A few days ago, NYT’s John Tierney wrote a column making what is by now a tediously familiar argument: fears about nuclear are overblown, public sentiment is shifting, and we should build a bunch of nuclear plants. There’s some absurdly tendentious material about California’s electricity situation, but in effect the entire argument hinges on a single study from Gilbert Metcalf that estimates new nuclear power will be cheaper than renewables. (Other analysts are not so optimistic.) Somewhat amusingly, Tierney adds, "The outlook could change, of course, if new nuclear plants turn out to be more expensive than expected …" That never happens, does it?
Tierney has since written two follow-ups, here and here. Between the two, Amory Lovins responds. Tierney promises to address it later (once he asks the appropriate AEI scholar what to say, presumably).
Anyway! I don’t plan on getting sucked into this argument yet again. I just wanted to point out one thing at the end of the latest column. Tierney is discussing the fact that the only demographic in which a majority opposes building new nuclear plants is young people 18-31 (see the new Harris poll). He says:
Any thoughts on the cause of the generation gap in attitudes? I supposed it might simply reflect the impact of the environmental movement, although I wonder if it also has something to do with "The Simpsons." This is a generation, after all, that spent its formative years watching Homer in the control room of Springfield’s nuclear plant. Is that scarier than anything in "The China Syndrome"?
It seems the only thing that could possibly explain majority opposition to nuclear power is irrational fear based on scary fiction (or a cartoon), never studies like Joe’s. Even after Lovins’ fact- and figure-peppered comment, Tierney just can’t conceive that opponents of nuclear power might also engage in reasoned assessment of evidence.
I’ve seen the nuclear argument played out many, many (many) times . There are good and bad arguments, facts and finger-pointing, dispassion and intense tribalism on both sides. But in my experience, only the pro-nuke crowd makes such a self-conscious show of claiming the mantle of Reason and rejecting Emotion.
I’m reminded of being beset with such arguments when I lived among Ayn Rand-reading, D&D-playing emotional illiterates in college. (I never played D&D!) In that crowd, exchanging charges of irrationality was an affectation, a kind of social signaling, like artists calling each other conservative or hipsters calling each other clueless. I guess that self-identification sticks for some folks. I’d bet an enterprising sociology grad student could do some interesting work connecting these recurring tropes to the gender breakdown of nuclear support.
I suppose I’ll leave it at that. Accuse me of whoring for comments if you must.