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March 16, 2011 / Dan Whipple

Off topic: Nuclear nonsense

Fukushima I nuclear power plant, March 14, 2011. Image by DigitalGlobe. Used by permission.

The long series of bad and then worse news from the Japanese nuclear power plants in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami there has resulted in yet another barrage from defenders of nuclear power in the United States. A major reason that nuclear power has failed to take hold in the U.S.—despite some apparent advantages over other sources of electric power—is the inability of its proponents to realistically face and address the risks it poses. Nuclear energy is a complex, nearly carbon-free source of power, but it’s proponents seem to be constitutionally incapable of honest assessments.
 
The other day William Saletan at Slate —usually a thoughtful and considered commentator on scientific issues—gave a mini-demonstration of this style of argument when he compared the deaths from nukes in the forty years or so of nuclear power’s history to deaths from other sources of energy—oil, coal and so on.

Saletan cites a statistic—nuke proponents have statistics backing them up to the 13th decimal place—that modern nuclear plants are 1,600 times safer that the old ones. Whatever that might mean. So we have the current Japanese crisis, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and who-knows-how-many minor incidents that don’t make the front page of Slate, but don’t worry, those are old plants and the new ones are better. I don’t have my calculator handy, but it doesn’t sound 1,600 times safer.

Like most other defenders of nuclear power, Saletan downplays the Chernobyl disaster as not being so bad, really, and uses it as a barometer of what will happen in the next disaster. He’s right about Chernobyl not being so bad, if you allow the straw man argument the only “really bad” nuclear accident is a completely uncontrolled meltdown followed by a catastrophic release of radiation. On the other hand, as a guide to the future, Chernobyl is useless. It would be nice to say that future nuclear accidents won’t be any worse than Chernobyl, but we don’t know that. The difference is that most of us admit it, while the nuclear power industry doesn’t. There’s no reason to believe that Chernobyl is the worst-case scenario. A lot worse can be imagined. Some appear to be happening in Japan right now.

At Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986, during a safety test on reactor number four at the plant, a power surge caused an explosion. The core temperatures reached 2,000 degrees Celsius, melting the fuel rods and releasing a cloud of radiation. Twenty-eight men died almost immediately from radiation exposure, several more died after treatment. A few hundred more had radiation-related injuries. It required the evacuation of 116,000 people from the area around the reactor immediately and after 1986 of 220,000 additional people from areas in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.

There was an initial burst of thyroid cancers among children—1,800 at last count. This has subsided, but more are possible over time.

Curiously, though, there has been no increase over the long term in radiation-related illnesses. The exposed population from Chernobyl has not had more or different illnesses than unexposed populations. They have, however, shouldered an enormous psychological burden. Death isn’t the only hazard people face from nuclear power. Maybe it isn’t even the worst thing.

“The psychological impact is now considered to be Chernobyl’s biggest health consequence,” United Nations Development Program’s Louisa Vinton told the Chicago Tribune in 2006, “People have been led to think of themselves as victims over the years, and are therefore more apt to take a passive approach toward their future rather than developing a system of self-sufficiency. “There’s a sense of waiting for rescue from a rescuer that never comes,” Vinton said. “It’s a real impediment to people being able to take charge of their lives again.”

Among the population that was evacuated, however, there has been a “massive increase in stress-related illnesses, such as heart disease and obesity, unrelated to radiation.”

Proponents’ calculations of the “risk of nuclear power” never include the people who have to be evacuated, who suffer life-long psychological stress, whose land and livelihoods are contaminated. If you weren’t killed when the plant blew up, just suck it up.

Saletan helpfully compares the deaths from the nuclear plant disasters (31 dead, all at Chernobyl) with those from the oil and coal supply chain between 1969 and 2000 (20,000 and 15,000, respectively). But people also die in the mining and milling or uranium, not just from plant accidents. I don’t know if a total number has ever been calculated. It’s also hard to tease out the people who mined uranium for power purposes from those who mined it for nuclear weapons. But back in the early 1990s, the U.S. Congress passed a bill compensating with substantial cash payments the families of thousands of workers—mostly in Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico—who had died prematurely from cancers caused by their employment in uranium mines and mills.

There are other risks from nuclear power that are simply unknown and probably not knowable. A major one is nuclear weapons proliferation. In the national security world, you’ll hear talk about the inevitability someday of the detonation of a suitcase nuclear weapon in a major urban area. The source for the fissile material in that suitcase is almost certain to be commercial nuclear power generation.

Then there’s the spent fuel wastes, an issue which we’ve been promised for forty years would be dealt with. The material remains fatally radioactive for 10,000 years—about as long as humans have had agriculture.

What counts as a “risk of nuclear power?” Do you include the 340,000 Chernobyl evacuees, many of whom have never returned home, and their long-term psychological issues—or the countless number in Japan who will have to be evacuated there? Do you include the risk of proliferation? The fact that no one knows what to do with the waste?

Now the industry apologists will say that they do know what to do about these issues, it’s only the “not-in-my-backyard” people of Dogpatch, USA, who are keeping them from doing it (We’re looking at you, Nevada!). The trouble is that they have been so resolutely wrong about these things in the past—and so unwilling to admit that they simply don’t know—that it is very hard to have any confidence in what they say.

The fact is—as Japan is graphically demonstrating—no one really knows the risk is of, say, the failure of the containment structure. I have personally heard nuclear proponents prior to Chernobyl say it was “impossible.” Clearly it’s no longer impossible. Proponents now argue, well, these are extraordinary circumstances. Indeed they are. But extraordinary circumstances happen. Alas.

The catastrophe in Japan has proven once again that the nuclear power industry is chock full of very smart people who don’t know what they’re talking about. This is too bad, really, because a technically sound nuclear power industry has some substantial arguments in its favor, the chief one being that it doesn’t pour carbon emissions into the atmosphere like coal and oil burning does.

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