Nuclear Hubris meets Environmental Politics

I wrote this back in 2011, right after the Fukushima disaster–and never published it. I don’t remember why. There are some things I would modify or delete, but it was a good summary then, and it’s still good. I read absurd scare stories about poisoned oceans from Fukushima frequently–they are always nonsense. I can’t fathom the purpose. The reality is that you need extremely sensitive equipment to measure the contamination from Fukushima even within sight of the plant. Articles showing squid overpopulation die-offs in Chile, claiming to be somewhere in California caused by Fukushima puzzle me. Just click bait? I don’t know. But here’s the article:

I was involved with the nuclear power business for a long time–a reactor operator on the USS Enterprise, worked at a variety of nuclear power plants as a radiological control technician during refueling periods, was a reactor operator at the Trojan Nuclear Plant in Ranier, Oregon and worked in public relations for the primary utility operating Trojan: Portland General Electric. My primary responsibility in Public Relations was talking to the news media about Trojan. I was a lousy nuclear reactor operator–Homer Simpson with ADD. But I did study well, learned the physics and understood both the design and the radiological aspects of power plants. Then when I worked in public relations I had the opportunity to pay a lot of attention to waste disposal issues, safety, environmental impacts and operational issues of both nuclear plants and most of the other ways of making power.

While I remain an advocate of nuclear power, it’s not because I think it’s a wonderful thing. In fact, I think it’s an incredibly dangerous way to make electricity. And the politics of technologically advanced countries make some aspects–like waste disposal–potentially impossible to do safely. But the alternatives are almost certainly much worse.

That may be hard to believe given the harsh realities of Fukushima. But I’ll explain why I think that way. Unfortunately, that will take quite a bit of explaining. Your eyes may start to glaze over. That’s the problem–the reason why decisions made in democratic societies may be ultimately disastrous. Real understanding only comes with a lot of boring detail. I’ll do my best to keep the detail minimal.

Let’s start with the hubris. All nuclear plants do disaster drills–either in the plant as mock actions or in a simulator. The Three Mile Island accident is an easy simulation and pretty much a standard for training for operators of Pressurized Water Reactors (PWRs). Trainers can choose to let trainees solve the problem and end the drill, or they can keep adding problems or preventing a solution to run the drill through to the end. It’s an accident that makes for a realistic drill–not only did it happen, but operators can see how the mistakes were made and how the safety systems failed to prevent the accident.

No one bothers to model Chernobyl. Who would model insanity? A primitive, inherently unstable design with few emergency systems and no containment building. Then the operators decide to try an experiment–cut off all cooling and see if they can recover from the incident. No, they couldn’t. Complete, unmitigated disaster. The core burned and released massive amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere. No emergency response was possible. The only response possible is: Don’t do that. Don’t build a plant like that.

But no one would ever concoct a drill scenario like the Fukushima disaster. You might as well toss in the plagues of Egypt and a few angry Norse gods. An accident involving six nuclear reactors at once? A complete inability to regain cooling. Loss of all normal and emergency electricity. Complete inability to add water, even to the spent fuel pools, which then proceeded to boil. A massive earthquake, massive tsunami. Complete inability to respond to the accident for hours, and limited capability for days and weeks. Unbelievable. but real.

As you would expect, the old line antinuclear folks are having a well-deserved field day. What you wouldn’t expect is the larger environmental groups are not. In fact, the debate within those organizations has intensified, and some prominent green advocates are speaking up in favor of nuclear power. How can this be?

What a strange turn of events. Instead of uniting the environmental movement in renewed opposition to nuclear power, the Fukushima disaster in Japan has divided it still further. An increasing number of green advocates, including some very prominent voices, have declared their support for nuclear power as a clean energy option, even as radioactive water accumulates and the timeline for cleaning up the contaminated areas extends by decades. Can they be serious?

They can. The irony of Fukushima is that in forcing us all to confront our deepest fears about the dangers of nuclear power, we find many of them to be wildly irrational — based on scare stories propagated through years of unchallenged mythology and the repeated exaggerations of self-proclaimed “experts” in the anti-nuclear movement. As the British environmental writer George Monbiot has pointed out, if we took the scientific consensus on nuclear energy as seriously as we take the scientific consensus on climate change, we environmentalists would be telling a very different story.

The science on radiation tells us that the effects of Fukushima are serious but so far much less so than some of the more hyperbolic media coverage might suggest. The power plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., has been releasing enormous quantities of radioactive water into the sea, for example. It sounds scary, but a member of the public would have to eat seaweed and seafood harvested just one mile from the discharge pipe for a year to receive an effective dose of 0.6 millisieverts. To put this in context, every American receives on average 3 millisieverts each year from natural background radiation and a hundred times more than this in some naturally radioactive areas. As for the Tokyo tap water that was declared unsafe for babies, the highest measured levels of radioactivity were 210 becquerels per liter, less than a quarter of the European legal limit of 1,000 becquerels per liter. Those leaving Tokyo because of this threat will have received more radiation on the airplane flight out than if they had been more rational and stayed put.

For the green movement, which is often justifiably accused of making the perfect the enemy of the good, having to confront real-world choices about energy technologies is painful. Most environmentalists assert that a combination of renewables and efficiency can decarbonize our energy supply and save us both from global warming and the presumed dangers of nuclear power. This is technically possible but extremely unlikely in practice. In the messy real world, countries that decide to rely less on nuclear will almost certainly dig themselves even deeper into a dependence on dirty fossil fuels, especially coal.

In the short term, this is already happening. In Germany — whose government tried to curry favor with a strongly anti-nuclear population by rashly closing seven perfectly safe nuclear plants after the Fukushima crisis began — coal has already become the dominant factor in electricity prices once again. Regarding carbon dioxide emissions, you can do the math: Just add about 11 million tons per year for each nuclear plant replaced by a coal plant newly built or brought back onto the grid.

In China, the numbers become even starker. Coal is cheap there (as are the thousands of human lives lost in extracting it each year), and if the hundred or so new nuclear plants previously proposed in China up to 2030 are not built, it is a fair bet that more than a billion tons can be added to annual global carbon dioxide emissions as a result.

Japan is also heavily dependent on coal, so it is a fair bet that less nuclear power there will add substantially to the country’s emissions. No wonder the Japanese are insisting on backing off from the Kyoto climate treaty. Looking at the entire global picture, I estimate that turning away from nuclear power could make the difference between whether the world warms by 2 degrees Celsius (bad but manageable) and 3 degrees Celsius (disastrous) in the next century.

We have already made this mistake once. In the 1970s it looked as if nuclear power was going to play a much bigger role than eventually turned out to be the case. What happened was Three Mile Island and the birth of an anti-nuclear movement that stopped dozens of half-built or proposed reactors; coal plants were substituted instead. It is therefore fair to say that the environmental movement played a substantial role in causing global warming, surely an ecological error it should learn from in years ahead.

Don’t get me wrong: I am an enthusiastic proponent of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources. I strongly support wind, solar and other clean-tech options. But all energy technologies come with an ecological price tag. Wind turbines kill and injure birds and bats. Solar thermal plants proposed in the Mojave Desert have conservationists up in arms. If we are serious about taking biodiversity into consideration as well as climate change, these concerns cannot be idly dismissed. In terms of land use, nuclear scores very well, because the comparatively small quantities of fuel required means less land disturbed or ruined by mines, processing and related uses.

Take Japan again. According to some recent number crunching by the Breakthrough Institute, a centrist environmental think tank, phasing out Japan’s current nuclear generation capacity and replacing it with wind would require a 1.3-billion-acre wind farm, covering more than half the country’s total land mass. Going for solar instead would require a similar land area, and would in economic terms cost the country more than a trillion dollars.

Those debating the future of nuclear power also tend to focus on out-of-date technology. No one proposes to build boiling-water reactors of 1960s-era Fukushima vintage in the 21st century. Newer designs have a much greater reliance on passive safety, as well as a host of other improvements. Fourth-generation options, such as the “integral fast reactor” reportedly being considered by Russia, could be even better. Fast-breeders like the IFR will allow us to power whole countries cleanly by burning existing stockpiles of nuclear waste, depleted uranium and military-issue plutonium. And the waste left over at the end would become safe after a mere 300 years, so no Yucca Mountains needed there. IFRs exist only on paper, however; we need to urgently research prototypes before moving on to large-scale deployment.

What is needed is perspective. Nuclear energy is not entirely safe, as Fukushima clearly shows, even if the current radiation-related death toll is zero and will likely remain so. But coal and other fossil fuels are far, far worse. And insisting only on renewables risks worsening global warming as an unintended consequence. We need a portfolio of clean energy technologies, deployed in the most environmentally responsible way. Above all, let us base our energy policy on a scientifically valid appreciation of real-world risk, and not on scare stories from the past.

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