A psychiatrist and expert on fears and phobias who has studied and
analyzed social perceptions of nuclear energy.
Q: Tell me how you first got interested in nuclear power.
A: Well, a journalist called me up and said he had a question; that he'd noticed that I was an expert in anxiety and phobias. And he had a question he'd like me into look into. And it had to do with nuclear power. I said, "Well, I don't understand any connection." I was not interested and was not sympathetic. And so he came out and we had a meeting, and he said, " Here's the deal. I've got all the network television news coverage that went on about nuclear power for the last 11 years. I'd like you to look at that and just tell me what you think about what has been on the network television about nuclear power." Well, I was fascinated by that. I mean, I'd never thought about it. And so I went down to George Washington University, and they set up a place for me to watch 13 hours of videotape. That was before everybody had a VCR in their home. And so I watched it. And you don't have to be a rocket scientist. You don't have to be an expert in phobias and fears to see what was going on. It was basically a "what if" story. It was something that was going to happen, almost happened. It was a fear story.
Q: What do you mean, a "what if" story?
A: Well, the news about nuclear power was not that something had happened, but that it almost happened, or that it could happen. And I thought, that's a pretty unusual news story. Usually, news stories are about something that does happen. You know, you count the bodies. A vast area that has been destroyed. Something has gone on. But this was a story about some day, just around the corner, there's going to be--fill in the blank. Something terrible is going to happen. And it struck me a very interesting.
Q: So why was this interesting to you as a psychiatrist?
A: ... My special area of interest is anxiety, the reactions that people have to things that produce fear. And they're not necessarily particularly dangerous. An elevator would be an example, or a fear of flying would be common, or problems with agoraphobia, people afraid to go to malls or supermarkets. All kinds of places where fear is keeping people from doing things that they would otherwise do.
Q: Normally, you see people for whom this has become an abnormal type of thing in their lives.
A: Right. Individuals who are prisoners of their fear, who would otherwise do whatever it is and perceive other people as doing it without fear, but for them, it stops them. That's my professional activity, helping people do those things, essentially confront their fears.
Q: But with your experience watching the TV coverage of nuclear, were you stumbling on a mass pathology?
A: Well, of course, that led to all kinds of things after that. I went to visit a lot of the nuclear power plants around the country, especially those that were involved in controversy, and met with public groups, and spoke about it and wrote about it and got myself quite involved in the issue, between roughly 1980 and 1985. It was, is, a very big part of my life, as I just got involved in this mess of issues. And I was convinced that the psychology was a key part of what was going on; that the media played a role, and politics, especially anti-technology, anti-big activity kind of politics, often associated with the political left, was very much a part of this. But I didn't think any of that would happen without the psychology; that there had to be a fertile field on which this was growing. And I'm convinced that that fertile field is fear. It's the "what if" fear. It's the fear that something dreadful is going to happen, something that's nameless, something that is unfathomable, and that we really have to defend ourselves against this "what if" fear.
Q: So why do we, as an organism, why do human beings have this? Why did it evolve in the first place?
A: Well, fear is very important, because danger is around the corner. And fear is a way of signaling that there might be a problem ahead. It's a reaction to the possibility of a predator lurking behind that bush when you're out walking. So I think being able to anticipate dangers is very important.
The other part of my professional life is drug abuse. And that's very interesting, because drug abuse is really a deficiency of fear. The striking thing about drug abusers is that in the face of really dreadful things happening down the road, they persist in a behavior, in spite of it. So I find on one hand, in my life with anxiety disorders, I'm constantly working with people to say, "Stay in the present and disregard your fears." And in my world in the drug abuse, I'm constantly saying to people, "Think ahead. Where is it going? Be more fearful." So it's pretty clear to me that having too little fear is a different kind of problem, but a desperately serious problem also.
So simply getting rid of fear is not a health-promoting goal. What's important in both cases is to have the fear be realistic; that the fear fits the facts of the risk. And from my point of view, the contrast is very clear. With respect to drug abuse, we want more fear; and with respect to nuclear power, we want less fear in terms of a public health or the public interest goals.
Q: By visiting reactors and by doing research and so forth, you became pretty convinced that this was not really an industry which had a bad safety record, did you?
A: Outstanding safety record. I mean, I was amazed. I still am amazed that it is a phenomenally successful industry in terms of its safety record, not only for the public, but also for the people who work within the industry. In fact, I would say this: that the industry suffers from its preoccupation with its safety, beyond what makes any sense from a public health point of view, by adding to the cost; that the cost of nuclear power is primarily the cost of protection of the public safety; and that as the fear has sort of ground this industry down, those costs of safety just go up and up and up. So that the anti-nuclear folks win the argument not on public health grounds but on economic grounds, because the fear gets translated into costs which make nuclear power unaffordable.
Q: Delineate, then. If you have a situation where you have a technology, which you say has an outstanding safety record, but everyone in the country fears it, why?
A: Well, there are a number of factors. One is that the threat is concentrated. It's the fear like Three Mile Island. A reporter said off the record that if the public only knew, the East Coast of the United States was almost destroyed. Well, of course, nothing like that happened, but that was in his mind. And he thought about that. So it's a cataclysmic event that really gets people going. It's a risk people don't control. People accept tremendous risk if they control it. But if it's controlled by somebody else, they can't accept it. If it's perceived as needed, people will accepted it; whereas if it's not perceived as needed, they will dismiss it. The problem of familiarity is probably the most important. And that is when we're familiar with something, we don't fear it. But when it's alien, when it's unfamiliar, we fear it more.
And on all four counts, nuclear power generates fear. It's a cataclysmic accident that people are concerned about, some desperate kind of thing. It's controlled by "them", the utilities or the government, the scientists, or whoever it is, that is perceived as being the bad guys. It's unfamiliar to most people. And most people feel they don't really need nuclear power; that they can get their power from coal or oil or windmills or some other basis. They don't really need the nuclear power.
Q: Let's go through these, one by one. So the first thing you're talking about is concentration.
A: Yes. Well, the contrast that is very striking is between automobiles and airplanes. In a bad year in this country, we have 600 people die in airplane crashes. We have 150 die a day in automobiles. Automobile accidents are simply not news. People are not reacting to them, unless you have a phenomenal accident where five or ten people are killed at once, and that will get to be big news. But you've got to concentrate it to produce the news. On the other hand, airplanes, a little bit like nuclear power, have an awesome safety record. And yet, a plane crash where 100 people are killed is news, not just locally but all over the world, quite literally. So the concentration of deaths is very important.
Q: The concentration of deaths or potential deaths. You're saying, it's the imaginable [concentration]...
A: Exactly. Now, that's a very interesting distinction that you made there, because I was making a leap. In nuclear power there are no deaths, concentrated or nonconcentrated. But the fear is of the concentrated thing, that somehow this thing is going to have a catastrophic event. Of course, many people still believe that nuclear power plants can explode, which is impossible. But they worry about that. But I think, if you get a little bit more sophisticated, people would say that there would be a release of radiation that would be disastrous, sort of a Chernobyl kind of a syndrome, that people would be frightened of--like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl--of something happening at a particular place, at a particular time.
Q: Why do we respond to the concentration and not to the probability?
A: The capacity of human fear to be eroded by repetition, by familiarity, is unlimited. It is just an amazing thing, that no matter what the risk is, if the thing is repeated over and over again, there's no fear. There's no protection from the fear. People will continue to do something over and over again, even if it has a terrible probability of a disaster.
And the single best example of that is cigarette smoking. Everybody knows cigarette smoking is lethal. There is no question about that. It's not debated. It's known that it's lethal. And we have 55 million people who not only voluntarily smoke, but who pay billions of dollars, $40 billion a year, for the privilege of killing themselves with this known lethal agent. Now, if fear were really protecting us, you couldn't have any smokers. It would be impossible. So you realize that fear is a very imperfect shield against health risks.
Q: Give another example, because there people might say that it was the chemical nature of addiction. But say if you lived in a war zone, would you become accustomed, habituated?
A: Oh, of course you do. You get used to whatever it is that's going on, and it just becomes part of the scene, part of the risk that you have going on.
You know, this argument that it's addiction is a very strange argument, because addiction is like cancer or heart attacks. If we really feared addiction, well, why wouldn't that be a reason not to smoke? I mean, if you're going to write it off and say, "Well, no, they smoke because they've addicted," hey, wait a minute. If that's that serious, then people should be afraid of it. I'm afraid of addiction. You're afraid of addiction. But 55 million smokers are not afraid of addiction. So I don't think that washes. It's not just the chemical dependence that is causing the problem with cigarettes. It's the lack of fear.
Q: Can you talk about the control issue, the perception of control.
A: Well, if you feel like you're in charge, you have the feeling that you can stop the risk; you can help yourself. It's the difference between driving a car and being a passenger in an airplane. When you're driving a car, you perceive your ability to stop or swerve or stay out of a situation; whereas when you're the passenger in 14C, then you've got to depend on the air traffic control system and the mechanics at American Airlines and the pilot and everybody else who is going to keep you up there. So you get more afraid.
Now, of course, the paradox here is that in the modern world, when someone else is controlling the risk, we're often safer than when we control the risk. Because when someone else is controlling the risk, there are social institutions in place to reduce the risk. To fly an airplane, you actually have to have training. To drive an automobile, you don't. So that you're actually much safer when somebody else is controlling the risk. But the perception, the psychology is the opposite. The psychology is, if your [in] control, you're relatively safe; if somebody else controls, you're in danger.
So what happens with nuclear power. It's them. It's not me. I can burn the coal in my furnace. I can do the thing right on my property. Well, that's safe even though it's environmentally and in other ways quite dangerous. No, that's OK. It's them. It's the distance. It's somebody doing it to me, that makes it unacceptable.
Q: Now, when you deal with radiation, which is a natural phenomenon, exists in the world, what's the logic of the argument which says, "I resent greatly this fraction of a percent that I'm getting from the nuclear power station, but I'm not going to do anything about the radon in my basement." What's the logic behind that?
A: The logic behind it is that the fraction of a percent that's coming from the nuclear is imposed on me. It's somebody doing that voluntarily. If it's just the sun and its solar radiation, if I happen to live in Denver instead of living in Washington, and have five times the background radiation, that's all right, because nobody's doing that. There's not a person who's responsible. But if it's nuclear power, itās somebody doing it. And that is unacceptable.
Now, that is partly psychology. But this particular one of control is where the politics is. If you look at the anti-nuclear movement, it is rooted in this control. It is rooted in a kind of paranoid view of what they're doing to me. Of all the four factors, this is the one where the politics has got its leverage, and where these folks are making their living.
Q: Can you talk about the anti-nuclear movement. What's your guess? Why have they been drawn to this issue?
A: They're drawn to the issue first of all because the media is drawn to it. So it can get a lot of attention. And second of all, because of the psychology of fear. If they didn't have the foundation, the fertile field from the psychology, they'd go away and pick on something else, because they really aren't anti-nuclear. They're much more anti-technology. They're anti-big business, big economic activities, big government. That's what drives it. And of course, it's become a kind of article of faith. It's quite remarkable to me, the number of Americans who hold anti-nuclear views. For them it's like motherhood and apple pie. I mean, they don't even get to the point of asking a question of what it is that's going on. It's just taken for granted.
Now, I think one other factor that played a role in this and how we got to this miserable condition has to do with the word "nuclear" and its relationship to weapons. And the Cold War had a big effect on the psychology, because for millions of people, the distinction between a nuclear bomb and a nuclear power plant doesn't exist. The politics of it, if you look at the politics of the anti-nuclear bomb, was very closely tied to the anti-nuclear power station. So I think that although they're not related to each other except in the most tortured fashion, the politics run in a very similar stream.
Q: Can you talk about the third thing you mentioned, the familiar and unfamiliar, and why you say this is the most important.
A: Well, this is how you get well from a fear. A person who has a phobia of elevators has to spend a lot of time on elevators. They have to make elevators familiar to them, not intellectually but on an everyday basis. Were we to rehabilitate nuclear power, we would have to do it by making those power stations very familiar.
The first nuclear power station I ever visited was Three Mile Island. And I went with my older daughter, who was then about 12 years old. And my wife, when she sent us off, we might as well have been going into a war zone. It was very frightening to her, to see us drive away in the car, and think that we were going to visit this nuclear power station. This was really scary stuff. And the biggest sale item at the shop across the street from Three Mile Island was a t-shirt that said, "I didn't die at TMI." Well, of course, when you go there, it's the most routine kind of thing in the world. And I was talking to a lady who lived across the street and who watched the whole accident unfold. And she said she would watch the television about this, and the whole world was focusing on Middletown, Pennsylvania, and this power plant, and she said the people were walking around there (she called it "on the island") just like every day. There was nothing changed. And she said, "This is so strange, to think of the terror that was going on." But that's the way people, I'm afraid, feel about it. And they're unfamiliar.
So that in the power plants, the big problem is to get the workers to be concerned about safety enough to do the routines and all things, because it's so familiar to them. They are not afraid. They have to wear these badges and check radiation and all this.
Q: That's paradoxical, isn't it? So you're saying the inside and the outside. Talk a bit about that.
A: The inside people have no fear. In fact, one of the things that you've got to do is get them afraid they're going to lose their jobs. You explain to them, "Look, if you don't check that box off, if you don't do it this way, we're going to fire you," because they have no fear for their safety.
Q: And it's boring to do it.
A: It's boring work. There's nothing happening there. It's the most ordinary kind of activity you can possibly imagine. Well, I have talked to people in the nuclear power industry about needing to bring the public in, just for their own survival's sake. Well, they don't want to have people running around in there, in terms of getting in the way of what's going on. And they're also afraid, with some justification, that somebody's going to come in and throw a bomb into the thing, and actually cause trouble as a way of protesting what's going on. So they keep the public at a distance. And even these visiting sites are away from the power plants. They're near them, but they don't want to take people through the power plants.
Well, I have been through the power plants, and I think it would be wonderful for the public to spend more time going through the power plants. It's awe-inspiring. It's wonderful to see the technology at work, and to see how the power plants work, and to see the systems at work, to be in the control room of a nuclear power plant, [for instance]. But on the other hand, it is not exciting. There is nothing happening. It is the most boring kind of operation you can possibly imagine, as that power plant cranks out that energy.
At Middletown, Pennsylvania, I talked to a fellow about this, and he said, "You know, if this was a coal plant, we would be having" (I don't remember what his number was) "200 cars, railroad cars a day, carrying away the waste from the coal and bringing in the coal." He said, "I wouldn't be able to drive across the street, because the street would be blocked up with all these railroad cars." He said, "You look at what's happening to that plant, in terms of carrying in fuel and carrying out waste. Nothing. Nobody's moving anything in and out, except toilet paper and, you know, a few things like that. Nothing's happening." And he said, "This town would be disrupted if we had a coal plant, to say nothing of the atmosphere and all the rest of it." And yet that perspective doesn't exist. Nobody ever talks about it.
Q: Now, this thing of familiarity, the French have huge programs of tours--school children and so forth. Do you think that's an element in their success?
A: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. You see, we sited these plants away from metropolitan areas to "protect the public" from the dangers of nuclear power. What we did when we did that was move the plants away from the people, so they became unfamiliar. The major health effect, adverse health effect of nuclear power is not radiation. It's fear. And by siting them away from the people, we insured that that would be maximized. If we're serious about health in relationship to nuclear power, we would put them in downtown, big cities, so people would see them all the time. That is really important, in terms of reducing the fear. Familiarity is the way fear is reduced. No question. It's not done intellectually. It's not done by reading a book. It's done by being there and seeing it and talking to the people who work there.
It's like when I have a fearful flyer. Get him on an airplane. I want him to meet the pilot. I want him to tell the flight attendants that he's a fearful flyer. What they do is, they humanize that scary environment. I don't want him in 17A, cowering like this. I want him talking to people. Well, that's exactly what you would do with nuclear power. You'd want him to talk to the engineers. You want to talk to the laborers in there. You want to talk to everybody in there, so they know they're just neighbors doing their work. And that's very reassuring to see that.
Q: Clearly, it could be argued that DOE hasn't done a very good job in this respect. How important is this factor?
A: Well, I think a lot of the cover-up, the public relations stuff, the confidence in the scientists and all, is secondary to the effects that the anti-nuclear movement has had here. I think that they engender this kind of a sense. And no matter who it is, and no matter what they say, I think they look crummy in this kind of environment.
But having said that, I also think that the government and the utilities industries have done a crummy job of public relations. They've tried, but they haven't tried consistently. They haven't tried nearly enough. And I think the reason for that is because they're swimming against a current that's very strong. It's easier for them to let it go than it is to defend it. And I think that everybody is the loser in that.
I have no stake in nuclear power. I mean, I'm not saying the things that I am for some economic reason. I have nothing to do with it. I've been out of the field, really, since 1985. But I feel very strongly that this is the only technology that has ever been done in, ever been destroyed by fear. And that, I think, is very unfortunate. It sets a very bad precedent. And I think the public does lose in this. And it's not just the economic loss, which is huge, but it's also the loss of the potential for the future, of other technologies, of other kinds of activities, to see something so promising and that has such a good record, to become a dinosaur and disappear.
Q: People can't see radiation; it' s invisible. Do you think that's a factor? Do you think education is an element in this, and how that's different from habituation.
A: Well, I think education is important. I think having the facts is important. And I think one of the problems has been that the anti-nuclear side has dominated the facts that people have seen. And all too often, they get presented facts in a way that, encourages fear rather than discourages it. But when you're getting over a fear, when you're overcoming it, facts have very little to do with it. I see this in my work with people who have phobias, that simply telling them that elevators can't crash and you're not going to suffocate if the elevator stops, doesn't have anything to do with what they're doing. They have to be in the elevator. They have to get on the airplane. They have to give the talk. And it's not an intellectual process. It's an experiential process. You have to be there. You have to feel it. You have to see it. And you have to do it over and over again for the fear to go away.
And I would like to see that people who are afraid of nuclear power have access to nuclear power plants, to help them get over that. I think that would be a very useful thing to do, to be able to identify people who are afraid, and to have them get in a training course, a little bit like the airlines do, where they'll have flights that are specifically designed for fearful flyers, to help them get over it. But what's needed is an actual experience, a "hands-on" emotional experience, not a matter of information.
Q: You see, we're going from patients to really the whole nation here. Right?
Q: So we're talking about nuclear fear as a mass pathology.
Q: From a policy point of view, if you had a technology that you didn't want to see done in, what would be the strategy you would recommend?
A: Start with the kids, and get them to come at an early age, and get them to see it and have pride in it and feel confidence in it. I think it's important to realize also that life, never mind technology, is not without risks. We don't have automobiles because the automobile is completely safe. We don't fly in airplanes because no one ever crashes. We have to also educate about the fact that risk is part of life. And I think that's also a very important concept to get across. But the risk is small. It's understandable. And it's affordable in the context of the benefits that come in. But I think the short answer is that the kids are the most important part of the dynamic, in the population sense. And to have young people become familiar at a personal level with nuclear power plants is in the national interest.
Q: Why is coal having such an easy time compared to nuclear power?
A: The greatest mystery to me is how the American environmental movement can be anti-nuclear, because the environment is so much benefited by nuclear power, compared to any other way to generate electricity, including solar and wind. I have seen the solar panels and the windmills and what they do to the environment, and to say that those are friendly to the environment is laughable. So that it's just a very strange argument to me.
Coal. You know, it's interesting to say whether coal is familiar or not familiar. When I was a kid our house was heated with coal, so we had a coal truck come and dump the coal down a chute, and I had to go down and put the coal in the furnace, and all that sort of thing. But that's gone now. I think most Americans have never seen coal today, have no idea what coal is about. So to say it's familiar is not quite right. I think most people have no clue about it. But it's out of view. It's not part of their mix in any way. It's not in the newspapers. It's not in the television. It's just happening off-stage. And it's not high tech. It's not scary in any way.
Now, the fact that the emissions are a major environmental problem, including the global warming and all the other kinds of problems that we have with carbon dioxide, is really quite remarkable. And why it is that the environmental folks are not saying, "Let's close down coal plants," I can't explain that. I don't understand. Their argument is that they want conservation. Conservation is not going to make our lights go on. You've got to have electricity. We're going to need more electricity, not less. It's got to be made somewhere. And how is that electricity going to be made? I don't get it. I think there's something anti-intellectual going on, and irresponsible going on in this priority setting, because coal is the default. Coal is where we go for electricity.
The utilities in this country have figured out that when they build a coal plant, they don't have a problem. When they build a nuclear power plant, they have a huge problem. And so they're not making decisions about the environment. They're making practical business decision. One thing they can do and make their electricity with. The other thing, they can't. That's not too difficult to figure out why they're building coal plants.
Q: So you think the politics might be driving the differential emphasis on nuclear as opposed to coal, from the environmental...
A: I think it's driven ultimately by the fear, and then through the media and the politics. We see it happening daily in our utilities, as people are moving to coal and away from nuclear. That's exactly what's happening.
Q: Now, talk about need, and how need is a possible cure for fear, or a moderation factor.
A: Yes. We had a crash here in Washington in 1983, of a plane onto the 14th Street bridge, and a lot of people were killed, as I recall. But the biggest thing that happened at National Airport in a snowstorm, was that people were upset that they closed the airport for five hours and they couldn't get on their airplane. They wanted to get somewhere. Never mind the fact that a plane has just gone down and the snow is coming down like crazy. Because they needed to go somewhere. And that is reality, that no matter how many crashes we had, we're not going to close down air travel, because people can't support their lifestyles without air travel. And I think it's the need that drives it.
And that's to me the secret in Asia and in France. And that is that they lack alternative means of generating electricity. From their point of view, nuclear is what they need to get the lights to go on. And if we had that sense here, this would go away also. Need is a very powerful way of reducing fear. But the fact is that the United States has a lot of oil. The United States has a lot of coal. We have a lot of alternative ways to generate electricity, so we don't need nuclear power. And it becomes expendable. And so we can toss it off without facing our fears, without confronting the irrationality of the decision-making process. We simply drop it from our menu.
Q: What's your thoughts about high level nuclear waste, and why it is so apparently scary to people?
A: Well, I think that has to do with the same psychology. The problem is that there is so little waste generated by a nuclear power plant, so little high level waste, radioactive waste, that the problem can be deferred virtually forever. You don't have to do anything about it. It can be stored on site or in above-ground storage that's very small, for decades. And so the fact that the fear is there, the discomfort, and the political and media reinforcement of that, means that you just set it aside and don't deal with it.
Now, the irony is that the longer it's set aside, the more it appears that there must be something here. There must be a terrible problem here. So that the fears are actually fed by the failure to deal with the problem. And I think that there's going to come a time, even in France and in Asia, where people are going to have to say, "OK, let's do it."
Now, of all the problems to deal with, this has got to be the easiest. There's a thousand ways to do it, and millions of places to put the high level waste. The problem, though, is, wherever you put it, you're going to have to confront the fears. And once it happens, in my experience with what I know about fear is, it'll just go away. It'll be very interesting, that as soon as it's done, boom, it'll be done. And I would encourage people to set an earlier date rather than a later date, because I think the longer they put it off, the more they feed the fears and make a bigger mountain for themselves to get over.
Q: So you're saying it's the continued singular nature of nuclear power and nuclear waste. That this is not like other things in the world. Right?
A: Until it's just put away and it's gone, it's there and it's a "what if" fear. If you look at the waste issue, the reason people haven't done it, is because there's these scenarios about earthquakes and changing water movements and all kinds of things. If we could get back to the feeling that radiation is normal, radiation is natural, radiation is inevitable, and realize that this nuclear waste is a small quantity that is really quite manageable. If in 250,000 years people decided that there was a problem with it, well, they could move it. They could do something else with it. It's not as if it's gone away somewhere. It's sitting right there, wherever it is put in the repository. So I think it's a fear problem that is reinforced by the fact that it's not resolved.
And of course, it gets translated into an economic problem. I think that that's another thing that's very interesting, that the fear gets a dollar attached to it because of what it takes to deal with technical problems in the context of fear. And so the argument becomes not just a health and safety one but an economic one. And actually, it's not expensive to dispose of the nuclear waste. It's just expensive to manage the fear.
Q: The fear costs money.
A: The fear costs money. That's what we're sinking this industry, is, the fear translated into dollars has ruined the industry. And I think the same thing is a threat in terms of the waste. It's so easily managed in so many different ways. We just need to do it and get on to the next thing. This is not a big problem.
Q: How do you make sense of the idea that people worry about health effects on future generations, people living tens of thousands of years in the future?
A: Only in terms of the politics and the media. I think it's a kind of a magic that goes on. It's like with a plane to say, "Okay, this plane is going to take off and going to fly to Chicago. Is this going to make it or not?" You don't really know. I think it's the unknown about it. We don't really know what's going to happen in 10,000 years. We don't know what's going to happen in 100,000 years. And you can generate endless scenarios of one thing and another. It becomes a kind of a screen on which we project our fears. And when you've got 250,000 years to think about, you've got quite a big screen to project on.
Q: Now, last thing. In Three Mile Island, even though really very small amounts of radiation were released, around the time, you had people talking about metallic tastes in their mouth and children having green vomit and so forth. Where does this come from?
A: Isn't it interesting? I mean, we see it now about the Gulf War Syndrome in the United States. Once you get something that reaches a level in the public consciousness, people attach their experiences to it. They have a reason for why they have whatever, a backache, a cancer, a psychotic episode, whatever it is that's happening. You get a reason for it. And I think that that happened at Three Mile Island. A lot of Europe is still dominated by concerns about Chernobyl, which again is from a radiation point of view, makes no sense at all. But there are a lot of people who are not drinking the milk, and doing all kinds of things because of concerns about that. I think the psychology is that people are uncomfortable. And once you have an event happen like this that has this mysterious quality, that's reinforced by the media and political forces, they attach their problems to this. And then, of course, the people who are promoting the fear have now got a reason, because they've got all these suffering people. So you get a very nice kind of a synergy going on that ensures that it's perpetuated. And I don't think anybody is benefited, including the people who have the problems from that process.
Q: What kind of a job has the media done in covering nuclear power?
A: Terrible. Terrible. The media is attracted to fear, the way a moth is attracted to a light. It becomes the story. And many reporters are in awe of the intellectual side of the anti-nuclear movement, and perhaps its political dimensions also. So they have trouble trusting facts. They have trouble trusting their own judgment. And they exaggerate these arguments against nuclear power, and they constantly "balance" the story by giving a lot of opinion, a lot of air time to the fear-generating ideas. And those catch hold in a large segment of the population, and the problem goes forward.
I think the media really needs to be responsible for thinking about where the risks are, and how you figure that out.
Q: So the media have an affirmative responsibility.
A: Yeah. The media have an affirmative responsibility to count the bodies, to be able to accurately assess risks, and to portray that to the public. And they've done a terrible job of that with nuclear power.
Q: If we just hear on the media all the time, whenever we hear about nuclear, we hear it in a particular guise, does that condition us to thinking about it in a certain way?
A: It's considered a controversial issue. And the way the media deals with controversy is to balance. So we're going to have to hear the fear messages every time we hear anything about nuclear power. It's fallen into that category as a controversial issue. And I think that that's not in the public interest. That's not good science. That's not good public health. But that's the way the story plays.
Q: Can anything save the nuclear industry in this country, do you think? Or is the deck just too stacked?
A: My prediction is that we've got to let this generation of power plants die. And we're going to reinvent nuclear power with a new name, with a new image. And we're going to do it by copying the Asians and maybe France too. It'll be interesting to see. We're going to observe that these people have done this, a little like we went to the moon to beat the Russians after Sputnik. We're going to say, "They've gotten a head start on us, and we've got to catch up. And we're going to do it with a new generation of power plants that'll have a new name to it." And we'll do just fine. But it's probably ten years until that happens.