President Obama yesterday pledged $8.3 billion in loan guarantees to help two private companies construct nuclear reactors in Georgia. They would be the first new nuclear reactors built in the United States since the 1970s. It's an amazing turn around, given how much public fear there was in the '70s about nuclear plants "melting down." Maybe because there's never been a major Chernobyl-style disaster here in the United States, those fears seem to have ebbed to the point where nuclear power can now be discussed seriously as a "green energy" alternative without triggering real unease among the general public and absolute hysteria among "actress/activists."
Our most notorious "nuclear disaster" occurred at Three Mile Island in March 1979, of course. Though the public fears that incident triggered were, in the end, out of all proportion to the scope of the actual accident. Contrary to popular perception, it wasn't a meltdown but 'just' a leak of radioactive gas caused initially by a problem valve that was exacerbated by human error. According to the American Nuclear Society, using the official radiation emission figures, "The average radiation dose to people living within ten miles of the plant was eight millirem, and no more than 100 millirem to any single individual. Eight millirem is about equal to a chest X-ray, and 100 millirem is about a third of the average background level of radiation received by US residents in a year." ("Oh Conclusions Drawn, so the American Nuclear Society has finally gotten to you, too, huh....")
But much to the dismay of the nuclear power industry back then, I expect, public perception of the event was driven in part by a movie called The China Syndrome, which had been released just 12 days before. The film was about two reporters, played by Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas, who uncover evidence that a newly constructed nuclear plant has fundamental safety flaws which could cause a meltdown, flaws that the shadowy corporate owners are malevolently covering up. I've embedded the 2 minute trailer for the film below. If you watch it, notice how pervasive the Watergate-era, Woodward-and-Bernstein themes are. The ebbing of that intense skepticism over the last 30 years or so may also explain in part the softening public perception of nuclear power. As you watch this trailer, it's easy to imagine Richard Nixon behind the cover up. But a dark conspiracy is a lot less compelling if you try to imagine Barack Obama behind it all.