After Disaster: Agenda Setting, Public Policy, and Focusing Events

By Thomas A. Birkland | Go to book overview

5
Nuclear Power Plant Accidents
as Focusing Events

In this chapter I consider safety-related incidents, problems, mishaps, and accidents at nuclear power plants. The problems of nuclear power are considerably different from those raised by earthquakes, hurricanes, or oil spills, and the politics of nuclear power reflect its unique status in energy policy and in public policy making more broadly. Nuclear power is not sprung on humanity through some natural process, like the weather or movement of the earth's crust. Nor was nuclear power gradually harnessed during the industrial revolution, as were fossil fuels. Rather, nuclear power in the United States was initially developed through the efforts of a government racing desperately against an enemy in war to produce the most destructive weapon in human history. This research and development effort—the Manhattan Project—culminated in the first wartime use of nuclear bombs in August 1945. The association of nuclear power with nearly instantaneous destruction hangs over nuclear physics and the civilian nuclear power industry to this day.

Having spent over $2 billion in 1940s dollars (over $10 billion in 1995 dollars) to build the atomic bomb, the United States government sought to harness the atom for "peaceful" ends. The Atomic Era promised to usher in a new age, in which energy would be plentiful, clean, and "too cheap to meter." 1 But the technology was so new, expensive, and dangerous that it required government promotion and intervention to develop as a civilian industry. The nuclear industry was created, financed, promoted, and underwritten by the federal government and a vast scientific, technical, academic, and military infrastructure. Nuclear power was not to be an ordinary industry.

Nor was nuclear technology simply another futuristic "high-tech" innovation that was oversold by its proponents and then faded away as it failed to deliver on its promise. Within thirty years of the advent of this technology and twenty years after its first civilian application, very serious doubts began to set in as to the safety and economics of

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