Stephen King Was Wrong About Nuclear Power

When I was a kid, I read a lot of Stephen King.  One of my favorite sections of his novels was the ten page scene in The Tommyknockers where the dashing, rebellious writer confronts an obnoxious old energy executive with the shocking “truth” about the dangers of nuclear power.  I remember reading that for the first time and just tearing through it, amazed at the strength of the facts on the side of King’s hippie hero.  Surely, I thought, it must be clear to anyone with a brain that nuclear power is bad. 

Of course, I was a kid.  I was easily impressed by messages where emotional young rebels strike out at conservative caricatures.  Actually, that’s why I don’t read much King anymore: I got tired of the constant bashing of conservatives.  Seriously, where would King stories be without insane religious fundamentalists to be the bad guys in almost every book

Anyway, for some reason I thought of that scene recently, and I wondered how it held up with twenty years of hindsight (The Tommyknockers was published in 1987).  I looked it up (I have the original mass market paperback edition, which I think still has the same page numbering as the current editions), and was surprised by how vapid the argument was that I was so impressed by as a teen.  Here are the major points King makes in his screed:

  1. “When you examine the cancer-death stats for the areas surrounding every nuclear power facility in the country, you find anomalies, deaths that are way out of line with the norm.”  (page 101, repeated on 104)
  2. The explosion of the Russian facility at Kyshtym is used as a scare tactic, suggesting that similar things or worse would happen here.  (page 102)
  3. Waves of future cancer rates at Chernobyl are predicted.  (103)
  4. A 1964 AEC report is quoted predicting scary scenarios for US plant meltdowns.  (103)
  5. “At Chernobyl they killed the kids….Most may still be alive, but they are dying right now while we stand here with our drinks in our hands.  Some can’t even read yet.  Most will never kiss a girl in passion.”  (104)
  6. Poor building and mismanagement are again used as scare tactics for possible future problems.  (page 105)
  7. Story told of waste tank being accidentally hooked up to drinking fountains at Three Mile Island.  (page 106)
  8. “Also, you might check the IDS rates–infant-death syndrome, that is.  They go up in plant areas.  Birth defects, such as Down’s syndrome…”  (page 107, repeated on 108)
  9. “Chernobyl’s hot.  It’s going to stay that way for a long time.  How long?  No one really knows.”  (page 107)
  10. More predictions of dire disasters imminent in America.  (page 107)
  11. “There are great big hot piles of core rods here, there, and everywhere, sitting in nasty pools of shallow water…” (page 109)
  12. “They’re already losing track of some of those piles of used rods…”  (page 109)

What surprised me most looking this up again after all these years is just how little evidence is even cited.  Most of these pages are rhetorical insults and accusations, sprinkled with lots of implications about what “might” happen in the future.  But here we are now, twenty years plus in the future, so let’s see how each of King’s threats have panned out so far:

  1. Plenty of research since The Tommyknockers was published in 1987 shows this to be false.  This report summarizing research from six major, recent studies does not find any increase in cancer near nuclear power plants, nor does this 1983 study, which would have been available when King wrote his anti-nuclear rant.
  2. There hasn’t been a meltdown anywhere in the world for over thirty years.  In fact, even minor accidents are very rare
  3. This may be the weakest part of King’s argument–hysterical doom mongers loved to spread fear in the immediate aftermath of Chernobyl.  Twenty years later, where are the massive waves of cancer?  This overview of the research finds the death toll to be around…48.  The recent, official report by the International Atomic Energy Agency finds no increase in cancer or birth defects.  The United Nations Scientific Committee of the Effects of Atomic Radiation found that “there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure 20 years after the accident. There is no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality rates or in rates of non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure. The risk of leukaemia in the general population, one of the main concerns owing to its short latency time, does not appear to be elevated.”
  4. I repeat, not a single meltdown worldwide for over thirty years.  
  5. After more than two decades, all of those children, even the ones who hadn’t been born yet, are now adults.  How are they doing?  See the reports quoted in #3 that prove King’s tear-jerking scenario to be a fantasy.  Do you think King is happy that his prediction of mass casualties were wrong?  Shouldn’t he be?
  6. The last few decades have proven how safe nuclear power is.  (America has over a hundred operating nuclear plants, by the way.)  Say, since King felt his argument must have been so airtight, why did he rely so heavily on hyperbole and speculation?  Why not just cite the facts as they were?  Oh, wait, it’s because the facts weren’t on his side, not even then, and especially not now.
  7. This report is negated by the decades of safe operation everywhere since.  Like every other industry, it gets safer every year.
  8. Now King is just abusing the old “Won’t anyone please think about the children?” argument that he makes fun of if someone who disagrees with him is using it.  See evidence cited at #3 that exposes this lie.
  9. Wrong again.  King implies that Chernobyl ruined the environment forever.  Only twenty years later, people live around the plant, which is well contained, and are raising healthy families surrounded by normal vegetation.  Here’s a story about it.  And another one
  10. Repeating scare tactics doesn’t make them true!  After more than twenty years, none of these doomsday predictions have come true.
  11. Despite the passage of more than two decades–in fact, nearly a quarter of century, now–the storage of nuclear waste continues to be safe.  Remember all those stories of massive nuclear waste spills with horrific waves of casualties and deformities in America?  No?  That’s because there haven’t been any.
  12. And despite the efforts of terrorists, there haven’t been any nuclear attacks in the twenty years since King worried about it, nor have there been any other problems with allegedly “unaccounted for” nuclear material. 

Such a staggering failure of predictions should make us think a little more carefully about the left’s current obsession with predicting the end of the world based on “global warming.” 

Do you know what country uses nuclear power more than any other in the world?  France.  They produce more electricity with it, and export more of it, than anyone else.  Their power is some of the cheapest in the world.  How many people have ever died from a nuclear accident in France?  Zero. 

So thanks, Stephen King.  This winter when I’m paying out the nose to heat my house, I’ll throw some copies of your books from the last twenty years on the fire to help keep costs down.  That’s about all most of your work these days is good for, anyway.

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