At a showing of the movie Kilowatt Ours (a pretty cool film, I might say) at the 8th Avenue Bike Shop and Coffee House here in Gainesville, it was brought to my attention that there is a proposed nuclear power plant to be built in Levy County, about 50 miles from Gainesville, and that there is a grassroots protest movement being formed against its construction. Admittedly, what struck me in the beginning about the information presented to me was a NIMBY focus on the unsafe nature of the routine release of radiation from nuclear power plants, which went against my understanding of nuclear energy safety, and so I googled. The first link I ran into was from the National Energy Institute: http://www.nei.org/keyissues/safetyandsecurity/factsheets/safetystudiespublicworkers/, which mostly settled the safety issue for me. The average radiation exposure composition for a person living near a plant being only 1 percent from the plant; radiation being detected easily and being one of the “most studied and best understood forms of energy”; a study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer finding that the risk of health effects from exposure to low levels of ionizing radiation is small; the National Academy of Sciences conducting a study which found a similar conclusion; all of these resonated with my memory of the subject and confirmed my belief that nuclear power is safe. (Also of note are the helpful links on the right side of that webpage – the Health Physics Society, in particular, has a lot of useful information regarding our interactions with radiation in the everyday, the medical field, and more.)
My firm belief is: Scientists, by and large, don’t like to be wrong. At the very least, I believe that a national organization of scientists could not possibly be made up almost entirely of shills who would collude to fudge studies to get the desired results.
When the National Institutes of Health say that childhood vaccines do not cause autism, I trust that they are not covering up data in a massive conspiracy – the studies are right there in the open, and it would be impossible to do so. When climate scientists at NASA and the world over agree that anthropogenic greenhouse gases are responsible for climate change, I believe them. The studies are open, and it would be impossible to fudge the data without even ten percent of those eyes catching it – and rushing to be the first to publish their counter analyses. When the National Institute of Standards and Technology issued its report explaining how the fires in the World Trade Center weakened the steel in the buildings to the point where they could no longer support the structure, I believe them, because they presented a large body of evidence, which was reviewed by a large body of materials scientists and engineers from diverse fields, and because they openly published their findings. When the scientists composing the National Academy of Sciences (and virtually every biologist on Earth) agree that evolution is an observed fact and the only scientific explanation for the diversity of life past and present on this planet, I believe them – because there’s mounds of published, peer-reviewed, documented evidence.
I believe in scientific consensus for that reason first: the open evidence. It’s there for anyone to see, and it’s been seen by many brilliant eyes. But I also believe in it for another reason – a negative reason: I don’t believe in a consensus of conspiracy or incompetence. For any of those things to be true – for vaccines to be causing autism, for global warming to be a hoax, for the World Trade Center buildings to have been brought down by explosives, or for evolution to be wrong – would require a vast conspiracy among scientists, mixed with vast incompetence.
The way I feel the field of science works with regard to revolutionary, paradigm-shifting ideas that challenge consensus is this: they are sought and revered and are the way to become famous. Scientists don’t reject them on the basis of conservative philosophy, because scientists, quite on the contrary, are seeking to discover something new – even if it upsets the status quo. Rather, they accept or reject them on their merits, because those merits are their reputations. Scientists don’t get rich selling out – they get discredited by selling out (where selling out is defined as falsifying data or demonstrating incompetence by drawing unsupported conclusions in order to support the aims of industry, not practicing good science which happens to support the aims of industry).
Scientists hate to be wrong. Whether they are wrong shilling for industry or wrong cooking up a crackpot conspiracy theory about industry, their reputations will be irreparably damaged, how much so depending on the level of malfeasance and/or incompetence and not which side they are on. Large bodies of scientists hate to be wrong even more, because they represent the reputation of an entire profession of people so dependent on being right, and at the very least, rigorously honest and careful.
The pamphlet from “Nuke Florida” that I received suggests that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is basically a “front for pro-nuclear forces”, receiving 90% of its funds from companies that operate nuclear reactors. But what about the NAS? Or the National Safety Council? (See http://www.nsc.org/resources/issues/rad/risks.aspx, and all of their other educational information on ionizing, non-ionizing, natural, and man-made sources of radiations, their levels, and their effects on humans. Compare the average exposure to radon radiation to the average exposure to radiation for those living near a nuclear power plant.) Are they all shills, too? Is everything a giant conspiracy? Are scientists from diverse national academies and institutes of safety and of health unanimously colluding to pull the wool over the public’s eyes, without regard to human life, because they all feel like supporting the nuclear power industry? I highly doubt it.
The point of it all being: there is some serious misinformation, malignant or not, in the “nuclear power is inherently unsafe and kills” movement. The millirem exposure for one year from a nuclear power plant for those living within 50 miles is roughly one one-hundredth that of one dental x-ray (http://www.nsc.org/resources/issues/rad/exposure.aspx). Of all the ionizing radiation sources, by far the most dangerous are natural, and of those, by far the most dangerous is radon. The pamphlet also claims that the NAS “reviewed hundreds of scientific articles, and concluded that there is no risk-free dose of radiation.” This statement is completely lacking context. The NAS recommended the use of what is known as a “linear no-threshold hypothesis” with regard to low-level ionizing radiation, not because of any observed health effects in properly controlled studies, but rather to be consistent with other approaches to public health policy (from the nsc.org/risks link above). The linear assumption has no scientific basis, but in proposing a linear relationship, it assigns some risk to any exposure to ionizing radiation, no matter how minute. The proposed nuclear power plant in Levy County may not be economically ideal, but aside from terrorism, it would be safe, and far less harmful to humans than a fossil fuel plant.
So, am I wrong in not opposing the Levy nuclear power plant barring unforeseen economic reasons? The way I see it, the battle against global warming is an absolutely enormous problem, and will require every effort. Yes, we need to massively reduce consumption of energy. But we also need to retire as many coal plants as possible, and nuclear power is one part of that. I sincerely hope that we as taxpayers vote with our wallets to subsidize all viable green power generating technologies while they are more “expensive” than greenhouse-gas emitting fossil fuel technologies. Solar, wind, and geothermal are all very important and must become economically viable on a mass scale for the sake of our health and to avoid ecological disaster. They all need to be used – i.e., we need to reforest and slow deforesting, too, among other things. The more green power technologies we can employ, the less stress on any one resource and the greater the likelihood of success.
And then, on the other issue (perhaps the larger issue): Is it wrong to trust consensuses reached among large bodies of scientists? (Sadly, this is my only slightly philosophical question among the "hard" politics.)
I don’t really see myself as a conservative or liberal on the energy or global warming issue, but as a fan of good science. I know I have a really strong opinion on this, but I appreciate all thoughts.
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