Busting The Nuclear Power Myth:
By Richard Wilcox, Ph.D.
Given the proliferation of pro-nuclear apologists since the Fukushima nuclear disaster occurred in March of 2011, I thought it might be time to write a primer for those unfamiliar with the basics of what can seem like a very daunting and depressing topic: the dangers of nuclear power. I sat down with my friend Homer and we had a chat.
Homer Simpleson: Hey Doc, tell us about yourself would you?
Dr. Wilcox: As a brief introduction, my university degrees are in the arts and social sciences and not the natural sciences. I have always been interested in both aspects of science though, but like many students my math and science skills were poor so I had to go into humanities. I realized that without an understanding of scientific logic it is too easy to have the wool pulled over your eyes by experts who advise, “just trust us.”
I think we should all have a basic understanding of the humanities and “hard” sciences (math, chemistry, physics) because without the formal understandings of science our personal musings about the natural world mean little; and without a spiritual (humanities) basis for our understanding of human existence, science itself becomes debased and controlled only for money and power.
That is why I studied the natural environment from a holistic perspective as opposed to a reductionist science model (where reality is reduced to its most elementary parts, not necessarily in relation to the greater whole). I'm interested in scientific and environmental ethics, areas explored by philosophers but which have had little effect on the scientific community. The mentality in the modern science-industrial world seems to be, if you can build a better bomb, go ahead and do it.
My Master of Arts (MA) degree was in African environmental studies. In that program I learned about the tribal and colonial histories of many parts of Africa and my thesis was on the Africa/ Asia elephant ivory trade. Africa being the exporter and Asia, including Japan, being the importer. This pernicious trade continues today with China now being a major cause of the illegal poaching of elephants in Africa.
For my Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) I documented my knowledge of a number of environmental issues and decided on a thesis of grassroots environmental organizations in Japan. This seemed like a good idea but half way through the research I realized there was not a lot going on as Japanese people tend to be very muted in their public activism. Patching together enough data for a decent thesis took some creativity. Some of the groups I studied and interviewed were critical of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy, and that ultimately led to what I am writing about today, the nuclear crisis in Japan at Fukushima.
Homer: Working in the nuclear industry has kept me in donuts and six packs (not “six pack abs” though). Doc, what are the pros and cons of nuclear power?
Doc: The supposed pros of nuclear power are that it is “clean, cheap and safe” but none of the claims are true in absolute terms. First of all, it is only clean in comparison to the worst forms of coal burning power plants. It is true that coal releases heavy metal toxins including radionuclides into the atmosphere unless they are filtered out. If you go to a major Chinese city such as Beijing they are infamous for horrifically filthy air and the burning of coal for power generation is one of the reasons.
Nuclear is not clean if there is an accident such as happened at Fukushima because toxic substances (radiation) that are harmful to life are released into the environment and can damage organisms for hundreds and even thousands of years. In addition, the building and decommissioning of NPPs (nuclear power plants) are energy intensive projects and there is still no tried and true storage method for the waste. As standard operating procedure NPPs regularly release radiation (tritium) into the environment (lakes, rivers and oceans, where they are usually placed).
As for cheapness, this argument is debunked in a book by Cohen and McKillop called The Doomsday Machine: The High Price Of Nuclear Energy (1). Nuclear power relies on huge subsidies from the government and kicks costs down the road by making future generations pay for the decommissioning of the plants and waste management. If an accident occurs the high cost is ignored, the people that caused the accident actually profit, and the suffering passed onto taxpayers (2). According to nuclear expert Arnold Gundersen, Fukushima will cost at least 500 billion dollars to clean up. Amazingly, for all of its dangers, nuclear power comprises only 2.5 percent of world primary energy production. Energy expert Andrew McKillop notes that:
“Nuclear power is capital intensive, lives on subsidies, thrives on false hopes and dies in debt” (3).
Not to mention the mass graves of its victims.
Finally, in terms of being “safe,” this is obviously not the case given the large number of accidents and near misses that occur. When we consider that nuclear power is generally seen as a means to produce the fire power for nuclear weapons then I can see nothing safe about either venture. The nuclear weapons production system is a huge ecological catastrophe even without one bomb going off-- witness the Hanford, Washington weapons production plant and its radiation leakage issue.
Homer: What are the costs and benefits of nuclear power production?
Doc: There are benefits if you are a limited liability corporation who only exists in order to make a profit. That's true about many environmentally destructive practices today including resource extraction (logging, mining) industries and the weapons industry. There is a short term gain for nuclear power in terms of a steady supply of electricity being produced, as long as the plant functions properly. When there are disruptions, accidents, or the plant becomes too old to operate the costs kick in. Short term gains are long term losses which are passed onto future generations to pay for.
If the entire world is to live at the consumer level of the United States then the amount of energy required will be huge. Instead of constantly trying to increase energy production maybe we should slow down and live on our finite sized planet in a modest way. Think Amish!
France probably has the most efficient nuclear power production system, but even France is talking about getting out of the nuclear game altogether because it is turning out to be a long term money loser for the country and they have nowhere to store the waste. The cost of decommission their vast arsenal of aging plants is going to break the country. Adieu!
From the beginning of the Atomic Age, nuclear weapons have always been the driving force behind the creation of nuclear power. The idea that nuclear power could create cheap and efficient energy for the modern world was an afterthought to the splitting of the atom and unleashing of the Nuclear Hell Bomb legacy (4). Veteran anti-nuclear activist David Freeman has noted that the nuclear industry started out as a blatant pretext for the development of hydrogen bombs, and in the early years was never taken seriously as a method for reliable power generation. Only in the 1960s was the first civilian power plant started, but nuclear power has never been cost efficient in comparison to other traditional sources of energy. The “cost overrun” has always been common practice for the nuclear industry. As long as private companies can line their pockets with taxpayer subsidies, and externalize the costs of dealing with “nuclear trash” onto future generations, the scam will continue (5).
Japan's political leaders stupidly holds onto the idea of nuclear power-- Japan's LDP far right political party ushered in the nuclear age (in part) as a pretext to be able to build nuclear weapons and as a subsidy to major Japanese corporations. Hopefully that culture is changing, but not fast enough.
Homer: Can nuclear power ever be safe or is it just downright dangerous?
Doc: Recently a nuclear engineer wrote to me and praised my latest article which was a critique of the bungling manner in which Japan's Abe administration has mishandled the Fukushima debacle. This engineer had previously worked in Japan at a nuclear plant and he criticized the irresponsible culture in Japan which allows mishaps to occur. He believes that the hierarchy of powerful families that control the country and nuclear industry puts profits before safety.
That said, he did believe that nuclear is a feasible option, but not in Japan, due to the geological realities of earthquakes. In theory, nuclear may be, but in the real world I think we would be better off developing alternative energy and living simpler lives to preserve the planet and our health. Thorium reactors are often touted as the new way forward for nuclear, but at the end of the day you still have a pile of highly radioactive waste to play around with.
Homer: Who is supposed to be in charge of keeping the nuclear industry safe?
Doc: The NRC (US Nuclear Regulatory Commission) was set up to monitor the viability and safety of nuclear plants, but like many other industries in the US the foxes guard the chicken coop. In other words, the industry being regulated ends up capturing the regulators! The mentality of the NRC is to create wildly optimistic models about nuclear safety and keep the reactors running long past their due dates.
One of the most knowledgeable and interesting people to listen to about these questions is nuclear expert Arnie Gundersen of the Fairewinds Energy Education website. He has spent decades fighting against the foolish NRC policies. The other day he mentioned that the NRC says the chances of a nuclear accident are “a million to one,” and yet there have been innumerable accidents since nuclear power came on line. The risk models used by the NRC do not reflect the actual operation of power plants but are based on fallacious assumptions: garbage in, garbage out.
The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) is the same thing but on an international scale. As written into their very charter, the IAEA's role is to promote nuclear power, not regulate safety. For example, their downplaying of the dangers of the Fukushima disaster are obvious as they ignore many dangerous developments at the site while pretending there is nothing to be alarmed about. Dr. Chris Busby and his colleagues have done some of the best work exposing the cabal of United Nations related agencies and their fallacious radiation risk models (6; 7).
Homer: Many people are saying the Fukushima nuclear disaster will kill the Pacific Ocean, is that true?
Doc: I am currently assessing this disturbing question for an upcoming paper. The short answer is that whatever the ultimate damage to the ocean and living things, this is the worst industrial accident in history and should be taken very seriously. To understand how serious it is we have to compare how much radiation was released in above ground nuclear weapons tests in the 1950s versus how much has been released so far, or how much could potentially be released from Fukushima (since the accident is ongoing). We could also compare it with the Chernobyl disaster that occurred in 1986. The amount of nuclear materials on hand at Fukushima is several times greater than Chernobyl where only one reactor exploded.
There is no question that the amount of radiation released from Fukushima has been huge-- into the quadrillions of becquerels (petabecquerels) of radiation. While it is is too soon to predict the death of the Pacific Ocean, we should be taking drastic action to solve the crisis. If Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) can extract the fuel rods from the precarious Unit 4 without incident; if there is not another major earthquake near Fukushima; if the underground wall that will take a few years to build can actually freeze the ground and block further leaks of radiation into the ocean, we will be breathing a sigh of relief.
That is a lot of “ifs” and there are many other problems that Tepco does not seem to have the technical ability to safely manage. Clearly, outside intervention to safely resolve the situation is required but the Japanese are a very stubborn lot.
There is a lot of anecdotal evidence and speculation regarding the state of the ocean and sea life. But the reported die-offs of sea lions and starfish, for example, could be from other causes or a combination of causes, including Fukushima. Exposure to radiation lowers an organism's immunity to disease. My colleague Paul Zimmerman pondered whether marine organisms may be sensitive to radiation at levels which are considered to be harmless by the nuclear authorities. If that is the case it may be part of the reason for high numbers of sea animal die-offs.
According to Dr. Chris Busby, even if the entire inventory of nuclear fuel were to enter the Pacific Ocean (and not that much has been released yet), it would not equal the amount of radiation released by above ground atomic bomb tests in the 1950s. That is no cause for joy, but it does point out how large the ocean is. If the ocean did not die before then it may not die this time either, but it will certainly sustain a large blow. The radiation from Fukushima is on top of all the previous assaults to the global environment, including habitat destruction, over harvesting of animal species, various forms of long lasting pollution, regular releases from nuclear power plants and radiation from the above ground nuclear tests. The US military itself has been described as the world's worst polluting entity in the world.
Homer: Gee Doc, don't we need nuclear power to meet our energy needs, or are there better alternatives? How will we produce energy to make chocolate covered glazed donuts (with sprinkles) and turn on the TeeVee to watch the NFL?
Doc: I don't believe nuclear power is necessary, the amount of electricity that it produces on a global scale could be replaced by alternative energies and conservation.
As for alternative energy replacing our current energy model which relies mainly on oil, gas, coal and nuclear, there is a rich array of alternative and renewable energy ideas out there. The problem is that the old sunset industries get the subsidies and the sunrise renewables do not. Energy guru Amory Lovins built his own home to be 100 percent self sustaining, and MIT professor Dan Nocera invented a water-cracking solar technology that can heat a house for a day with just two gallons of water. We must get the appropriate technologies to meet the particular needs of the communities that can use them for best benefit. In our current Bigger Is Better economic model which thrives on centralization of power, alternative models are squelched along with their energy and lifestyle decisions. It's time to tell Obama and Abe: it's democracy stupid!
Richard Wilcox holds a Ph.D. in Environmental Studies from a social science, holistic perspective. He teaches at a number of universities in the Tokyo, Japan area. His articles on environmental topics including the Fukushima nuclear disaster are archived at http://wilcoxrb99.wordpress.com/ and he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. The Doomsday MachineNuclear power is capital intensive, lives on subsidies, thrives on false hopes and dies in debt.
2. Japan’s Most Hated Outfit, TEPCO, Reports Fat Profit (From Taxpayer Bailout Money)
3. Nuclear Power Dirty Bomb
4. The True Powers Behind Multiculturalism, Globalization And World War
6. Prof. Chris Busby In Japan
7. Japan’s Low-Dose Radiation Disaster
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