17 Sep 2007

More People Died in the Back Seat of Ted Kennedy’s Car

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Unhappy about CO2 emissions from fossil-fuel-powered electrical generating plants? Blame Jane Fonda, Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt advise.

If you were asked to name the biggest global-warming villains of the past 30 years, here’s one name that probably wouldn’t spring to mind: Jane Fonda. But should it?

In the movie “The China Syndrome,” Fonda played a California TV reporter filming an upbeat series about the state’s energy future. While visiting a nuclear power plant, she sees the engineers suddenly panic over what is later called a “swift containment of a potentially costly event.” When the plant’s corporate owner tries to cover up the accident, Fonda’s character persuades one engineer to blow the whistle on the possibility of a meltdown that could “render an area the size of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable.”

“The China Syndrome” opened on March 16, 1979. With the no-nukes protest movement in full swing, the movie was attacked by the nuclear industry as an irresponsible act of leftist fear-mongering. Twelve days later, an accident occurred at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in south-central Pennsylvania. …

The T.M.I. accident was, according to a 1979 President’s Commission report, “initiated by mechanical malfunctions in the plant and made much worse by a combination of human errors.” Although some radiation was released, there was no meltdown through to the other side of the Earth — no “China syndrome” — nor, in fact, did the T.M.I. accident produce any deaths, injuries or significant damage except to the plant itself.

What it did produce, stoked by “The China Syndrome,” was a widespread panic. The nuclear industry, already foundering as a result of economic, regulatory and public pressures, halted plans for further expansion. 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. Today such plants account for 40 percent of the country’s energy-related carbon-dioxide emissions. Anyone hunting for a global-warming villain can’t help blaming those power plants — and can’t help wondering too about the unintended consequences of Jane Fonda.

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