The safety of nuclear power?

Kurzgesagt takes a look at the number of deaths from nuclear power in comparison with other sources. You might find the actual numbers surprising.

Kurzgesagt – in a Nutshell: How Many People Did Nuclear Energy Kill? Nuclear Death Toll

I think the video makes an important point. But by focusing exclusively on deaths, it downplays the emotional trauma and economic costs of nuclear accidents. The area around the Fukushima plant will reportedly not be habitable for decades. For the people who lived there and the surrounding regions, this is a pretty devastating outcome. In the case of Chernobyl, it may be millenia before anyone will be able to safely live there, effectively forever for the people from that region. Both regions are now effectively economic anchors for their respective countries, and in the case of Chernobyl, the international community.

Now, you might be thinking that in the overall scheme of things, particularly in comparison to the world wide health effects of fossil fuels, this still isn’t that bad. But we have to consider what things might look like if nuclear power were more widely used. Statistically speaking, we’d have a lot more accidents, with some likely having similar effects. It implies that had nuclear power been more widely adopted, with the level of care historically applied, it could have resulted in far more regions becoming toxic forbidden zones, that no one can enter except briefly or with the right protective equipment, for decades, centuries, or millenia.

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t use nuclear power. The stark truth is, we don’t really have a choice. This is a world of nearly eight billion people, all who want or will want the modern lifestyles of the developed world, with all the power requirements that come with it. Providing it all with more use of fossil fuels will continue to poison the planet and ourselves.

But it also means we shouldn’t be pollyannaish about nuclear power and its dangers. Using nuclear power is like riding on demons. We should never think we’ve domesticated them, and be absolutely sure our harness doesn’t allow them to turn on us. In other words, nuclear power has to be aggressively regulated, and in as transparent a manner as possible so national and international groups can watch for problematic installations.

Incidentally, we shouldn’t beat up too much on nuclear. Kurzgesact discusses renewable energy, and those options should definitely be pursued, but their discussion of a massive dam disaster makes clear that harnessing any source of massive power, of any type, comes with potential dangers. Those dangers seem inseparable from actually using the power.

For better or worse, we live in the world we live in, one with daunting energy requirements but also with an environment that can’t sustain the abuse from satisfying them in the manner we’ve historically used. We have to use nuclear power, but we should do so with our eyes wide open to the dangers.

Unless of course I’m missing something?

38 thoughts on “The safety of nuclear power?

  1. Well, I’m no fan of nuclear power, but I do agree with the video on one point: closing nuclear plants and burning more fossil fuels instead is the wrong move. My hope is that renewable sources will be able to take over a bigger and bigger share of our energy needs, but the technology still has a long way to go before we get to that point. Nuclear power probably needs to be part of our energy solution in the meantime. I just don’t want it to be part of the permanent solution.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s pretty much my sentiment too, although I’m a bit worried whether renewables will ever be able to handle the whole load. But eventually renewables might include space based solar collectors beaming power back to the Earth. Of course, that won’t be danger free either, for obvious reasons.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, I can see how pointing a bunch of solar powered space lasers at our planet might come with some risks, too. But I’ll reserve judgment on that particular technology until the day when we actually have it. Nuclear technology is something we have now, and I judge it to be… maybe not the worst thing ever, but definitely not the best.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The use of nuclear power presents an existential threat to humankind. There are several problems here.

    First, the maturity of technology.

    Second, the technology should be foolproof all the way around. We do not want a disaster to happen just because we did not predict some possible act of some fool, who is servicing the power plant.

    Third, we need to make sure that the technology could not get into the wrong hands, like terrorists or mentally ill people.

    Finally, we should not underestimate the population’s love for conspiracy and antipathy to science. That tendency could trash all our efforts. You don’t need to go far to see it. Just check out how many nurses in nursing homes (where patients are dying like flies) refuse to accept Covid-19 vaccines.

    With all that said, we need nuclear power plants. Maybe not forever. … But then, we, probably, will transition to thermonuclear, which is more powerful and more dangerous.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree pretty much with everything you said. I’d just note that any powerful source of energy is going to represent an existential threat. Our earliest power sources, such as fire, always represented a danger which we had to learn to handle effectively. As that power has increased, so has the danger. As I noted to James above, even solar, on a large enough scale, becomes dangerous.

      As you note, in a world with criminals, terrorists, insane people, and simply people who refuse to acknowledge scientific realities, ensuring that these existentially powerful sources of energy don’t destroy us is going to be an increasing problem.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Mike,

    Where to start! First, I’m not a fan of nuclear power. Focusing on death rates while ignoring the risks is shortsighted in my opinion. While death rates may historically be low, there is not energy technology capable of poisoning as many people, for as long a time, as nuclear. And we have to face the fact that the waste must be stored for a VERY long time. If that waste gets loose in the environment we’re kind of toast. Also, they went to great lengths to discuss the particulate matter from fossil plants, but ignored the fact that since the advent of nuclear testing there have also been trace amounts of radioactive particles in pretty much all surface water on the planet. I don’t have faith in the notion that those effects are understood, since there is no control in that collective experiment.

    There is sufficient renewable energy available, if we can bear the cost. But nuclear energy is far from inexpensive. Several utilities in the US have bailed on nuclear plants already under construction and foisted the cost off onto rate payers, who are buying incompleted assets for billions of dollars. Part of the reason is regulation, for which the argument could be made is excessive or inefficient. But how do you regulate something efficiently when you’re dealing with toxins that will be viable for tens of thousands of years, and for which a mistake is profoundly costly, and which is subject to the circumvention of market forces and human nature. And the cost of this regulation and oversight is socialized which makes the cost of the plants themselves seem less than it really is.

    So, back to the previous point, we only need lasers from space if we want to look cool. The amount of energy available from renewable sources is still many times what is required. I’m not saying it’s as simple as waving a wand, but it’s not like there’s not enough energy out there. It’s just whether or not we can afford harvesting, storing, and transmitting it, and I think the jury is out in some sense. How can we afford not to? is a fair question, too! It’s hard to really wrap our minds around the costs in any case. Burning fossil fuels as the video points out, though not all fossil fuels are created equal, leads to atmospheric toxins, and to climate change. And the industry is heavily subsidized. Since everything can’t be done in a day, I think fossil fuels should continue to shift towards natural gas, which is by far the cleanest, and be used to stabilize grids while renewable energy harvesting and storage systems mature.

    The electric grid is only a portion of our energy use, and no one is going to nuclear powered cars, but if cars are electric, demand on the grid may double. Don’t quote me on that, but it’s something along those lines. The problem is still not the availability of sunlight, wind and waves, but the lack of infrastructure to store and transmit this energy cost effectively.

    Michael

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Michael,
      I know where you’re coming from on the safety issues. I hope Kurzgesagt follows through on their promise to do a video on nuclear waste. (Their commenters affirmed they want to see it.)

      Whether there is sufficient renewables seems like an ongoing debate. I guess we won’t know until either we’ve successfully switched to them completely, or progress has decisively stalled. It’s probably possible in principle, but whether it’s practical seems to depend on who we ask.

      I know nuclear proponents complain about the regulatory overhead, but in this I totally agree with you. The potential costs are simply too high to worry about efficiency here. The first priority of the regulatory oversight has to be effectiveness, not efficiency. Given the same level of effectiveness, they can choose the more efficient process, but efficiency can’t trump effective oversight.

      The space based collectors are a far future thing. Their chief benefit would be to increase the surface area of sunlight capture far beyond what we might be able to do on Earth. Only about a billionth the the sun’s energy hits the Earth, and most of that is reflected away by clouds. Of course, add enough of these collectors and eventually you end up with something like a Dyson swarm.

      From the (admittedly skimpy) reading I’ve done, storage is the big issue with renewables, which was why I was so excited back when that thermal liquid stuff was announced, and somewhat deflated when you pointed out how long its energy density was.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The US has favored relatively expensive plant designs, while other countries (Canada and France) seem to have found more cost-effective approaches. But even there, nuclear plants are expensive compared to solar photovoltaic, among other options. Wikipedia says that “new nuclear power plants in China were estimated at between $2800/kW and $3500/kW.” Meanwhile iea.org says that solar photovoltaic is about $200/kW. Admittedly you don’t get the full kW most of the time, and don’t get any half of the time, but for now, there are still peak demand times in the day that need shaving down. The cost is still dropping, and energy storage technologies are progressing.

    So I’m thinking, keep the existing ones going until their planned retirement, but don’t bother building more.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I guess it depends on how long the solar powered stuff (and other renewables) will take to be able to handle the full energy requirements of our civilization. There seems to be a lot of debate about that.

      Although most of the world is effectively doing what you describe, just running the nuclear plants that were already built and not building any new ones. (I didn’t know Germany was preemptively decommissioning theirs. That was interesting.)

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  5. The nuclear industry is already one of the most tightly regulated and safety conscious industries the world has ever known. And – as the Kurzgesagt video demonstrates – the safest form of power generation that we have. So your concerns are already being taken care of by regulatory bodies, industry organisations and teams of scientists and engineers dedicated to the safe harnessing of nuclear power. If we had adopted nuclear power on a large scale decades ago, we wouldn’t now be facing a climate crisis.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think you’re describing the industry at its best. But the various accidents show it isn’t always up to that standard. Are you saying we should accept that once a generation we’re going to have a nuclear accident and we just learn to live with it?

      I support nuclear power. But I think it has to be regulated to the extent that nuclear accidents are a once a millennium event, and the regulators themselves have to be regulated, in a manner that if a particular country’s government isn’t doing a good job, it’s obvious to the international community. The cost of dropping the ball is just too extreme.

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      1. I’m pretty strongly against nuclear power. Perhaps more strongly than I’m against many things. I see the potential upside, but if developing renewable energy resources and associated infrastructure and reforestation programs for carbon sequestration are even remotely level on cost, like within a common order of magnitude, I think this is a no-brainer.

        The challenge with nuclear power (in my opinion) is that the potential downsides are orders of magnitude more severe than any other form of energy generation, and the management of those risks requires the better angels of our present nature to hold sway for hundreds of generations to come.

        I think there is a difficulty in thinking holistically on some of these issues. Nuclear power plants at present have a relatively low death toll ascribed to them, but what level of political, institutional, bureaucratic, and military competency is required to keep such energy programs safe at the level Mike is–rightly, in my opinion–suggesting is required, for the time duration required, and have we ever in human history seen that level of competency sustained for the duration of time required to ensure the biosphere is not profoundly damaged? No. At least I don’t think so.

        You not only have technical challenges, but you have to be prepared to deal with hackers, saboteurs, terrorist attacks, global politics, greed (contracting short-cuts during construction), complacency, boredom (operating really safe systems is like watching grass grow), etc., and you need to be able to recruit a portion of the brightest minds in the country to staff and maintain these systems for thousands of years. That’s a cost, too.

        I think if you’re confident all that can feasibly be accomplished, it’s probably not crazy to think we could manage our forests better, recycle our waste streams better, and harvest energy from renewable resources better. Deciding to focus on nuclear energy as long-term or even mid-term solution is a bit like saying you have a blank check to summon a global will to manage the downsides of human nature for thousands of years and achieve historically anomalous degrees of cooperation and multi-cultural commitment, and of all the things you could spend that blank check on, you’re going to spend it on a technology that produces the maximum amount of long-term risk and biosphere-destroying waste products, and that hand-ties future generations for thousands of years.

        That is, to me, foo-barred.

        Michael

        Liked by 2 people

      2. A tiny number of incidents occurred back in the 1950s when the military was driving the nuclear programme at the height of the Cold War, and in the Soviet Union, where safety concerns were ignored. And of course at Fukushima, where there were zero fatalities.

        Even if an accident of this type occurred once every generation, nuclear power would still be the safest power source that we have. We have to be realistic – no human activity is without risk, and we should not hold up impossible standards for one particular industry to adhere to, and give other industries a free pass. The choice is not “nuclear or not”, but “nuclear or X”, where X is less safe, even if it’s renewable energy.

        In a world where road traffic accidents cause 1.35 millions deaths per year, we need to adopt a realistic approach to risk.

        But I agree that we should be very concerned about countries such as Iran acquiring nuclear power.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. Hi Steve,

          I don’t agree that one industry should get a free pass, as you noted. But I also don’t agree that the nuclear industry is level with other industries in terms of possible downsides. The risks to the biosphere of nuclear accidents is certainly higher than the risks of other industries, and the consequences of accidents, not just to human life, but to life in general, are higher for the nuclear industry. Hence the regulatory burden. There’s also the time spans over which the waste products generated must be properly managed.

          That issue aside, there is also the financial risk. The cost of Fukushima clean-up is estimated by Japan’s Government at $200 billion. The article at this link further suggests that the complete decommissioning of Fukushima could cost as much as $470 billion.

          The cost of new offshore wind energy has been estimated by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory as $63 – $124 per MWh. Other renewable energy sources are purported to be less expensive at this point I believe, but that’s a reference point.

          Fukushima has a production capacity of about 4,500 MW, which I believe was built over several decades. In a year of continuous full load operation at that rating it would produce about 39.4 million MWh of electricity. If the $200 billion were invested into offshore wind energy, and that energy cost $150/MWh (higher than the upper band above), the offshore wind facilities would deliver a quantity of electricity equal to about 34 years of full load operation of the Fukushima plant. That’s obviously the economics of an accident, not normal operation, but I think it puts it into perspective. The downside is extremely expensive.

          According to Wikipedia, Japan has about 40,000 MW of operable nuclear generation capacity, although about half of that capacity has been suspended. But assuming they did have a fleet capacity of 40,000 MW, the total cost of clean-up and decommissioning Fukushima of $470 billion represents a lost opportunity cost equivalent to displacing about 25% of the fleet’s output over 35 years, and that’s comparing the cost of offshore wind electricity to a $0 dollar cost of nuclear energy. If the nuclear energy that was produced cost ratepayers half as much (capital + operating costs) as other sources, which is certainly debatable, you could then say the Fukushima accident costs represent a lost opportunity cost in equivalent renewable energy production to the output of about half of Japan’s nuclear energy fleet for that 35 year period–which is about all that is currently in operation.

          There are plenty of debates on both sides about whether not accident-free nuclear power is cheaper than renewables, but for me personally the potential risks (both safety and financial) outweigh the benefits.

          Michael

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  6. Nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers and ice-breakers. The technology can be built and placed anywhere there’s ocean access. So, there are ways to build to high-safety specs.

    I’ve often thought that mid-ocean subduction zones would be a perfect place to drop bullet shaped concrete inverted rockets that would eventually get consumed by the planet itself. Maybe those island countries that might be impacted by the rare fallout of any problems could get paid to “store” deep-sea radioactive refuse.
    In fact, why not build floating nuclear power plants that perform the process of producing hydrogen, or desalinating seawater, or growing/maintaining sea-farming communities? If the cores melt-down… sink ’em.

    Had ~2.5 billion years of fossil fuel deposition never happened, humanity would be stuck in the 1700’s era energy regime. All the whales would be dead. All the forests burned up. No NFE (nearly free energy) to run machinery and transportation or to fix Nitrogen or power an industrial revolution (or space travel). The population would be around 1.5 B and *maybe* civilization would have discovered solar power, nuclear power, advanced medicine and electromagnetic communication and technology. Or maybe not. Perhaps only a surfeit of fossil fuels allowed humans the vast spare time, specialization and forced close-knit knowledge sharing that could only have come from massive, swift population growth–dependent on massive NFE. We’ll never know. I do speculate that such a slower growth civilization might have learned conservation lessons we’ll never appreciate. Maybe such a civilization would have figure out safe nuclear power.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Have to admit that I didn’t know ice-breakers were nuclear powered.

      I don’t know enough to say whether your ocean framework would work, but it sounds interesting. The danger might be that if something goes wrong, and the radioactive waste gets into the water currents, we’ve pretty much just poisoned the whole ocean. Maybe it would be diluted enough not to cause serious problems. Although it’s not an experiment I’d be keen to try.

      Definitely fossil fuels have enabled a lot of our civilization. I actually wonder if those reserves aren’t an inevitable result of a biosphere over time. You could say we’re harvesting energy that the biosphere was storing unused for a long time. It won’t last forever, but we appear to be centuries away from depletion. Even then, a geologist once told me that there will never be a hard depletion, but that the reserves would just become increasingly expensive to reach and extract, until it just became cheaper to find other sources of energy.

      The problem with learning conservation is it first has to become obvious we need it. As late as the 1800s, the world seemed like an infinite reserve of resources. If we were stuck with 1700s technology and resources, we’d likely still have their attitude toward the environment.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. In David Brin’s Uplift universe, species are given livable planets to use for many generations. The condition is they leave it as they found it. A key technique is dumping a lot of the civilized junk in subduction folds where it pretty much vanishes forever.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. One more problem with technology is its usage by “cover-up” nations. That is my term for states governed by entity/leader, inclined to cover “bad” things up.

    In Russia, I lived many years in a small town built around a nuclear power plant. From time to time small nuclear accidents happen with an increased level of radiation around. Nothing was ever announced officially. However, many of our friends had hand-held dosimeters, and they let us know.

    Do not forget that most nations, at least now, are “cover-up” nations.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good point. I fear covering up is human nature. It’s always in someone’s short term interest, when no one is looking, to cut corners, and when it goes bad, no one likes to admit it. As far as I can see, the only solution is an adversarial oversight process, one with careful controls to make sure the adversaries don’t have incentives to form a cabal.

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      1. Mike, you keep referring to nuclear power regulation as a problem that needs to be solved. I suggest that you find and watch an unbiased documentary about civilian nuclear power that goes inside a power plant. Then you will see just how embedded safety culture is in the industry. Like the Kurzgesagt video, it may surprise you.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Regulations are not the problem Steve, the problem is human nature. I worked at the Palo Verde nuclear generating station in Arizona for eight (8) years. I joined the team back in ’86 when I was thirty-three (33). I was there when all three reactors were brought online for the first time and the plant became fully operational. Here is my take on that experience in light of a heavily regulated industry with all of its administrative and engineering controls.

          When I joined the team I was a little wet behind the ears, obviously. This is because I believed that the licensed operating company, Arizona Public Service, was on a national recruiting venture to recruit the very best personnel that the industry had to offer. No offense, but I have never seen so many incompetent idiots gathered together in one place in my entire career as an applications engineer. The staffing of personnel for institutions in general is not based upon the individual strengths of the people being hired, it is based upon the individual weaknesses of those who are hired because they can be controlled. And that my friend is a recipe for disaster.

          That ridiculous philosophy of hiring individuals because they can be controlled is a systemic problem for all institutions at large, and the nuclear industry is no exception. The only exceptions to that rule are the sports industry, small businesses and start-up companies where the success of that business is dependent upon individual strengths.

          Nuclear power is a thumbs down for me because of human nature…… 👎

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          1. With all respect, Lee, I find that a bizarre viewpoint. Recruiting weak individuals so that they can be controlled? Really? I spent 10 years working in the nuclear industry in the UK, and I still have friends who work there. I was always impressed by the professionalism of everyone I met.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. I’ve been retired for a few years now Steve. My personality is not suited for institutional settings because institutions operate with a different set of morals than the private sector. If it wasn’t for the skilled personnel that the operating company initially hired from Bechtel Corporation I doubt if they would have ever gotten the reactors online. Once the facility was fully operational, those independent, highly skilled individuals from Bechtel were systematically culled from the staff and replaced with corporate individuals who were “team players”. Those who were not culled eventually quit on their own because they couldn’t deal with the nonsense. I was one of those highly skilled individuals who left voluntarily.

            I was going to write a book about my experience and had several chapters mapped out. My final chapter was titled: “I told people about this place and they called me a liar”. I never did write the book…

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        2. Steve,
          Do you have any suggestions on documentaries you consider unbiased? I’d prefer ones that doesn’t just focus on industries in rich nations, but includes the wider international situation.

          In any case, I look at the history of accidents. Across the world, we appear to have at least a couple every decade, with a major one once a generation. I know you disagree, but in my view, that’s too many. And we’re skirting the possibility of a much more devastating disaster, which without searing acts of sacrifice, Chernobyl could have easily been.

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  8. It is not correct that the area around the Fukushima plant will not be habitable for decades. In 2019, the first residents have already returned to their former residences. In the next few years, most of the region should be habitable again (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-47879768).
    If you rely entirely on volatile renewables for your power supply, you get a considerable probability of a large-scale, prolonged blackout, greater than that of a serious nuclear accident. If, for example, Detroit were to experience for a few days what New York experienced in 1977, this could also be traumatic for many of those affected.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Very true. This gets to the energy storage question Mike noted earlier. Without storage, some renewables that are volatile (wind and solar) cannot be truly dispatchable, so they can’t follow the changing needs of the grid in real time. There are other forms of renewable that are dispatchable–biomass plants, liquid biofuel plants, geothermal electric plants, hydro and pumped hydro, etc.–but these are much more expensive than the more volatile sources and each of them probably has pretty limited potential. So this is the big question, what is the most cost-effective and environmentally sustainable technology option for grid stability? I’m sure the options on this will evolve over time as well.

      One thing about nuclear plants is they’re not exactly dispatchable either. I believe they can be to a certain extent, but I think that would put additional challenges/stresses on their operations. I just looked at the New York ISO data and the nuclear plants in that grid operate pretty much at the same output all the time–night and day, every day of the week. This historical pattern may not a great indicator of their load following capability, because it may make some economic sense for them to operate this way. Since NY is an unregulated supply market, by bidding into the market at a low price they can maximize their operating window, while the fossil-based plants must swing up and down in between the nukes and the renewables.

      But if fossil fuels are eliminated from the equation, the next generation of nuclear technology would need to be truly dispatchable, and I don’t fully understand the implications to land-based commercial facilities, but I think they’ll take some serious thought. There are challenges on all sides with navigating the future energy landscape! Will dispatchable nuclear be more cost-effective than energy storage systems? Will dispatchable renewable systems become more relevant? There’s huge quantities of moving parts.

      Michael

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    2. The BBC story says 50 people returned and only to certain designated parts of the town. It doesn’t mention a time frame for the rest of the town being habitable. But Japan appears to be engaging in an aggressive cleanup process, so more sections might open up over the next several years. But that’s still inline with the decades estimates I’ve seen elsewhere.

      It also sounds like no one sees the coastal regions being habitable again anytime soon. Apparently the plan is to turn them into a nature reserve.

      It also sounds like most of the residents never plan to return, which I think is just showing sense on their part. There are always a few die-hards who spent their entire life in a region. Even the Chernobyl area had a few old residents return in defiance of government orders.

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  9. It will be interesting to see if the same people who fought nuclear power on environmental grounds in the 70s will turn around and support it on environmental grounds now. Hahahaha, funny how the moral roulette wheel never stops spinning.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. This is one of the problems I have with a lot of activism. Activism, protests and the outrage industry in general selects for people who have fervent beliefs, strident beliefs, great moral “courage” etc. I wonder how much better we could have done vis a vis nuclear and carbon if we’d marginalized the activists and focused on people who, being humble and intellectually honest, were saying things like “nuclear energy has serious disadvantages that we might have to live with” in the 1970s and 1980s.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Can’t say I’m a fan of the outrage industry. (Although in my case that includes outrage about other people having the temerity to be outraged.) But there is something to be said for passionate activism moving the Overton window, changing the zeitgeist, in a manner that opens up space for those with more moderate positions to be taken seriously.

          I also think we should be careful about judging people’s stances decades ago based on what we know today. 50 years from now, some ideas we consider implausibly radical will be mainstream, while others that seem self evident will have become obvious nonsense. I wouldn’t want to be judged on my beliefs today based on knowledge they have that we don’t.

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