NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


September 18, 2007

Is there a bigger global warming villain than Jane Fonda, ask Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, the authors of "Freakonomics."

"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 (TMI) nuclear plant in south-central Pennsylvania.

Stoked by "The China Syndrome," the accident at TMI created 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.

Despite the unintended consequences of Jane Fonda, nuclear power may be making a comeback in the United States.  Could it be that nuclear energy, risks and all, is preferable to global warming?

  • There are plans for more than two dozen new reactors on the drawing board and billions of dollars in potential federal loan guarantees.
  • Even though the development of new nuclear plants stalled by the early 1980s, the country's 104 reactors today produce nearly 20 percent of the electricity the nation consumes.
  • This share has actually grown over the years along with our consumption, since nuclear technology has become more efficient.
  • While the fixed costs of a new nuclear plant are higher than those of a coal or natural-gas plant, the energy is cheaper to create: Exelon, the largest nuclear company in the United States, claims to produce electricity at 1.3 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared with 2.2 cents for coal.

Source: Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, "The Jane Fonda Effect," New York Times, September 16, 2007.

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