Richard Muller: Forum on Energy Q&A

Richard Muller, author of "Energy for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines"

Richard Muller, physicist from the University of California, Berkeley recently released “Energy for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines” about a rational, science-based approach to nuclear energy as an important and valuable energy source. In a recent video interview with the Wall Street Journal, Muller said that despite the fact that the accident at Fukushima was far less than what people expected, people continue to overestimate the danger of radiation exposure and the risks associated with nuclear power. Muller urges policymakers and others to look at the facts, not unsubstantiated fears, when making decisions about global energy policy.

We had a chance to catch up with Muller about his new book and his advice for future presidents on nuclear energy.

Forum on Energy: Tell us a bit about your new book, and what motivated you to write it.

Richard Muller: For many years I’ve been involved in U.S. national security, primarily on issues such as the conflict with the former Soviet Union, issues having to do with terrorism and counterterrorism—but I’ve become convinced that U.S. national security is more directly related to energy than it is to anything else. Our energy policy has not been good for many different reasons. It’s been confused and it’s been often determined by quick responses to perceived disasters or other big events, and energy policy is the most important thing we need not only for our physical security but also for our economic security. The issue of global warming is a big part of that, too.

Forum on Energy: If you had Obama and Romney in the room, what one lesson would you want to impart to them about nuclear energy?

Richard Muller: The message I would want to convey is that the president needs to be the nation’s instructor, to explain to the people in the most compelling terms that nuclear power is, indeed, safe. It’s one of the safest and most reliable sources of energy that we have. They also need to explain that there’s much misinformation about this energy form—for example, people think nuclear power is more expensive than other forms of power. But that’s largely a mistaken focus on the initial cost because the operating cost and the fuel cost is very low, and so averaged out over a longer period of time, nuclear power is not as expensive as many people think it is.

There is also a reaction to the Fukushima accident, which is an exaggerated reaction. This reaction is inspired, I think, in large part by the fact that it is easy to scare people about nuclear power because they’re unfamiliar with it and they still associate it with nuclear weapons and cancer. It reminds me of old scare stories written around the early 1900’s when people were saying trains and railroads were the evil thing of the future. You can scare people about new technology, and unfortunately, there are people who do that. As a result, people have misinformation about nuclear power, which is something that leaders need to step up to correct. I think if you really look at the numbers carefully, you’ll discover that the things that are done to scare people are not based on objective analysis.

These days it takes courage to be a supporter of nuclear power even though there’s so much information out there that says it’s safe. We need someone who is trusted by the people taking this on and explaining it to them.

What I would like to see would be President Obama explain to the public that nuclear power is safe, that it’s economical, and that it’s green and is something that can prevent global warming. Nuclear power does not emit greenhouse gases, and that’s becoming so important these days. The fact that it’s safe is something that is well known among the experts, but not expressed publicly, in part, I think, because the public has been so persuaded by alarmists who gain prominence by making this issue into one that scares the people. I go into some detail in my book about how nuclear power really is safe. Nothing is perfectly safe. We can’t walk out on the street without worrying about some kind of danger. The issue is how does it compare to other things that are dangerous? Compared, for example, to the use of coal, nuclear power is enormously safer.

Forum on Energy: What are some of the numbers behind that?

Richard Muller: In my book I do explain the numbers. What people need to recognize is that the number of deaths from radioactivity so far in Fukushima has been zero and over the next 50 years will probably be fewer than 100 people, whereas the tsunami killed 15,000 immediately. And the idea that people now are more worried about nuclear power than they are about tsunamis does not make sense.

The other issue that people bring up is nuclear waste storage, and they say nuclear waste lasts for thousands of years. Nobody ever mentions the fact that waste from coal lasts hundreds of millions of years, and in many ways is more dangerous than the waste from a nuclear reactor. In fact, most of the radioactivity in nuclear waste is gone after a hundred years. At that point, it’s getting down to the level where there’s more danger from the natural radioactivity in the ground than there is from the waste of a nuclear reactor.

Forum on Energy: In a Wall Street Journal interview, you said that policies enacted after Fukushima “did far more harm than good.” How so?

Richard Muller: Well, for example, most of the nuclear reactors in Japan were shut down after Fukushima. Now, that causes great economic hardship to the Japanese and accomplishes no significant good that I’m aware of. For the economic cost of that action, if you’re going to spend that much money on a true danger, there are so many better ways to do it. You can save so many more lives per dollar by doing things that make more thoughtful sense, whether it’s better hospitals or ambulances or a better campaign against smoking—there are things where there are enormous gains to be gotten per dollar, whereas this huge expense could potentially save maybe 100 lives over the course of many, many years in the rare event that another tsunami like this will occur. It just doesn’t make sense.

Forum on Energy: You’ve also talked about the Denver Dose and what that means for radiation dangers. Can you explain that idea?

Richard Muller: We are surrounded by natural radioactivity, which is no more or less dangerous than radioactivity from nuclear reactors. Depending on where you live, there may be more or less natural radioactivity. Denver is just a well-known location that happens to have high natural radioactivity. You might think this is a dangerous place to live because of that, but, in fact, the cancer rate in Denver is lower than the average in the rest of the country. It doesn’t mean that radioactivity is curing or stopping cancer. What it does mean is that at the level of natural radioactivity—the Denver Dose, as I call it—people simply shouldn’t be worrying about radioactivity.

Now, the fact is the Denver Dose is comparable to what most of the Fukushima region is now experiencing. We shouldn’t be evacuating that region if we’re not evacuating Denver. There’s really no difference. Likewise, much of the Chernobyl region is well below the Denver Dose. In fact, a study just a few years ago on the health effects of Chernobyl concluded that the major health effect came about from the panic and worry caused by the evacuation. There were places that should have been evacuated, but there were places that shouldn’t have been. It is conceivable that there were more deaths caused by excessive smoking and drinking caused by anxiety over what had happened.

This is what happens when there is meaningless exaggerated fear and overreaction. Meanwhile, there are so many things in our lives that are far more dangerous that we accept.

Forum on Energy: Is there anything that I’ve missed that you would like to add?

Richard Muller: In my mind, if I were going to invest in nuclear power and if I believed the nation were going to be rational about it, the main objection would be that natural gas, even though it does emit some greenhouse gases, is going to be very cheap in the foreseeable future.

>>Find Richard Muller’s book, “Energy for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines,” on Amazon.