Nuclear Power. Safer than Sex!
That was the message on the front of a T-shirt that my friend Jay Halpern gave to me when I was 13 years old. His dad was some kind of nuclear architect who brought home these kind of workplace trinkets the way my dad, an orthodontist, filled our medicine cabinets with promotional toothbrushes. The shirt, white with red piping and featuring an oversize atom, moved immediately into heavy rotation of my junior high school wardrobe, not to advocate for any specific energy policy but because I was quietly thrilled just to have the word “sex” on my chest and happy to have girls my age associate me with it. And until the events of the past week demanded otherwise, that is about the last time I recall thinking critically about the topic of nuclear power.
In hindsight, it really shouldn’t have taken a tsunami-triggered nuclear catastrophe to return my attention to this topic. One of the many ways that my hometown was like Bart Simpson’s Springfield was our proximity to a nuclear power plant. New City, New York is just five miles down the Hudson River from the Indian Point nuclear power plant that helps energize the Hudson Valley. And it’s less than 40 miles from the somewhat-larger-but-similarly-named New York City. But in New City—a renowned hotbed of social rest—the existence of an on-line nuclear reactor right nearby didn’t seem to penetrate the public consciousness the way, for example, the opening of a new store at the Nanuet Mall might.
Nuclear power arrived in our neck of the woods a year before I did; Indian Point’s first reactor went up in 1962. In 1974, when it began failing regulatory tests, that one was replaced with not one but two newer models. So by the time I was 10, I lived in proximity to so much radioactive material, my dad should have brought his lead-lined dental X-ray apron home from the office so my siblings and I could huddle under it at night for safety.
To the degree that I can remember Indian Point and its nuclear power being a topic of conversation, I recall my social studies teacher explaining how it might diminish the impact of the Middle East oil embargo, a topic everyone was talking about back then, even in junior high schools. I was proud that my Jewish genius hero Albert Einstein had unlocked the power of the atom in a way that diminished the power of the Arabs. Besides, the atomic topic of the day centered on the Cold War and our possible, if not probable, annihilation by Soviet nukes. Compared to an ICBM aimed at your house, the remote prospect of a power plant mishap seemed way down on my list of nuclear-based concerns.
These reasons help to explain how I came to be of the general opinion that nuclear power posed less of a threat than the consequences of getting naked with a girl and canoodling.
All these reasons help explain how I came to be of the general opinion that nuclear power posed less of a threat than the consequences of getting naked with a girl and canoodling. I have no doubt that my T-shirt’s slogan effectively shaped my opinion on the subject. In fact, it all but nullified my ability to have an opinion, which if you examine the message, is exactly what it was designed to do. “Nuclear Power. Safer than Sex” was a nuclear-powered diversionary tactic that sought to pre-emptively dismiss any concerns I might have had with this: Just try not to think about it. Instead, try to think about something more pleasant. Like sex!
And it worked, because like any good strategic message, it effectively framed the narrative in terms advantageous to those who crafted it. Is nuclear power safer than sex? Hmm, let’s see: Nelson Rockefeller didn’t die during the act of nuclear fission. You know—they may have a point! And because of that diversion, I never independently arrived at the realization that, with regard to my personal safety, nuclear power represented a potentially infinite amount of harm. Had I put down my algebra textbook long enough to do the math on this, I might have figured out that even if the odds of a nuclear accident were minuscule, the smallest fraction of infinity still equals infinity.
Indian Point wasn’t the only nuclear power plant to touch my family’s lives. In the fall of 1979, my older brother Bruce set off for Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania—only to return home that spring when his semester was interrupted by an incident less than 50 miles way at Three Mile Island. Advised that it was safe to return to his dorm, his “radiation vacation” ended two weeks later. Bruce and his classmates spent the rest of their college years—they later learned—under a nuclear cloud.
Today, three decades later, his graduating class constitutes a statistically anomalous cluster of cancer victims who have produced children with an abnormally high rate of autism and other neurological impairments. That is no exaggeration or joke.
Even the movie China Syndrome, which had the good fortune to debut in the immediate aftermath of Three Mile Island, failed to truly alarm me to the perils of nuclear power. Maybe because it starred Jane Fonda, whom I already associated with far-left-wing politics, the messenger marginalized the message. We’ll never know if America would have taken the threat posed by nuclear power more seriously if that movie had starred Faye Dunaway instead.
And more recently, before the unraveling of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, the only time I’ve had occasion to think about nuclear energy has come between innings of New York Yankees games. For the past few seasons, my old friends at the Indian Point Energy Center have proactively advertised their message of safety to baseball fans—of all people!—tuned into the radio. Two or three times over the course of nine innings, John Sterling, the blowhard baritone voice of the Yankees, insists on reminding me of something I’d prefer not to think about: that somewhere nearby, somebody is splitting atoms. “And when it comes to global warming, nuclear power is greener than the infield grass at Yankee Stadium,” he intones, along with other insultingly stupid sentences that fuse baseball clichés and nuclear talking points to disastrous results.
Even though Opening Day is fast approaching, it’s unlikely that Indian Point will choose to radiate its pro-nuclear message though the tri-state area again this summer. But in case they do, I’ve gone back and reconsidered the slogan I voluntarily wore as a billboard for most of junior high school.
And to think, it only took me 30 years or so to figure it out:
Nuclear Power. Safer than Nuclear Bombs!
A former political operative, recovering copywriter, and failed sitcom writer, Mark Katz is now the founder and principal of the Soundbite Institute, a creative think tank that specializes in on-message humor. His essays have been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Time magazine, and he is the author of CLINTON & ME: A Real Life Political Comedy, an account of eight years as the in-house humor speechwriter of the Clinton White House.