I just watched West Wing from this past Sunday. It was, to say the least, overtly anti-nuclear.

(Incidentally, WW is a strange case, TV-wise. It started out great under Sorkin, then declined precipitously once he left, hitting its nadir in last year’s season, the sixth. But this season it’s come roaring back, with a presidential campaign inserting new blood and pulling the action outside the White House. It’s been absolutely top-notch television lately. Naturally, NBC, noting that quality was on the rise, cancelled it. Bastards. Now where was I?)

I have mixed feelings about nuclear myself — mostly bad — but I gotta say WW was pretty ham-handed with it. The Republican candidate, Vinnick, had a few lines to make the pro-nuclear case, but on the whole everyone on the show took it as accepted fact that nuclear is not safe to have in populated areas.

They were also pretty ham-handed with the critique of Bush’s handling of Katrina. From the moment something goes wrong, President Bartlett is in total control, even micromanaging the personnel and technical details of trying to repair the nuke facility. He asks if enough buses are available to evacuate the area (cough) and prompted to appoint a czar to coordinate the government agencies, says, "You’re looking at him" (cough). A little overboard.

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The Nuclear Energy Institute is obviously not an unbiased source, but many of the technical flaws they point out in the episode — here and here — I’ve seen echoed by other people in various discussion rooms and such. (Various other discussions of the episode are linked here.) It sounds like the show botched the technical aspects pretty badly.

If you’d like to listen in on an intelligent discussion of nuclear power, check out the discussion of the Peter Schwartz/Ralph Cavanagh debate over at The Long Now. There are also good discussions of nuclear power on Worldchanging here, here, and here.

My reservations about nuclear aren’t particularly of the technological sort. Instead … well, I pass the mic to Jamais Cascio:

One problem I see is that many who do have intimate operational knowledge of nuclear power seem to think that the debate focuses solely on technical issues — a perspective undoubtedly derived, at least in part, from the 1970s version of the nuclear debate, which *did* emphasize operational safety. Today’s version of the discussion is quite different, and looks primarily at issues of governance, industrial behavior, material safety after it has left the power production cycle, plant security (vis-a-vis intentional external attack), and honesty about costs.

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Basically, a lot of the educated opposition to expansion of nuclear power in the US comes down to the fact that the industry has not historically behaved in ways that engender trust. Personally, I am much less worried about the technology — which I understand relatively well, albeit not with the insights of hands-on work — than I am about the organizations that own, operate and oversee the plants. I recognize that nuclear can, in principle, be done safely and efficiently — but evidence suggests that we wouldn’t get safety and efficiency, we’d get cut corners, dishonesty, and more money spent on lobbying the regulators than on abiding by regulations.

Jamais also makes the point, with which I agree wholeheartedly, that most nuclear advocates seem to be operating on the assumption that clean energy and conservation cannot scale to cover our energy needs. That assumption is frequently based on bogus premises or bad math.

Let’s just all agree to set a carbon cap and some tight safety and transparency regulations and let any source of power that can a) come under the cap, and b) obey the regulations duke it out on a level playing field. Shall we?

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