 107)
  10. More predictions of dire disasters imminent in America.  (page 107)
  11. “There are great big hot piles of core rods here, there, and everywhere, sitting in nasty pools of shallow water…” (page 109)
  12. “They’re already losing track of some of those piles of used rods…”  (page 109)

What surprised me most looking this up again after all these years is just how little evidence is even cited.  Most of these pages are rhetorical insults and accusations, sprinkled with lots of implications about what “might” happen in the future.  But here we are now, twenty years plus in the future, so let’s see how each of King’s threats have panned out so far:

  1. Plenty of research since The Tommyknockers was published in 1987 shows this to be false.  This report summarizing research from six major, recent studies does not find any increase in cancer near nuclear power plants, nor does this 1983 study, which would have been available when King wrote his anti-nuclear rant.
  2. There hasn’t been a meltdown anywhere in the world for over thirty years.  In fact, even minor accidents are very rare
  3. This may be the weakest part of King’s argument–hysterical doom mongers loved to spread fear in the immediate aftermath of Chernobyl.  Twenty years later, where are the massive waves of cancer?  This overview of the research finds the death toll to be around…48.  The recent, official report by the International Atomic Energy Agency finds no increase in cancer or birth defects.  The United Nations Scientific Committee of the Effects of Atomic Radiation found that “there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure 20 years after the accident. There is no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality rates or in rates of non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure. The risk of leukaemia in the general population, one of the main concerns owing to its short latency time, does not appear to be elevated.”
  4. I repeat, not a single meltdown worldwide for over thirty years.  
  5. After more than two decades, all of those children, even the ones who hadn’t been born yet, are now adults.  How are they doing?  See the reports quoted in #3 that prove King’s tear-jerking scenario to be a fantasy.  Do you think King is happy that his prediction of mass casualties were wrong?  Shouldn’t he be?
  6. The last few decades have proven how safe nuclear power is.  (America has over a hundred operating nuclear plants, by the way.)  Say, since King felt his argument must have been so airtight, why did he rely so heavily on hyperbole and speculation?  Why not just cite the facts as they were?  Oh, wait, it’s because the facts weren’t on his side, not even then, and especially not now.
  7. This report is negated by the decades of safe operation everywhere since.  Like every other industry, it gets safer every year.
  8. Now King is just abusing the old “Won’t anyone please think about the children?” argument that he makes fun of if someone who disagrees with him is using it.  See evidence cited at #3 that exposes this lie.
  9. Wrong again.  King implies that Chernobyl ruined the environment forever.  Only twenty years later, people live around the plant, which is well contained, and are raising healthy families surrounded by normal vegetation.  Here’s a story about it.  And another one
  10. Repeating scare tactics doesn’t make them true!  After more than twenty years, none of these doomsday predictions have come true.
  11. Despite the passage of more than two decades–in fact, nearly a quarter of century, now–the storage of nuclear waste continues to be safe.  Remember all those stories of massive nuclear waste spills with horrific waves of casualties and deformities in America?  No?  That’s because there haven’t been any.
  12. And despite the efforts of terrorists, there haven’t been any nuclear attacks in the twenty years since King worried about it, nor have there been any other problems with allegedly “unaccounted for” nuclear material. 

Such a staggering failure of predictions should make us think a little more carefully about the left’s current obsession with predicting the end of the world based on “global warming.” 

Do you know what country uses nuclear power more than any other in the world?  France.  They produce more electricity with it, and export more of it, than anyone else.  Their power is some of the cheapest in the world.  How many people have ever died from a nuclear accident in France?  Zero. 

So thanks, Stephen King.  This winter when I’m paying out the nose to heat my house, I’ll throw some copies of your books from the last twenty years on the fire to help keep costs down.  That’s about all most of your work these days is good for, anyway.

17 comments on “Repost: Stephen King Was Wrong About Nuclear Power

  1. Amen! Nuclear power is the best way for us to cut ourselves from the dependency on foreign oil.
    Over the time of nuclear power, there have been less then ten accidents that were caused by a failure or nuclear power. If only we would switch to it and follow the example of some of the European countries.

    (A quick note though: France does not produce the most nuclear electricity. We actually do. However, about 80% of Frances elecricity comes from nuclear power, in the United States its only 20% of our nuclear power. French reactors do around 400 Terrawatt-hours out of their total 520 TWh, the United States produces 800 TWh out of about 4,000 TWh overall.)

  2. Why let the facts get in the way of a house payment?

    I don’t read King because everything he rights reminds me of a Twilight Zone episode I’ve already seen. Not as in well written, etc. as most TZ episodes were, but derivative from TZ episodes. No originality. Yawn….

  3. As libertarians, I would assume that all of you believe that government should not subsidize any form of power, either directly or indirectly through special tax breaks, or loan and insurance guarantees. I would assume also that you would oppose any form of government absorption of the environmental consequences of any form of energy, instead making the sellers responsible for the bad as well as the good consequences of their product and allowing the market to price the commodity accordingly. Is that correct, or does libertarian philosophy end at the individual and not apply to corporations?

    So as good libertarians, you can’t want to follow the French example since their government made substantial investments of taxpayer dollars in nuclear power. You must oppose our own government’s spending of $150 Billion over the last 50 years to build nuclear power plants and you no doubt suppor repeal of the Price Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act. So let’s get government out of the energy picture altogether – no more subsidies to any form of power (oil, gas, coal, nuclear, wind, solar or anything else). No more taxpayer dollars spent to guarantee access to oil fields in the Middle East or to pipelines in Central Asia. No more taxpayer dollars to clean up the air or water that results from processing fossil fuel. The free market will take care of all this and we will all live happily ever after.

  4. PMR, thanks for the correction. Similar to my note about how anti-nuclear sentiments are responsible for our still being dependent on oil, the current spike in gas prices is actually something that many leftist environmentalists have campaigned for for years.

    Wonderdog, no joke. I still think he has some very strong material, but most of it really doesn’t hold up well at all.

    Charles, good job. See, now you’re getting it! :)

  5. Well Huston, I’m sure then you’d be ready to pay whatever price the market would set for energy if there were no government intervention. The true cost of oil is roughly $480/barrel, so plan to spend $10/gallon at the pump. Nuclear power’s true cost is estimated at $10,800 per kilowatt, so better hope you win Lotto every month so you can pay your light bill.

    The sad truth is that there is no solution that will permit us to continue using the amount of energy we do today, and permit the developing nations (principally China and India) to increase their energy consumption to the levels they need to sustain growth. We can either plan this transition together, or just sit passively and wait for the invisible hand to slap us up side the head.

    • Your comments here remind me of something I wrote about the price of gas in Mexico: how it’s artificially kept low as part of their socialist scheme, and look how strong Mexico is! Those on the left often talk about “sustainability” these days, but history’s lesson is clear: government regulation of markets is never sustainable.

  6. @ Charles D
    You’re article against nuclear power is quite misleading actually. You are looking at a reactor in Ontario, Canada, a country which does not have a good nuclear infrastructure to start out with. Here in the United States, we already have a bit of an infrastructure built up. Like any energy source, nuclear power needs a current infrastructure in place, in order to build up off of. For the United States, we already have 104 reactors in place, and we are looking towards an exact model of nuclear reactors, rather than the one-off designs that we are considering.

    The facts are that nuclear power has a higher energy volume than that of traditional oil power. For instance, uranium in a fast breeding reactor gets around 85,000,000 MJ per kg, opposed to oil’s measly 46 MJ per kg. Now, a kg of nuclear uranium fuel costs us about $1300 per kg. Look at this website for a more detailed look at the real costs: http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf02.html

    Another thing to consider is that we are currently looking at 2nd and 3rd generation reactors, which are being phased out currently in our country. Currently, research is being done on what is known as Very High Temperature Reactors, which operate at around 1,000 degrees Celsius, significantly higher than current reactors. Now due to the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, the increase of internal temperature increases the efficiency to 50%.

    The key to these VHTR is the fact that they use a new liquid hydrogen coolant, instead of water, which increases the running temperature that we can use. Because the efficiency is much much higher than 2nd and 3rd Gen reactors, we can drop the temperature to ONLY 8.4 cents per kw/h. We can also modify existing reactors to VHTR. Even if we wanted to build 1,000 VHTR’s, we would only need 29,160 tons of uranium fuel to start and run for a year, which extrapolated with the cost above, gives us only $3,790,800 per year to run the whole operation and increase the United States energy output from nuclear reactors by 300 GW or %50 of the current United States energy usage.

    Now this may seem like a steep cost, but a collary to VHTR reactors is known as Breeder Reactors. In current reactors, spent uranium fuel is kept in what literaly look like glowing swimming pools, which allow the uranium to slowly go through its half life. I should explain here that I am talking about Uranium-238, the radioactive isotope used in reactors which has a much shorter half life than Uranium-235. Current United States legislation says that we can only use 20% of the U-238 fuel for some reason, so we end up wasting %80 of our U-238 fuel as it sits in pools waiting to decay into U-235 and a lithium bi-product. What breeder reactors do is use this U-238 decay in order to generate more nuclear fuel, in a process that would take quite a long time here on this blog. The end result though is that we end up reusing our fuel over and over, which makes it so we don’t have to buy it again.

    I’m sorry for this lengthy explanation, but I hope you can see that nuclear energy is the best alternative energy. Of course, we are going to have to spend money right now in order to develop and build these new 4th Gen reactors, but if we do, we can break our dependence on foreign oil and get more jobs back in America. Also, there are many examples of countries that have been using nuclear power to fulfill their energy needs and they aren’t going bankrupt because of it, countries such as France, Belgium, Sweden, South Korea and Ukraine.

    Here is a PDF on VHTR’s if your interested. http://www.ornl.gov/info/reports/1977/3445605096222.pdf

  7. PMR, perhaps you trust corporations more than I so you take the data from the nuclear industry as gospel. While VHTR’s may be promising, they are some years away and no doubt will take a lot of money to develop. Where is that long-term investment coming from? Why would a private firm forego profits for several years in order to develop a technology that may work, but which no one (other than the taxpayer) will be able to insure? Would we even watching the news every night worried about the meltdown threat of a wind farm or a solar array? No and as a result, insuring those is relatively inexpensive. Look how much the Japanese government is spending to deal with the TEPCO reactor malfunctions. If TEPCO were required to pay that back they would be bankrupt and so no private insurer is going to write a liability policy on a nuclear power station absent lots of government guarantees.

    The cost of nuclear power isn’t simply the cost of the uranium fuel. That’s like saying that you can build a house for free because all the wood you need is growing on your lot. The capital costs of building the plant, the costs of storing the nuclear waste for tens of thousands of years, and the insurance costs all have to be factored in. It simply isn’t feasible for private industry to do this, particularly in a tax and investment environment that is oriented toward short-term profits.

    We do have to end our dependence on fossil fuel for a variety of reasons, but while there is still a lot of money to be made in that business, private industry is not about to voluntarily lower their profit margins in order to make a long-term investment in a risky venture that cannot generate significant revenue for a decade or more. It doesn’t matter whether that investment is in nuclear, wind, solar, geothermal or any other energy source, the incentives aren’t sufficient in the market to encourage the big players with the available capital to take the risks. So as good libertarians, you’ll just have to wait until the economy collapses further and hope the top 1% has pity on you and decides that investing in long-term renewable energy is better than speculating on oil futures.

  8. “perhaps you trust corporations more than I so you take the data from the nuclear industry as gospel”

    Actually the data I’m using isn’t from corportations, its actually a study that we did in the Mechanical Engineering department at my college where we factored in the cost of current reactors, and used all of the specifications that are publicly available, not given by corporations. The cost of 8.4 cents per kWh is factoring in most of the costs.

    “Would we even watching the news every night worried about the meltdown threat of a wind farm or a solar array”

    Did you read the specifications of the VHTR reactors, because the point of them is that they will not melt down unless they are under extreme situations. The TEPCO reactor malfunctions happened because they were using a nuclear reactor designed in the 1970’s. Comparing our current reactor technology to that is like finding problems with an old gigantic IBM computer and then using that as a springing board to shoot down all further computers. Our reactors are a full 40 years more advanced than theirs, and not situated on coastlines that are likely to get hit by tsunami’s.

    “The cost of nuclear power isn’t simply the cost of the uranium fuel”

    Yes I understand this, but I was stating that number in order to show how cheap the nuclear fuel is compared to oil. You also mentioned that the expenses of the nuclear power plant come in part from storing nuclear waste, but price is substantially diminished by Breeder Reactors which take that by product and turn it into lower quality nuclear fuel for reactors that aren’t VHTR.

    Perhaps what this is going to come down to as well is a battle of political ideas. Personally, I’m a science guy, and politics doesn’t do much good for me, so I try to look at what is going to do the best for the people of America instead of what will help private corporations and companies. You mention that private corporations will have profit issues with reactors. Well if the companies don’t want to do it, maybe it is something that the government needs to step in on. I don’t wish to get into a political debate about this because science is my forte, not politics, and the science backs up the feasibility of nuclear power.

    One thing we need to consider is history. We are moving into a new century and a new generation of inhabitants on this Earth, and with every new generation we end up getting new technology and new energy sources. The last century was the oil century, and the century before that was coal and steam. We need to be willing to adapt to the new technology that is being offered and not be afraid of it.

    Sure it may be painful at first to switch to nuclear power, but looking at the numbers there is no way to mathematically deny that it is the most reliable and feasible alternative energy we have today.

  9. Well PMR, as you might have guessed, I’m approaching this from a political/economic viewpoint rather than a scientific one. While the VHTR reactor technology might be effective, from what I gather it will take a long time and a considerable investment to make it a reality. I also didn’t notice where the scientists solved the problem of where to safely store the nuclear waste for the next couple of hundred thousand years. Also, while VHTR may be the answer to meltdowns, there is a clear flaw that cannot be overcome completely: all nuclear power stations will be built and operated by fallible human beings and the consequences of inattention or incompetence could still be catastrophic.

    Clearly we cannot rely on the fuel sources that have powered mankind since the Industrial Revolution. Even if you don’t choose to believe that their use is altering our atmosphere and poisoning the earth, you have to realize that the supplies of these fuels is running out. The questions then become: “What alternative power sources do we concentrate our R&D funding on? What sources can be brought on line sooner, safer, and at a scale large enough to make the kind of serious reductions in fossil fuel use that are required? What risks does each fuel source contain and do its benefits outweigh its risks? What will be the impact on our economy and our society of the transition to these new fuel sources, and how can they be managed effectively? Who will make these decisions? Who will pay for the considerable costs involved in developing and transitioning to these new energy sources? Who will pay if they fail?

    Many of those who post here are libertarians who profess to believe that government (and therefore the citizenry) have no business getting involved in any of these decisions and that we should leave everything to the invisible hand of the free market. That basically means that all the questions I posed above will be answered by doing whatever will keep each individual corporation’s stock price increasing every quarter. A bit like an uncontrolled nuclear reaction.

  10. I see. Well then we are argueing two different points of view, because I was under the impression that you were argueing the effectiveness of the VHTR and I was slightly confused, because mathemtically it works out to be the best power souce.

    To clarify a few things: The Breeder Reactors solve the waste problem to a degree. Because of them, we can take the spent nuclear fuel or waste and reuse it to power lower grade reactors. There will be a little bit of waste, but not very much, so of course we will have to find a waste storage facility, but it will be much cheaper than good old Yucca Mountain.

    Also, VHTR’s will be relatively automatic and it is really hard for a person to cause a fault in the new reactor. It is to the point of automation that somebody has to really try to make it fail.

    Politically (and I may get shot for saying this) I just want whatever will get these new power sources online and into society. If this means that the government has to do it, then we might as well just let the government do it. I don’t see it as particularly evil for the government to give us our energy. I feel that maybe that is something that the government should be providing.

    Yet, I am not a politician, I am a scientist, so we may just have to stick to our seperate spheres. We both agree that things need to change, so I’ll figure out how to make it work, you can figure out how to implement it!

  11. That’s rather a huge jump to a conclusion, Huston. Sustainability in energy policy is not related to regulation of existing markets, but to government intervention to stimulate a market where none exists. The US government is spending billions (or foregoing billions in revenue if you prefer) and dropping or failing to enforce regulations to keep the price of gas low, primarily to the benefit of large oil companies. A sustainable energy policy would, over time, remove the government subsidies of the oil, coal, natural gas and nuclear industries, while using the money saved to stimulate growth in alternative energy – wind, solar, geo-thermal, etc. As with the internet, which was developed by the government, this policy would provide R&D money and startup financing to private firms so that a viable market in sustainable energy could be built.

    While a change to sustainable energy might eventually result from market forces, a measured government intervention could accelerate the change and ameliorate the disruption to the economy that would result from a later, more sudden shift. The lesson in all this is that important markets devoid of government regulation are never sustainable and never act in the public interest.

  12. The real problem with nuke power is the waste. Where’s the economic motivation to store waste properly? It doesn’t exist – the money’s made from producing the electricity. After that, all motivation to dispose of the waste safely declines. But the waste is extremely harmful if it gets into the water supply.

    Additionally, it seems like we’re going to have accidents regularly, and huge disasters like Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island every fifteen years or so. It seems like a fairly high price to pay so that we can have air conditioning.

    I’m totally ignoring experimental or theoretical designs. We should keep working on those until nuclear power is really safe – and the waste can be disposed of safely. The problem is not experimentation, but actual plants in operation – they aren’t safe, and the waste isn’t safe.

  13. I was also reminded of this part of King’s book with the passing of recent events following the Japan tsunami. While I agree with you that much, if not everything in the character’s rant was unsupported anti-nuke rhetoric, I couldn’t help but notice that the most important argument, the safe disposal of spent fuel rods, was not addressed in your retort. Tommyknockers is a complete work of fiction, so one could expect everything in the story to be made up.

    That said, I believe it is as reckless and potentially as dangerous as the BP oil spill to just leave everything in the hands of the experts, in a world where enough money can buy most people. I think if you invited these same experts who are now claiming that the radioactive waste that is currently leaking unfettered into the sea is harmless, to drink that water or eat fish from that area, you’d have about as much luck as when the Simpson family tried to get Mr Burns to eat a piece of three-eyed fish to save his image.

  14. Charles, while I think you raise some valid points about what may be termed corporate welfare, it’s curious that you use the Internet as an example. The government sat on the crude basics of Internet technology for decades; it was private entrepreneurs who developed it into what we call the World Wide Web.

    Or are you claiming that Al Gore really did invent the Internet? :)

    JK2001, thanks for commenting, but your facts are out of touch and behind the times. The three disasters you cite are not that bad, as I showed in the post above; nuclear power does a lot mroe than just run air conditioning; and the storage of the relatively small amount of nuclear waste in the world is very safe and easy–remember, I live in Southern Nevada, home to the popularly reviled but scientifically solid Yucca Mountain site.

    JB69, while I always appreciate a good Simpsons reference (that’s a season two episode you mention), but the fact is that energy executives have had glasses of so-called contaminated water in public, and do not live in evil fortresses from which they pity the poor peasants who toil for them. Sorry, friend, but Erin Brockovich was more propaganda than documentary.

  15. One of your observations bothers me a little: “Most of these pages are rhetorical insults and accusations”. Well, of course they’re insults and accusations, the character is blatantly trying to insult the others using their, what he deems as, stupidity on the subject. When someone wants to desperately prove their point (a someone who is much like the character of Gard) against one they believe is entirely false, they will state their theories. King wasn’t trying to make it seem like Gard was right or that the others were right either (nor was he trying to solidly predict anything), he was trying to show who Gard was. This scene is less about the causes and effects of nuclear power than it is about character development. On top of it, they aren’t Stephen King’s threats. They are Gard’s threats. Gard was wrong. If King wanted to be a nuclear power fortune teller, he would. However, he is an author. An author who writes fiction. Not research essays. You may criticize King, but this criticism should be put on Gard’s head … who, I repeat, is a character of fiction.

  16. I guess you forgot you were reading fiction. Somewhere along the line you lost your great taste in books. I love Arcadian’s reply to you. Read it and take it to heart. King is a story teller, and a very gifted one at that. But he writes fiction…I guess you’ve never read his author’s notes where he says he takes certain liberties (as a fiction writer) with the truth. It wasn’t a text book. It was a STORY.

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