Neil DeGrasse Tyson Fuels the Debate on Nuclear Energy

by Beth Kelly

In recent years, coverage of scientific topics in mainstream media has grown. Political pundits often use scientists to further their own agendas, while social media has seen an explosion of science-based campaigns. Neil Degrasse Tyson’s choice to reboot Carl Sagan’s classic program Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey reflects a genuine national interest in the workings of the natural world, if not the complicated scientific processes that accompany them.

Tyson is part of a new breed of “celebrity” scientists, using their charisma to command the attention of anyone with even a passing interest in scientific phenomena. Coupled with a dynamic Twitter presence, Tyson’s influence extends across multiple media platforms. Using both his honed skills and natural aptitude for entertaining, he has become a vocal advocate for alternative energy and space exploration, all while striving to bring common science concepts into the homes of everyday Americans.

It’s impossible to argue this trend is anything but positive. An increased public interest in the universe and the wonder of scientific principles could spur countless changes, on both a political and social level. Unlike other areas of studies, science provides a rare common ground. It allows for petty differences to dissipate in a mutual appreciation of the natural world.

Of course it is not quite that simple. An awareness of the world is one thing, agreeing on how to handle its diverse resources is quite another. In the final installment of Cosmos, Tyson discussed the pros and cons of existing power sources, as well as new technology that may one day overtake carbon-based solutions. And yet, for all the intriguing possibilities presented on the program, nuclear energy went completely unmentioned. This in turn caused a greater uproar than would have come from an unfair spin in either direction, and with good reason. Excluding one of the most important innovations of the 20th century sent mixed signals to the general public and to the scientific community at large.

Any program with the historical authority of Cosmos, when evaluating a matter of scientific importance, is viewed by general audiences as the final word on that subject. If the program doesn’t mention or otherwise misrepresents the concept, the general public has little with which to critically compare it. As such, it’s important that a program with this level of influence not exclude issues of such monumental importance. His choice—or perhaps that of his producers—to omit any mention of nuclear technology whatsoever led many to question both political and cultural biases involving nuclear energy.

Needless to say, since the dawn of nuclear physics there has been a long-standing debate surrounding public safety risk versus the potential clean energy benefits. During a short-lived “Nuclear Renaissance” between the years 2007 and 2009, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued licenses to open 30 new nuclear reactors across the country. But in more recent years, due to a combination of competition from record low natural gas prices, the stock market collapse, and an increase in safety concerns, many of these plans were shuttered. Today, older plants such as Vermont Yankee in Vernon, VT, are being permanently shut down, and there are no plans to replace them with new reactors

Tyson is a highly revered physicist with an equally daunting grasp of astronomy and other affairs of science. His authority on the topic is not what’s in question here; rather his responsibility to the people to whom he has undertaken the effort of educating in these matters. Other environmentalists such as Mike Shellenberger, president of the Breakthrough Institute, and famous entrepreneurs such as Paul Allen, the cofounder of Microsoft, have made sure that nuclear energy has a voice in the alternative energy debate. A fuller analysis of Tyson’s deficiencies might be in order, but his treatment of the issue of nuclear power already speaks volumes.

Operating in the realm of show business, beyond the constraints of a university system or otherwise academic community, Tyson’s claims cannot be held to account. It’s difficult to rationalize this exclusion, considering that nuclear power plants generate nearly 20 percent of all electricity generated in the United States, and 63 percent of its carbon-free electricity. While the nuances of the nuclear debate may require an entire episode to properly examine, Tyson failed us in his unwillingness to even broach the topic. In the era of Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and other social media sites, sound bites reign supreme, and fiction is often construed as fact. Controversy is courted daily. But for a tough public mind, there should be no way to justify the omission of facts so clearly rooted in scientific truth. In doing so, Tyson has done both himself and his audience a great disservice.

Beth KellyBeth Kelly is a freelance science writer with a strong interest in nuclear power and its potential as a clean energy source. A graduate of DePaul University, she is currently based out of Chicago, IL. Find her on Twitter at @bkelly_88

6 thoughts on “Neil DeGrasse Tyson Fuels the Debate on Nuclear Energy

  1. Mitch

    “It’s not popular, and Nuclear Fission isn’t an astrophysical or cosmological subject.”

    If you check it out on YouTube, Carl Sagan in Cosmos constantly mentioned nuclear energy and had a whole episode about it because the universe RUNS on nuclear energy. How could one avoid talking about it? He had a bad itch about atomic bombs but at least he didn’t let that cloud nuclear power that much. For Tyson to pass up talking nuclear not just illustrates his political-philosophical bias but the shallow depth of his scholarship.

  2. Marcelo Pacheco

    The new Cosmos is clearly anti fossil fuels, and pro solar. You could also construct the fact the new Cosmos said nothing about wind, geothermal, wave, biomass as it being both anti all of those things as well.
    The fact is simple, Cosmos isn’t intended as a political statement. Its meant to plant the seeds to scientific curiosity. While I am pro nuclear, pro solar and moderately pro wind, I understand why Cosmos skirted the nuclear subject. It’s not popular, and Nuclear Fission isn’t an astrophysical or cosmological subject. It would take a whole Cosmos episode to explain why nuclear is good in scientifically correct way.

  3. Gerald Woodcock

    I was very shocked and disappointed to read this about Tyson. I had held the man in high regard, and this is a very unsettling revelation. Having spent some time in Public Information for ANS, I find Tyson’s apparent mindset particularly irritating. The man has the potential in one stroke to either support or completely undo what I and others have spent years working on. I also had no idea that his honesty has been called into question on other issues as well. It is difficult enough trying to get the public to understand the benefits of N power without fighting an uphill battle against someone like Tyson.
    Gerald Woodcock, MBA
    ANS awardee, Public Education, Presidential Citation

  4. James Greenidge

    There’s that old chestnut about whether a lion is “evil” for pouncing on a cute lovely gazelle; the lion is only doing what lions do. If the public is swayed by the anti-nuke sermons of a renoun ardent PC Green as Tyson, whose fault is it that he gets away with it when the slandered victims here — the nuclear community — doesn’t push back in kind on the same playing field? Tyson and Bill Nye and their ilk are NOT going to modify their stance before adulation by millions of greens and schoolkids. Even nuclear-war haunted Carl Sagan grudgingly acknowledged that we need nukes to power the world, not windmills. Tyson’s HARDLY unique in the “science show” realm; Talk about Canada; take a gander of shows as “How Things Work” and “Modern Marvels” when they feature how bright and clean and electrified Toronto is — all thanks to Niagara Falls! Watch and fall off your chairs. Zit mention of ANYTHING nuclear having a hand in it. Talk about major perniciously willful ommissions! But these shows, like Tyson, gleefully get away with agenda-laden misleading and misinformation because there’s no equivalent public challenge or nuclear promotion by nuclear mavens or organizations — my corrective “fan letters” to them mean squat to them. They have to be taken to the woodshed by major league reputations like ANS and NEI and others of high standing in the nuclear world. The great disservice to the public is not when antis sow FUD; it’s when those whom they skewer turn the other cheek and stay silent. If you refuse to fight the lion at all then you deserve to be eaten.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

    “Puppy Rescue” advertizes itself in New York Metro far more than any nuclear energy ads here — which are ZERO.

  5. Scott Medwid

    When it comes to decarbonizing an electrical grid Ontario Canada is right at the top. 55 to 60% nuclear power, 50% hydro power and the rest, Gas and some wind power. France is the champion when it comes to decarbonizing with nuclear power. Starting in the late 1970’s France faced an energy crisis because it burned oil to make electricity. The developed a program of standardized reactors and fuel reprocesseing with final disposal of the true waste. This is covered in detail in and don’t forget, Chicago is a nuclear powered city at 70% too.

  6. Brian Mays

    Given Tyson’s penchant for lying (see Sean Davis’s revealing investigations into some of Tyson’s blatantly untrue and completely fabricated stories), perhaps it’s a good thing that he has not been a nuclear power booster.

    Neil makes even Brian Williams look like a boy scout by comparison. He’s a phony and a fraud.