Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Fear and Doubt Trump Science and Facts in an Era of Mass Negative Mood

In my opinion, nuclear science and nuclear power are useful markers when trying to gauge mass sentiment. Nuclear power burst into popular imagination in the form of the devastation of Hiroshima and then Nagasaki as the world was working off the mass anger and xenophobia that had created World War II. The science itself can be complicated and the dangers are easy to exaggerate.

Nuclear power seems to follow an odd track when viewed in terms of socionomics - it is linked with the negative emotions of nuclear war, but it requires a society that embraces reason and hard work to allow it to flourish. In addition, most nuclear power plants are very large facilities requiring a reasonably efficient power grid to distribute power to power-hungry industry and citizens.

As we descend into this coming era of accelerating negativity, anger, fear and magical thinking, nuclear power is going to be a marker on where we stand as a society when it comes to reason vs. magical thinking and anger vs. hope. But it won't be clear-cut. I think also that an "us" vs. "them" mindset may erupt, where you see nuclear power becoming a goal of some states in the southeast and midwest, while other states and regions, particularly in the northeast, shun it and use some version of state sovereignty to choke it off.

Witness the recent vote by the Vermont Senate to block relicensing of Vermont Yankee 1 as an opening act in this coming drama:

Vt. Senate votes to close Yankee power plant
MONTPELIER - In a rare case of state involvement in nuclear regulation, the Vermont Senate voted 26 to 4 yesterday to block a license extension for the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, citing radioactive leaks, misstatements in testimony by plant officials, and other problems...

Without going into radiation dose calcs, let's just say that the tritium (a mildly radioactive isotope of hydrogen) that has been founding leaking from pipes is not outside of regulatory standards (themselves set quite conservatively low) and none has been found in the drinking water. As for the reality of it - you could could put 100,000 times more tritium than has been found to date in a jug of water and I'd drink it down, every drop - that's how mild this stuff is.

But - and this is the big "but" for those of us that will live through the coming Crazy Years - perception is deemed to be reality. If people perceive that an evil corporation is poisoning their water with radioactive materials and if they are living in an era where fear and magical thinking is embraced more often than reason, facts, science and investigation of the claims, well, then, we get this vote to attempt to shut down a major employer and major provider of cheap electricity in an era of high unemployment and crumbling tax base.

Go figure.

There is much more to this story, including missteps and bad judgment on the part of Entergy to go along with the alarmism of the anti-nukes, but the context of social mood defines how the end-game will play out and in New England, it looks like nuclear power will be phasing out.

No, the lights won't go out (immediately) and it will just be the poor who hurt from higher electricity prices. Plus, it will mostly be blue collar workers who lose good jobs and benefits, and why would they matter to rich white folks who can afford the high cost of marginal power sources? Later on, as other power sources show their vulnerability, the loss of a reliable source of power and jobs may, just may, come back to haunt Vermonters, but frankly I don't expect them to ever admit it - once you've bought into a religious position and have that position shored up by social mood, coming down from that position can be impossible for most.

More to come on this issue. Have a good weekend.

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