An Interview with Alex Epstein: Nuclear Power – How Safe is it and what have we learned from Japan?

Aug 7, 2011 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1)   Alex, could you first tell us about your present position and what you do?

I am a Fellow at the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights, specializing in energy issues. My main activities are writing and speaking.

2)  Now, how has Ayn Rand impacted you personally?

Ayn Rand’s writings have made my life better in many ways. Rand, as a major philosopher, deals with the major questions in life—what should you pursue, how should you pursue it, how should you go about reaching the truth?—and I think her answers to those questions serve as the foundation for becoming a clearer thinker and a happier person.

3)  What would she say about the incident in Japan?

If my experience looking at other issues is a guide, I’m sure she would have had a lot of fascinating insights that I couldn’t imagine. But I am confident she would agree with me that the hysteria over nuclear radiation that killed zero people in the midst of a natural disaster that killed 20,000 was reflective of environmentalist hostility toward technology. She wrote about this hostility in her essay “The Anti-Industrial Revolution.”

4) In your mind, how safe is nuclear power, and how dependent on it are we?

By any measure of risk of sickness or death, nuclear power is the safest form of power ever devised. It has risks, but compared to any other form of large-scale power generation, those risks are small. For more on this issue see my recent article and radio program on the subject—and I highly recommend Dr. Petr Beckmann’s classic “The Health Hazards of NOT Going Nuclear.”

5)  Many readers may not remember Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, but it seems we do not learn from history- What’s up with that?

Well, what should we learn from that history? Three Mile Island was, as Beckmann put it, ““history’s only major disaster with a toll of zero dead, zero injured, and zero diseased.” That proved the safety of nuclear power. Chernobyl was a deliberately unsafe plant designed by the Soviet government; even so, it was one of the least damaging things that government did. History shows that nuclear power is the safest form of power ever, even if you include Chernobyl, which you shouldn’t because that type of reactor was never allowed in the civilized world.

6)  One of Ayn Rand’s books- Anthem – seemed to be about a post apocalyptic society- do you think she foresaw some of the nuclear issues?

What she foresaw was the anti-technology philosophy that causes people to think that “radioactivity” and “radiation” are intolerable threats (even though they are things we are exposed to, in mild doses, every day) instead of objectively looking at their risks and benefits.

7)  One thing I have taken away from Japan is that Man has no real control over nature—and if there is an earthquake, a tsunami, or tornado or some event like that- many of us are not prepared- nor are our buildings. Your thoughts?

The more industrialized a country, the less disastrous natural disasters are. Had Japan not been a modern country, the death toll would have been many times higher. So the lesson I take is that we should keep building stronger buildings, producing more energy, developing new forecasting technologies, and we will become more and more resilient.

8)  Do we have any type of nuclear philosophy, and if so, who is running it ?

I don’t understand this question. How does one run a philosophy?

If you are talking about nuclear policy, though, what America does need are clear, objective laws pertaining to nuclear power. Right now, environmentalists can shut down nuclear projects easily, or make them prohibitively expensive, even if they are a hundred times safer than a hydroelectric dam or a natural gas facility. Objective laws about safety would go a long way toward liberating the production of cheap, plentiful energy.

9)  What have I neglected to ask?

What’s missing here is the amazing positive value of nuclear power—and, more broadly, the amazing positive value of energy. Too often, we act as if the thing we should focus on about energy is the problems associated with it. Now, these problems that are often exaggerated or completely fallacious, but even if they weren’t they wouldn’t justify the proposals to ban vital categories of energy. We need to recognize that the amazing standard of living we enjoy is made possible by copious amounts of cheap, concentrated, controllable energy—and that this kind of energy can only exist and expand with the right policies. We need policies that leave producers free to produce it and profit from it, absent irrational, anti-development environmental policies.

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