"Big, ugly, and scary", or How Hollywood has Misinformed the Public About Nuclear Power

Pencil drawing by the author; Bellefonte Nuclear Generating Station, Hollywood, Alabama.

by Mike Walker

History and science—or perhaps the history of science—as it pertains to the nuclear industry will be the main focus of this blog, hence the somewhat-mundane but honestly pragmatic title. I’ve long been an advocate of nuclear power (and in general an increase in peaceful applications of nuclear and associated technologies) both as a journalist and a software designer, but it took a rather specific incident to function as the catalyst for me to actually write this blog.

I was having dinner with a friend who is a Ph.D. student in the humanities one night—a really bright guy—and we were talking about a trip to Dunnellon we were planning to go hiking and swimming at Rainbow Springs State Park there. Dunnellon is near Crystal River, the site of Duke Energy’s ill-fated Crystal River Three nuclear plant. I mentioned we could drive down to Crystal River for dinner—they have some good seafood there—and also drive decently close-by the nuclear/coal power plant complex.

“Oh I don’t want to see it. Nuclear plants are big, ugly and scary!” exclaimed my friend.

I was awestruck. This guy will have his doctorate in a couple years and then will be teaching college undergrads—wait, hold up: he’s already teaching undergrads as a teaching assistant now, actually. Super-smart guy, as I said. Yet his immediate opinion of a “nuclear plant” and by obvious extension the entire industry, was that it was “big, ugly, and scary”.

Moreover, his opinion mirrored one I recalled from my own undergraduate experience. I was in a medical sociology class and something about nuclear power was brought up and the professor—a sociologist and college professor, mind you—responded in a very negative way as to suggest that nuclear power was unsafe and indeed, a haphazard and ill-run affair. I raised my hand and asked her on what she based her views and she replied—seriously—that “you know, Homer Simpson and all . . .”.

I responded that the evil Cobra character Dr. Mindbender in G.I. Joe was supposd to be an orthodontist yet a fictional character wasn’t going to give me a poor view of the  entire dental profession, and she and the rest of the class laughed, but you see the greater point. There are people—very well-educated people who may be in positions as teachers or lawyers or otherwise to influence policy and public understanding—who nonetheless are quite ill-informed on nuclear power, or really, nuclear anything. If Homer Simpson or Hollywood otherwise are doing the job of educating people about nuclear power, we have a huge problem at hand.

There is no doubt that aside from huge, the problem is not new, either. Many of you know that the 28 March 1979 incident at Three Mile Island Generating Station’s Number-2 reactor happened mere days after the release of the Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon thriller The China Syndrome, which featured not only a serious incident at a nuclear power station but a corporate cover-up of flaws in the plant itself. The combination of this film and the actual TMI incident that happened so close to the film’s release are often cited as leading reasons why the public support of peaceful applications of nuclear technology in the 1950s through the 1970s turned sharply to greater criticism of not only military nuclear weapons, but nuclear power, too, in the 1980s. Other films such as Silkwood, The Day After and Testament also provided more fictional critique and an important if often less-than-accurate source of iconography regarding nuclear science. All three of these films, interestingly, were released in 1983 at the apex of late Cold War fear of nuclear attack or nuclear disaster germane to an incident at a power plant. The universal radiation warning icon, men in white or yellow “space suits” with protective boots and masks, wailing klaxons and alarms, complex control panels, evil corporations and corrupt generals and politicians—these are the images that Hollywood has provided of the nuclear world. No wonder my friend who studies fiction for a living found nuclear plants to be “big, ugly and scary”, for fiction has given them little else than this exact guise.

I feel very fortunate and thankful to live in a nation where public opinion influences—controls, even—political and corporate decisions and policies. However, I do not want to live in a world where people with the highest levels of education only know about technologies that can improve their quality of life per what movies or cartoons or novels may tell them. Thus, the main purpose of this blog will be to share what I have learned as a journalist and science writer about communicating to the lay public the real nature of nuclear technologies, both the very positive aspects and the areas that are valid causes for concern. If an informed public has questions or complaints about nuclear power or any associated topic, I welcome that, but the key is an informed public in the first place. The game as it stands is rigged against our industry and we don’t hold cards we really ought to hold so even now decades after Three Mile Island many of us will find ourselves in that same position I was in at dinner with my friend where I had to devote the rest of the dinner conversation explaining Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi, why a reactor can’t “blow on up”, and how despite what James Bond movies may suggest, a terrorist is not going to steal a bomber full of nuclear weapons and fly it off to his secret lair. And I was only glad to do this: someone needed to offer these facts, to counter what the mass media had produced piece by piece over years and years of offering more through fiction than fact regarding the nuclear world.

There are people like my friend who will tell you, despite their obvious lack of any supporting information, that “what happened in Japan could happen here” though it most probably could not. They will say that people have died from “chain reactions” that got out of control despite no one in the United States having suffered such a fate since the 1964 criticality accident at Wood River Junction, Rhode Island. (Nevermind, too, that most early criticality accidents were in good part the sad results of gross human error by people who really should have known better, such as poor Dr. Slotin.)

This blog will focus on how to communicate in an even, balanced, but pro-nuclear tone the actual, science-supported, facts of nuclear power and associated applications. The trajectory of how we came to a point in the United States were much of the public greatly fears nuclear power despite other forms of power being more damaging to the environment will be explored more as will other aspects of our nuclear history, as I expect readers will find such history pretty interesting. The Cold War era is rife with a history that is only now becoming fully in the public discourse as more and more of it is declassified and for the most part, it’s truth better than fiction, with ample tales of real-life heroes and impressive, pioneering, research. Whole books have been written on this topic, one of the best being one I just finished reading myself entitled Nuclear Power from Underseas to Outer Space by John Simpson (American Nuclear Society, 1994) which chronicles Mr. Simpson’s career at Westinghouse in nuclear research, his work under the direction of Admiral Rickover, and the evolution of early naval nuclear power applications. I cannot recommend it enough: well-written and covering some areas of history that have not been considered elsewhere, it should interest anyone in the industry. I will also cover current issues in the Russian nuclear industry since that’s my own area of expertise (alongside Russian/Slavic issues in general) and one little-reported in the US trade media, it seems.

So, welcome: I’m thankful that Nuclear Street has provided me with this blog and hope it will be of interest and use to everyone who reads it!

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  • As soon as I posted a link to this article on my own Facebook, a friend in Australia who is very pro-nuclear commented that "The suburb of Lucas Heights now has no residents. They excised themselves into a new suburb, Barden Ridge, because of the perceived problems with having a reactor the size of a washing machine in their vicinity.". Apparently, the situation Down Under is even worse than in America. The thinking displayed by the Australians in Lucas Heights illustrates exactly the type of problem I'm speaking of in this blog post.

  • Anonymous

    Mike - welcome to the world of pronuclear blogging.

    Unfortunately the Crystal River nuclear plant that you wanted to visit is one of the recently shuttered plants; it was a victim of a series of poor management and regulatory decisions that cut short its operating life to the great detriment of the customers who paid for it.

    Interestingly enough, if you visit the site you will find that the single nuclear unit is surrounded by four large coal burning units. You will see that there are two of the big, "scary" cooling towers on the site, but don't be confused by the imagery. Those mushroom cloud shaped cooling towers are actually the heat sink for the steam cycle of units 4 and 5, both of which burn coal.

    Unit 3, the only nuclear unit on the site, used a canal as its heat sink for the secondary side of the plant. When I visited that site in the 1990s it was winter (such as winter gets in my home state) and the discharge side of the canal was teeming with manatees enjoying its warmth.

    You might also be interested in an image of the same nuclear plant that was the subject of your pencilled sketch.


    The plant's cooling towers do not really look like that - yet - but the artist who colored them in would dearly love to lead a big public art project to paint some cooling towers and help people understand that they are simply functional pieces of equipment that can serve as a large blank canvas as well as a heat sink.

    Rod Adams

    Publisher, Atomic Insights

  • Anonymous

    Hi Mike,

    I'll be reading your posts. I especially enjoy reading nuclear history, specifically when it has a bearing on explaining current anti-nuclear mythology and FUD. I would love to see whatever you can dig-up that gets into the nitty-gritty of the infamous "negative learning curve" for nuclear, which the anti-nukes love to bandy about all the time.

    All the best,


  • Mr. Adams, thanks much for your comment and for mentioning me at your own blog. I had hoped to explain to my friend that the cooling towers and indeed, most of the larger structures at Crystal River, are actually in service of the coal-burning plant and not the nuclear one. The Crystal River complex is viewed quite well from the northern section of the Fort Island Trail Beach and decently from Highway 19 and also from the boat ramp at the western end of Highway 40. In the end, we did not bother to drive anywhere that we could see the complex at all, though I think my friend now understands nuclear much better following our dinner conversation—at least I hope so.

    I'm very sad to see Crystal River Three put to an early end and also to see Duke cancel their plans for the Levy County plants nearby. This is a serious loss for energy customers who already have paid into the company for these projects and also to the local economy. Crystal River has a small but once-decent mall, and recently the JC Penney's store went out of business and Belk's has said it will close its store there in January 2014. That pretty much seals the fate of the poor mall, and there is no doubt in my mind it is due to the loss of the Crystal River jobs and loss of the prospect of the Levy plants. The local economy has always been predicated on the power plants, with ecotourism being about the only other main economic draw.

  • Hi Mike,

    Welcome to Nuclear Street! I really loved reading your post and look forward to a lot more! You raised so many good points and I know it will generate a lot of good discussion. Can't wait to read more!


  • Elitist pronouncements and Green agendas, the corruption of the college curriculum, social insurgency movements starting with the late 60's counterculture offensive, all must be investigated for their anti-intellectual, anti-Classical, anti-technology, and anti-economic science whose ultimate goal was always the acceptance of modern anti-population-growth embedded in all public, political, monetary financial and corporatist policy today. The attack on nuclear energy is the attack on humanity's survival and perpetuation.

  • Those are valid points, Clarc. Part of the issue is that since the 1960s onward, it seems, non-sciences majors in US universities do not really get much science education in most colleges. A lot of people of my own generation who are not scientists or engineers themselves lack even basic physics and perhaps even any math beyond algebra. It is therefore easier for them to believe what Hollywood or radical environmental groups say about nuclear because they lack the education to discern the real facts of nuclear. Part of my point regarding my friend the English grad student was this: he was working with emotional conceptions of nuclear and not any cold hard facts.

  • Anonymous

    It's a worthwhile goal, Mike.  In nearly 50 years as a Nuke, I have been consistently frustrated by the celebratory ignorance that bursts forth from many individuals opposed to nuclear energy.  Many members of the news media influence much of the lack of reasoning that seems so widespread among the general public.  The press coverage of the Fukushima accident during the first two weeks was nearly universally atrocious.  In fairness to the scribes, there was precious little in the way of facts and focused analysis that was available to the reporters.  On the other hand, the events at Fukushima were a disaster:  four plants ruined, wastes all over the site, and many neighboring citizens uprooted.  We'll be painted with the Fukushima brush for many years.

    Having just grumbled, I salute you for not throwing in the towel.  Reason may prevail, particularly with the help of authors like yourself.

    Thanks for all your efforts.

    Aging Nuke

  • Aging Nuke, the way I see it one of the problems in covering the Fukushima disaster was that as it was a major international news story, it went to people who covered international or Asian news—not to science reporters. If you have a biologist who discovers a new species of monkey, they send a science reporter; if you have Apple launching a new iPad, they'll send a technology reporter; if it's a medical story, you may get a medical reporter who is also a physician . . . but if you have a highly-technological disaster, that goes to regional, national, or international general news folks often as not. Perhaps that's supposed to be for the best, but these people are more used to reporting on the gravity of a story rather than its specifics, be it a war, election, or hurricane.

    My next post will probably be a Q&A format of common questions people in the industry get from lay-people and reporters and some ideas of how to answer these questions. I get asked all the time these types of questions (e.g., "aren't the Japanese great with technology? How ever did Fukushima happen then?". One of the most interesting things about being a software engineer who is also a journalist is learning what journalists are REALLY asking when they ask a question and how they'll fit the response into a story. Sadly,  due to time/space issues, you can almost always expect to be quoted on about one-tenth of whatever you actually said in an interview, so it's imperative to say things that even if truncated markedly will still make sense and stay in context.

  • Anonymous

    I do not think that The Day After has anything to do with nuclear power plants, but I concede that many people may confuse NPPs and thermonuclear-warheaded ICBMs. For all the rest, I absolutely agree with the author of the article!

  • Anonymous

    excellent perspective and action taken: much more is needed, and looking forward to your blog.

    Captain Mark S. Campagna USN( ret)

  • Regarding the film "The Day After", no it doesn't deal with nuclear power but instead nuclear war, however, the general sense of fear of the great damage that nuclear weapons can cause I think spills over into considerations germane to peaceful nuclear power, too. This is a topic I deal with more in my second post to this blog: how emotional considerations often overrule logical ones when people are dealing with something they fear and do not fully understand.

  • Great stuff, Mike.  I think you and I are on the same mission.  Even more coincidental, I wrote a piece quite similar to yours last week, although more tongue-in-cheek.  It can be read here:  investorintel.com/.../radiation-in-film

    I will be following your blog with great interest, and re-posting your posts to my network.  Thanks for joining in the fight!

    Canon Bryan.

  • Thanks, Canon! I just read your own blog post with great interest and fully agree: aside from Back to the Future, Star Trek: The Next Generation (which I'm a huge fan of, btw) always left me puzzled: you'd have a major engineering problem and only the Cheif Engineer and perhaps Lt. Word (who was the head of security, I think?!) trying to fix it. On the Federation's flagship . . . apparently good help was hard to find in the future? Or Dr. Crusher would cure a disease no one had even encountered before, all before the episode was over. This is fine for sci-fi, and there are good reasons insofar as the pragmatics of casting and writing a movie or television show to do these things, however, the problem is, people get informed via fiction. With Star Trek or Harry Potter where we know what's real and what's fiction, that's probably ok, but when it comes to something like The China Syndrome, we may indeed have some major problems. My second post in my blog here gets into some of the possible reasons why nuclear issues attract screen-writers who showcase the industry in less-than-kind ways, actually.

  • Anonymous

    Hell yea! You tell um. I have never felt safer than working at a nuclear facility. I've done my time at chemical plants, petro, you name it. Igornance is blind. To be a nuke worker, you have to have a whole different mind set. jeff