Blaming Jane Fonda for Global Warming doesn’t help

Levitt and Dubner takes a look at why nuclear power only accounts for 20% of electricity production in the US, and playfully blames Jane Fonda. It’s a cute narrative, but Levitt and Dubner ignore a number of economic aspects of the energy sector in their column, which is interesting since, *ahem*, Levitt is a brilliant economist.

If you haven’t read Freakonomics yet, you really should. Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner do a marvelous job of applying critical thinking (or as they term it, “economics”) to some non-typical problems and arrive at some thought-provoking conclusions. E.g., crime rates don’t drop because of “get tough on crime”; the only statistically significant factors are (a) the number of cops and (b) legalization of abortion; and backyard pools are more dangerous than guns.

Ok, that’s enough of a plug for their book and my own affiliate kick-back.

The Freakonomics blog is an extension of the book, and continues Levitt’s tradition of revisiting old topics with a fresh, critical eye. And eyebrows were raised over the weekend as he took aim at Hollywood. In an expanded article in today’s New York Times Magazine, Levitt argues that Hollywood, with “The China Syndrome”, which coincided with the Three Mile Island incident, helped derail US exploitation of nuclear power, and so playfully blames Jane Fonda for global warming.

A wonderful headline, to be sure. But this is a troublesome perspective, for a number of reasons.

First, it’s hardly news that Hollywood is disingenuous at best in portraying anything in a realistic fashion. It’s just an element of popular culture, which overall is prone towards dumbing down the audience. It’s simply easier to make a buck if you cater to the lowest common denominator. As a techie I cringe at depictions of young hackers breaking into government systems, but at least that doesn’t kill people. There are tens of thousands of gun-related deaths in the US every year; what’s Hollywood’s “cut” of that death toll from their steady drumbeat of celebrating the gun culture? Should we pin Jodie Foster, starring in the recent vigilante film “The Brave One”, for next year’s home accidents involving kids and guns? Hollywood doesn’t drive opinion a much as it captures it.

Blaming, even in jest, Jane Fonda for the public disenchantment with nuclear energy is to be guilty of similar pandering. Countercritics (e.g. critics of the anti-nuclear-power groups) have long implied that silly movies like the China Syndrome was to blame for convincing a foolish public of the evil of nuclear power. It’s a nice narrative: the proponents of nuclear power are wise and rational and not influenced by dumb Hollywood scripts; opponents are immature and easily influenced by emotions. It’s a cute narrative. But it’s false.

Before I get to the heart of the matter (the price of coal), allow me to first take issue with their notion of there being wiser people out there than the dumb yanks:

Could it be that nuclear energy, risks and all, is now seen as preferable to the uncertainties of global warming? France, which generates nearly 80 percent of its electricity by nuclear power, seems to think so. So do Belgium (56 percent), Sweden (47 percent) and more than a dozen other countries that generate at least one-fourth of their electricity by nuclear power.

Now, this is in fact the section that got me interested. This statement is blatantly false. Energy production doesn’t shift that quickly. The notion that France, Belgium, Sweden, or any other country have significantly altered their energy policies as a consequence of the global warming debate is absurd. The debate simply isn’t old enough.

But there’s more to it than that. I don’t know much about Belgium, but I do know a bit about Swedish and French nuclear politics.

Sweden and nuclear power

Nuclear power has been an extremely sensitive political issue in Sweden. Sweden has built four nuclear facilities for commercial electricity production, and they went into operation in the period 1975 through 1980, with the last reactors being added to these locations in 1985.

As an aside, one of these facilities was shut down in 2005 (well after the global warming debate began in earnest), leaving three in operation. The facility in question was located across the straight from Copenhagen, Denmark, and had been a source of political friction since Three Mile Island (though Denmark had initially thought it was a good idea to place it close to “market”).

In 1980, heavily influenced by Three Mile Island, the Swedish public voted in a national referendum on the issue. To make a long story short, the Swedish parliament decided to shut down all nuclear power plants no later than 2010, and that the last date for already under-way projects to complete was five years out (1985). In 1984, the government made it illegal to make any sorts of plans for, or research in support of, new nuclear power plants (a controversial “thought police” law that wasn’t repealed until 2006).

So much for Swedish enthusiasm for nuclear power.

So why is the percentage of electricity production so heavily nuclear? (47% according to Levitt and Dubner.) Looking at statistics from the Swedish energy authority (in Swedish, over at, which since I’m Swedish I happen to be able to read), the contribution of nuclear power to the overall consumption of energy has stayed fairly constant since the mid-1980s; indeed the net growth in energy demand from 1985 (when the last nuclear reactor was opened) to today has been modest. Efficiencies in energy consumption combined with not-very-exciting economic growth has more or less created a steady state.

So those are the numbers from Sweden. Contrary to Levitt and Dubner’s presentation, the high use of nuclear power in Sweden has nothing to do with global warming, or indeed with anything that has happened since Three Mile Island.

By the way, the Three Mile Island event is known in Sweden as the “Harrisburg accident”. Levitt and Dubner write “What it [the movie China Syndrome] did produce, stoked by “The China Syndrome,” was a widespread panic.” Well, yes, the movie premiere was eerily close to TMI (twelve days), and the movie tag line, after all, was “Today, only a handful of people know what it means… Soon you will know.”

But 1979 was well before digital cinema. The China Syndrome didn’t premiere in Sweden until August 13th, so had little impact on the debate. With all due respect to Jane Fonda, she’s just not such a big political factor in Sweden. It was the “Harrisburg accident” that gave the anti-nuclear environmentalist movement steam.

The French

Ah, yes, the French and nuclear power. “Nearly 80%” of electricity production in France is nuclear according to L&D (the actual number is 78%). France stands out among nations in their exploitation of nuclear power. But there are some very specific reasons for this. And none of them have to do with global warming.

Let’s begin by rolling back the clock a century or so.

It’s a little tricky for an American public to understand the French strategic perspective coming out of World War II. The Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 led to the siege, and fall, of Paris, and as a political consequence the final unification of Germany, as well as social upheaval in France including the infamous Paris Commune. The Great War (World War I) was in the west mostly fought on French soil; some 11% of the French population were killed or wounded in the war, an extraordinary number – some one thousand times higher than the US casualty rate in the current Iraqi conflict! And of course World War II led to the invasion and occupation by Nazi Germany for four years.

The ruling elite in France after WW2 were painfully aware of all this history, of course – Petain was born in 1856 and was a teenager during the “War of 1870”; de Gaulle was born in 1890 to a highly political Parisian family. This all set the nuclear political stage.

Besides this political history, France is proud of it’s early scientific work. And rightly so. Antoine Henri Becquerel and Pierre Curie were not only both French, but both were born in Paris. Together with Pierre’s Polish wife Maria Skłodowska-Curie, they discovered and characterized the phenomenon of “radiation”, for which they all shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics. Both the Curie and the Becquerel are today units of radioactivity (the latter being the SI unit).

The French government under de Gaulle founded the French Atomic Energy Commission in 1945, and already in 1956 began work on commercial production of electricity from nuclear power [3degc4]. In 1960, France detonated it’s first nuclear bomb, and proceeded to develop a nuclear capability independent of Great Britain and the United States. As de Gaulle said in 1968, “No country without an atom bomb could properly consider itself independent” [3ey39w]. The French nuclear capability was initially outside the NATO chain of command. Given the option, the French were not about to allow themselves to be invaded again. Today, France still maintains the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal.

To these two factors – strong political desire for independent strategic defense, and historic sense of connection through the discovery of radiation – we now add a third. The clincher.

France has hardly any fossil fuel reserves to speak of [2fprh8]. Not coal, not natural gas, not oil. The oil crisis of 1973 was just another impetus: in 1974 the french government embarked on an aggressive expansion program of nuclear power production.

Public sentiments and atomic energy

The key to understanding “The China Syndrome” is that it captured the trend, it didn’t cause it. It’s a cultural reference point, as is Three Mile Island (TMI), as is Chernobyl. But they’re not the cause. If anything, the China Syndrome was an exclamation mark at the end of a process, rather than the opening salvo. By 1979, skepticism of nuclear power had combined with economic factors to effectively cap the growth.

There were several reasons that led to the build-up of public resistance. The initial source was distrust of the government. General MacArthur and the US military censors did their best to paper over reports of “atomic plague” – radiation poisoning – in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is still a sensitive subject, as William L. Laurence, the Pulitzer Prize-winning science reporter for the New York Times, is being posthumously criticized for being on the Pentagon payroll at the time [3by99t].

This intellectual dishonesty continued into the early nuclear power program. The “Atoms for Peace” initiative presented by Eisenhower to the UN in 1953 began a process of capitalizing on the “peace dividend” (as we would call it today) of the nuclear bomb [y2hdfo]. In this atmosphere, an honest discussion of the pros and cons of atomic energy was hardly encouraged.

It was in that early context that Lewis L. Strauss, chairman of the new Atomic Energy Commission, in 1954 made the famous comment that became a headline in the New York Times the following day: “too cheap to meter” [3xcpk2]. Though not quite the true sentiment of the AEC at the time, it became part of a lopsided optimism over the potential of atomic energy.

If you want to talk about the influence of movies on the nuclear debate, you should mention Hiroshima mon Amour from 1959. It was the first graphic depiction of the horrors of nuclear war to reach a broader audience, and so politically sensitive at the time that Cannes had to put it in a special category. Now that movie had some real influence.

It is also easy to forget today how tense the world became in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Sputnik flew in 1957 and heralded the age of ICBMs, France detonated their first bomb in 1960, the Berlin Wall began to be built in mid-1961, in late 1961 the Soviet Union detonated their 50-megaton “Ivan” hydrogen bomb, Khrushchev spoke of a 100 megaton bomb, and in 1962 we had the Cuba Missile Crisis.

Whatever room for optimism around atomic energy was made guilty by association with the nuclear arms race of the 1960s. And Vietnam didn’t help.

By the time the 1970s came around, the anti-nuclear movement was in full swing across the west. Fair or not, the atomic energy industry was grouped with the nuclear weapons industry.

But all that being said, though public support for nuclear power fell around the time of TMI and the China Syndrome, they never fell very far. With few exceptions, every year the public was polled, a majority favored nuclear power, and it’s been growing at a steady clip since the late-90s [ypmvfx].

If nuclear power had been of strategic significance to the US, the political support would have been there, once emotions after TMI had calmed a bit. So what actually did happen?

It’s the coal, stupid

It’s not true that nuclear power has not grown in the US. No brand new sites have been built, but the existing ones have been upgraded, expanded, and tuned over the years, to the extent that total nuclear-energy power production since 1979 has tripled in the US [2qf6dw].

The real dilemma facing nuclear power adoption in the US is not public opinion. It’s economics: the price of coal is too low. Estimating the cost of electricity produced from nuclear power is very hard, but various sources today agree that it’s a little below 2 cents per kWh. The problem is, that’s about where the cost of electricity from coal is. (L&D assert that nuclear has a clear cost advantage vs coal, 1.3 vs 2.2 cents, but pinning down actual costs of nuclear is much more difficult than they imply.) And coal plants can be built smaller, more quickly, and in a much simpler regulatory context than nuclear power. But, of course, the price of coal doesn’t have to carry the external cost – CO2 emissions.

As the IAEA points out [38xnsx], the turnkey systems initially built in the early 1970s ended up being non-profitable. The National Environmental Policy Act was passed in 1969 and created both new requirements and new regulatory institutions. These were all good things, but the consequential demands on new licensees, notably of environmental impact statements, added to the rising costs.

By 1975 the curve of new orders world-wide had already reached it’s peak.

Furthermore, in the 1970s, and the 1980s, two other (economic) factors played in. Firstly, the western economies started to become more energy efficient. Measured as thousands of Btus per dollar, the US economy started to become significantly more efficient after the oil crisis; as the EIA numbers tell the story [222yvo], from holding steady around 17-20 from 1949 through the early 1970s, they then started to fall to last year’s estimate of 8.75.

In other words, the US economy doubled it’s economic energy efficiency. Demand for electricity would simply not grow at historical rates. The beginning of this trend coinciding with the peak of nuclear power plant orders is real. This is what free markets are good at: sensing a change in long-term demand trends.

And yes, the oil crisis. Many readers will be too young to remember the 1973 oil crisis. On October 17 of that year, the bulk of arab oil-producing countries decided to embargo the west for it’s support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War. This caused the prices of crude oil to triple, triggering a global recession. But even though those prices came back down somewhat, at least until the Iran/Iraq war [au6qc], the era of cheap oil was pretty much over. But that affects electricity prices very little.

The real driver of electricity prices in the US is coal. Coal is the source for half of the US electricity production.

And though coal prices did jump in 1974 and 1975 [yr5o8t], they came down, and have stayed down, shortly thereafter. Coal in the US, on a real dollar basis, is pretty much as cheap as it has ever been.

And it’s easy to see why. US coal reserves are gargantuan. Looking at the 2005 numbers (the next update is in fact due this month), the US has estimated reserves of 500 billion short tons. Since the current annual production is about 1 billion short tons, we have enough for 500 years. And that reserve estimate has been growing, not shrinking. I checked the EIA 1997 reports, and that was 500 billion tons, too. Who knows how long our coal will last. But it’s a long, long time. Our current consumption is within the error bar of our reserves. And barring regulatory changes, it will stay cheap. That’s how free markets work.

Have the columnists looked at this economic data? They write:

And so, instead of becoming a nation with clean and cheap nuclear energy, as once seemed inevitable, the United States kept building power plants that burned coal and other fossil fuels.

If you look at the actual numbers [3y7brd], this statement is misleading, at best. It sounds like they are saying that our dependence on fossil fuels for electricity has increased since 1979. The reverse is true. Fossil fuels accounted for over three-quarters (75%) of electricity production in 1979. Since then it fell distinctly to around 70% around 1990, and has stayed there since. What has stepped in to take it’s place? Nuclear power, which went from around 10% to today’s 20%, and has also picked up the slack from hydro.

Sure, you can argue that we should be replacing fossil fuels with nuclear at a faster clip. But that’s a different argument. Their implication that our dependence on fossil fuels for electricity production has increased is simply flat wrong.

The confusion continues

And so the debate about the environment, nuclear power, global warming, etc, continues it’s confusing path. The true dilemma with energy is that it is a really complex problem, and thus it’s very difficult to pursue an intelligent public discourse.

Blaming Jane Fonda doesn’t help.

A number of other blogolytes have chimed in. A selection:


  1. Coal looks cheap because part of the costs of coal power are not born by power companies and consumers. When Ontario doctors looked at the health care costs related to Coal fred electrical generation pollution from Ontario Coal plants caused an estimated 668 deaths, and added $4.4 bilion dollars in health care expenses, Since Ontario operates a form of socialized medicine, Ontario politicians decided that it would be cheaper to shut Coal fired power plants down, than to pay the added health care costs associated with coal fired electricity generation.

    Ontario premier Daiton McGuinty is no fan or nuclear power. He recently stated: “I don’t like nuclear power,” but he also realizes that nuclear power is the only viable option for Ontario’s CO2 and pollutant free energy future: “Natural gas is too expensive, wind power is unreliable, coal plants pollute the air and Ontario’s hydroelectric potential has largely been maxed out, leaving nuclear power expansions ‘on the table’ for the province.”

    [PSM] I totally agree. External costs are not carried by the coal industry today. That’s the real political “rub”.


  2. You make some good points regarding the cost of coal, nuclear’s position before The China Syndrome, etc. As someone who has worked in the nuclear industry since the mid 80’s, though, I do think you underestimate the effect of TCS a bit. It still comes up in conversation all the time and for many people is still a primary factor in how they look at nuclear power, along with Chernobyl and The Simpsons. That doesn’t say much about the discriminating public, but it is true. And there are costs involved when 20 or 30% of the population in a democracy has a substantial fear of a product.

    One problem with The China Syndrome is that there has been no reasonable entertainment alternative covering the same ground – nothing out there that looked at nuclear from a more reasoned perspective with an insiders view, and is fun as well. There is now. “Rad Decision” is a technothriller novel that covers energy basics and the good and bad of nuclear in particular, all within the typical story of mayhem you would expect. It is available at no cost to readers at (they seem to like it judging frm their homepage comments) and is also available in paperback at online retailers. (The author gets no royalties.)

    Stewart Brand, noted environmentalist, founder of The Whole Earth Catalog and a National Book Award winner has said: “I’d like to see Rad Decision widely read.”

    [PSM] Thanks for posting. No perhaps I react too much in the other direction. My key counterargument is that pretty much all industrial countries had a similar anti-nuclear trend in the 1970s and by the time 1980s rolled around, expansion had ground to a halt. In these countries, TCS has simply not been very significant as a cultural icon. As somebody who has argued nuclear energy with friends for thirty years *outside* the US, I can’t recall TCS ever coming up. TMI does, as does Chernobyl. If TCS was significant, there would be a marked difference between the development in the US and Western European countries, but there isn’t, which is why I jumped on their examples of Sweden and France in an attempt to claim otherwise.


  3. That is an interesting perspective I can’t match, having not spent much time debating the issue outside of the US. It would be interesting to compare the reasons each country’s general population would cite for its anti-nuclear feeling. I also understand that Europe has a much broader use of food that’s been radioactively sterilized than we do here – where its practically an impossibility. I wonder what the difference in thinking is with that (assuming I’ve got my facts right).


  4. I interpret the plan by GM at:

    to mean that GM is fully aware of the 500 year supply of coal. They also would very much like to continue to build very profitable large cars. By use of electricity as a means for bringing energy to the cars, there is no real need to worry about efficiency. And the electric car will turn out to be the global warming devil.

    Page 12 of this plan shows a lot about how things will go in the GM view of the future.

    If people only glance at this plan they might think that the GM interest in reducing pollution has something to do with global warming. Look again.


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