I just caught Christine Todd Whitman on TV yesterday; she's a former governor and led the EPA for President Bush earlier this decade. Now she's shilling for the nuclear power industry.
To hear her tell it, nuclear power has been grossly misunderstood, and our country has suffered for it. The French get it right (yes, this is a Republican giving France credit for something other than cowardice), because 80% of their electricity comes from splitting atoms. Our 100+ plants produce less than 20%.
I never knew we'd got it so wrong. There's no radioactive waste problem, the capital costs of building plants aren't prohibitive, and it turns out there's never been an accident (our Three Mile Island leak happened because imperfect humans messed with the perfect computers that ran the place. As for Chernobyl, well, that happened a long way away and, technically, it was a junky reactor design).
Nuclear energy is clean air energy, according to Ms. Whitman and the industry lobby's web site: the heat from radioactive isotope decay creates steam, which moves the turbines and produce electricity. So the worst air pollutants you get from this power source are, well, clouds.
I don't intend to debate the truthyness of these claims, but rather the up-is-down, everything-you-think-you-know-isn't-true approach to rebranding nuclear power.
The rhetoric just doesn't come across as honest. There are legitimate concerns about housing radioactive waste, from the specific threats of theft and leakage, to the broad idea that we can choose to bequeath toxic glunk to great-grandchildren who get no say in our decision.
As for the capital costs, there's no way a single reactor could have been built up to now had the government not given zillions in assistance to the utilities, either through tax breaks, absolution of insurance costs, or simply allowing them to pass-on the costs to consumers through regular rate hikes. And the big-ticket construction project approach to industry has some inherent problems generally, most notably the fact that anything that takes years to build is usually years out of date by the time it's completed (ergo, by the time NASA took delivery of its first shuttle, there were better/safer ways to catapult people into space).
When it comes to the risk of an accident, the promise of system and process protections, and even a perfect record, just don’t jibe with the obvious: didn't Ms. Whitman see the movie "Titanic," or know anybody whose iPod crapped out? Smart people have been building unbreakable, failsafe things for a long time, and have often lived to see their creations break and fail. Everybody knows this.
So what should the nuclear lobby do instead? I say tell the truth, and acknowledge legitimate concerns (both immediately practical, and philosophically involved). People don't have it wrong on nuclear power, any more than Ms. Whitman has it right. She can be as commonsense and genuine as she wants, but up is not down. And this style of rhetoric is strikingly old school. Outdated is perhaps a compliment?
The nuclear industry needs to engage on the issues -- like use social tools to have actual conversations, and enable people to chew on topics and make the nuanced decisions the subject requires -- and not present its POV...which ends up coming off like a biased, glowing review.