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Nuclear power debate: How much of our fear is rooted in propaganda?

Nuclear Power Chernobyl If you caught the April 1 episode of "This American Life," a fear of nuclear power may have been cemented. In one segment, actors read harrowing passages from "Voices from Chernobyl," a collection of interviews that documents how people were affected by the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986. The stories of disintegrating, disposable lives were brutal; it hurt to listen.

But that's radiation poisoning at its most extreme, at a time when we didn't yet know how to react to such a disaster. Still, here we are again:

[Japan's] Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency announced that because of the amount of radioactive material released from the [Fukushima] plant after the magnitude 9 earthquake a month ago, the rating would be changed to level 7, a "major accident" on the International Atomic Energy Agency's scale, up from a level 5, an "accident with wider consequences."

Amid fears, a nuclear power debate rages on.

How much of our fear is rooted in propaganda?

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? [...]

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. […]

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.

--Mark Lynas, Why nuclear power is still a good choice

The U.S. is at risk

Once again, the debate has begun about the role of this uniquely dangerous technology in our global fight against climate change — whether this latest failure in "fail-safe" nuclear reactor safety systems disqualifies nuclear energy from a growing role in cleaning up fossil-fuel pollution as we transition to a clean energy future, a future based on energy efficiency, renewable energy and green jobs. Neither the nuclear industry nor the commission has done enough over the years to inspire public confidence. Nuclear energy isn't cheap or clean or accident-free, and, for the relentless claims to the contrary, the credibility of nuclear utilities and the NRC has taken a beating.

--Joel R. Reynolds, U.S. nuclear industry: Not safe enough

New safety policies should be the highest priority

A variety of events could conceivably cause a loss of pool water, including leakage, evaporation, siphoning, pumping, aircraft impact, an earthquake, the accidental or deliberate drop of a fuel transport cask, reactor failure or an explosion inside or outside the pool building. Industry officials maintain that personnel would have sufficient time to provide an alternative cooling system before the spent fuel caught fire. But if the water level dropped to even a few feet above the spent fuel, the radiation doses in the pool building could be lethal.

A 1997 report that Brookhaven National Laboratory did for the NRC found that a severe pool fire could render about 188 square miles uninhabitable, cause as many as 28,000 cancer fatalities and cost $59 billion in damage. […]

Safely securing spent fuel should be a public safety priority of the highest degree in the United States. The cost of fixing America's nuclear vulnerabilities may be high, but the price of doing too little is incalculable.

--Robert Alvarez, Unsafe at any reactor

In the cost-benefit analysis, nuclear doesn't add up

This page takes the threat of climate change very seriously, and would be delighted if a safe, cost-effective way of producing carbon-emissions-free nuclear power were developed. Sadly, we're not there yet. Nuclear power plants are so expensive, and their risks so extreme, that private investors are reluctant to fund them even with huge government subsidies and loan guarantees. Plans to build a national repository for nuclear waste in Nevada have been shelved, meaning radioactive waste is being stockpiled at individual plants in a way that is unsustainable. And then there's the threat of a Japan-type disaster.

--Nuclear fails the test, Editorial


Unlearned lessons from Chernobyl

Photo gallery: Aftermath of a meltdown

Evaluating the risk of nuclear power plants

Nuclear power: The end, or a new beginning?

--Alexandra Le Tellier

Photo: A cooling tower at the Chernobyl complex. Credit: Rory Carnegie


Comments () | Archives (17)

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Paul Randall

[6] Comment by paul randall - 12 Apr, 2011 11:29 pm
Truth or Propabganda?

"Nuclear waste cannot be disposed of by destroying it can only be buried for thousands of years before it becomes safe. "

This is a Truth that everyone believes, A point of agreement between 99.9% of anyone that knows what nuclear waste is. I don't think that there is another thing that 99.9% of Americans would believe except this.

Apparently it is Propaganda today and has been for 50 years.

Liquid Flourium Thorium Reactors technology was developed beginning in the 50's and proven in the 60's . Fundamental patents are so old that they expired years ago. It is literally open source tech. Viability has been within a few years of development since 1969. LFTRs can burn up and destroy 99% of existing nuclear waste and transmute the rest into material that would be harmless within 300 years.

I am not prone to believing conspiracy theories but knowing that this has been a lie how can we believe anything about anything anymore?

Reginald Hopkins

How much of this article is rooted in Propaganda?

Contrary to the title of this article, the seriousness of the current nuclear crisis has been buried. In fact the story itself has been buried for most intents and purposes, especially in the U.S. and U.K. media. Australia covers it pretty well actually which is ironic since Australia is not in the Jet Stream as we are.

We may wish to remember that FOUR NUCLEAR REACTORS HAVE BLOWN UP. Radiation is spewing into the air and the ocean unimpeded. The cooling systems and instruments are still totally offline. The grounds of the facility are nearly unapproachable. They can't even get accurate radiation readings because the readings are off the scale of their instruments, literally.

Radiation is scary because it is deadly and invisible.

I think the influence of the nuclear industry in the media is more at issue, rather than an episode of This American Life.


Besides the previous forum member, why isn't that nobody else talks about "alternative" nuclear reactors like Thorium based reactors?

Why can't the prestigious L.A. Times launch an objective investigation and inform about it?

It will be extremely helpful for everybody else (public in general and lawmakers in particular) to learn about this particularly safe alternative.


@ E.S.

Because few people know about the technology--even nuclear engineers don't learn about liquid fluoride thorium reactors during their studies.

I would also think that the nuclear industry has lobbied against them as Thorium LFTRs would decimate their business modal. Currently the industry builds Nuclear Reactors at a lost, but reap in profits by processing and selling the uranium fuel.

Thorium, by contrast is as common as dirt--we only have an 80 year supply of uranium, making it rare and expensive--and needs very little processing. As such, the industry would make very little profit off of Thorium.


Some points:
The amount of current Fukushima radioactive iodine release: 1.3x10^17 bq
The amount released by the Chernobyl disaster: 17x10^17 bq
The amount released by nuclear testing in Nevada: 55x10^17 bq

It's still small by comparison. Also:
The number of increased cancers due to Chernobyl: 50-70000
The number of increased cancers due to nuclear testing in Nevada: 10-75000
The number of deaths from coal fired plants in the US PER YEAR: 13-30000
The number of deaths by car accidents in the US PER YEAR: 33000

It would take a Chernobyl every year or ten Fukushimas a year to match deaths by coal power and car accidents.


Thorium is cheap, abundant, and a meltdown CANNOT happen with a liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR).

You may ask why, if they are so great, have we not built them? Well, we did.

Back in the 1950's a working reactor was built in Oak Ridge, TN. The nuclear reactors that we use today were a byproduct of the military funding research to build nukes for the Cold War. Our current reactors use Uranium for this reason; it can be used for reactors or for bombs. Thorium, on the other hand, cannot be used for weapons, and as such, the military cut the funding for the project. The reactor was shutdown and was basically lost knowledge until a couple of years ago when some people found the written research on a shelf.

You also have to realize that back in the 60's, when the LFTR was shutdown, we were not in an energy crisis. The US was flush with oil (we didn't hit our peak production until the late 70's) and we had plenty of coal. We also weren't aware of climate change back then.



It's always nice when someone puts things into perspective with numbers.

It reminds me of after 9/11 when everyone was freaking out. You have a far greater chance of dieing from lightning that from a terrorist.

I've always believed that the media should have put things into perspective. Instead of wasting all that money on all these useless security measures and two wars, instead provide more funding for lightning rods--it would save more lives.

James Aach

Perhaps the fact few understand what really goes on in a nuclear plant day to day or during an accident is the problem -- unlike warfare, where there are many veterans around to correct the most egregious distortions, there is nothing equivalent in nuclear energy. I've worked in the US nuclear industry 25 years, and I have never seen a good account in the media that explains just what the 600 - 1000 people working at a reactor each day are doing, or how they are to respond to an accident. It's not The Simpsons and not Star Trek.

It turns out my novel of nuclear power, called “Rad Decision,” culminates in an event very similar to the Japanese tragedy. (Same reactor type, same initial problem – a station blackout with scram.) The book is an excellent source of perspective for the lay person — as I’ve been hearing from readers. It covers both good and bad. (If I wanted to write propaganda, I'd become a spokesman.) The novel is free online at the moment at http://RadDecision.blogspot.com . (No adverts, nobody makes money off this site.) Reader reviews are in the homepage comments.

Unfortunately, my media presence consists of this little-known book and website, so I’m not an acknowledged “expert”. I just happen to do the nuclear stuff for a living. And I think I have explained it well in a non-yawn-producing manner. But it’s a bit of a tree falling in a forest………

Reginald Hopkins

LFTRs may be a viable option, I don't know. However that's not what this article is about.

The statistics about deaths are just that: statistics. Why not include deaths from smoking in your list as well? How about premature death from diabetes? Certain things are just scarier than others: things like an invisible force that causes mutation in your DNA, cancer, and death. i.e. radiation.

If all we're talking about is bang-for-the-buck to prevent deaths, we should pump money into low hanging fruit like stopping malaria in Africa. But anyway, this article is about fear of radiation and the propaganda behind it. And the propaganda today is much more about limiting and ignoring fear of radiation rather than promoting it.

Max Plank

It is the renewable clean energy industry which exists solely due to massive government subsidies. What are you going to due on a windless night? At least nuclear is 7x24.

John Dingler, artist

Nuclear power debate: How much of our obeisance is rooted in propaganda?


if any one is still pro nuke ,when we have no place too hide anymore from the poisons and byproducts,dumped in the ocean .can we eat fish and which ones? are they going too supply us with a gieger counter ? our children will be dying like flys as we have seen a spike in cancers and child hood leukiemia in the 1950s tell now , which is known as the down winders, syndron and whos going too help us with our health care bills from the extra sickness ,all those open air tests and old storage sites and leakage from them ,and cherynobel three mile island nagasaki hiroshema and many different mine sites and research facilities now japan again . these power stations give of more poison and for much longer period then even the bombs do. if your pro nuke then go help them clean it up . put your money, and mouth , and brain ?where your spine is


if any one is still pro nuke ,when we have no place too hide anymore from the poisons and byproducts,dumped in the ocean .can we eat fish and which ones? are they going too supply us with a gieger counter ? our children will be dying like flys as we have seen a spike in cancers and child hood leukiemia in the 1950s tell now , which is known as the down winders, syndron and whos going too help us with our health care bills from the extra sickness ,all those open air tests and old storage sites and leakage from them ,and cherynobel three mile island nagasaki hiroshema and many different mine sites and research facilities now japan again . these power stations give of more poison and for much longer period then even the bombs do. if your pro nuke then go help them clean it up . put your money, and mouth , and brain ?where your spine is


nuculear energys fuel is the biggest assault on this planet against man kind and against our children and there children and if they will be able too have children, it will even hinder reproduction. and is a assault against nature it causes most the cancers on the planet it causes deformitys it weakens the imune systym contributes too aids and other imune disieases the more we use the worse it will get. sure dabble in it in small amounts for scientific research but thats all , they were playing around with it in the 1940s 50s 60s 70s with open air tests and building more and more bombs and nuculear submarines wonder what and where they dump there poisons, and power plants ect and our cancer rates soared and still are and all the birth deformitys ect . close pandoras box on the nuculear industry and clean it up if poosible and next get rid of all the bombs.


This is a very unfortunate event. We've had 50 years of history showing us severe catastrophes that nuclear radiation can cause. I've even heard that some brave Japanese workers have given their lives to help clean up the mess. I salute them for their bravery in a toxic situation. I am also praying for this mess to be dissipated quickly and not harm many people.

Herbs should be our first line of protection against radiation and heavy metal poisoning (cesium 137 and plutonium are heavy metals.)I hope people do take some precautions so they don't get sick though. http://homeopathicmedicines.biz/herbs-for-nuclear-radiation-poisioning-and-protection/

Jerry Caldwell

..."private investors are reluctant to fund them"...

That's a laugh. No privately funded nuclear power plant has ever been planned nor will one ever be built. Not one.

Nuclear subsidies are 10-12 times that of renewable's yet renewable's are growing their share of power production far more rapidly than any other sector.

Only 9% of total usable power delivered to end users comes from nuclear power production. This could be offset much cheaper through improved efficiencies at point of use and in transmission/distribution.

Nuclear simply does not pencil out as a good investment. Never has.

Joe DeMuro

I think it is outrageous to consider something that has such long term complications let alone expense. What are the advocates thinking? Could it be $$$, no it can’t be, no one is that stupid, or are they? Do you want your great great great grandchildren to clean up these sites? A large part of the trouble in Japan is from fuel that has been discarded if you can call storing it in pools of water proper disposal. A true environmentalist would advocate individual solar, wind, wave or yes natural gas before they would subject the land, air, fish, dogs and cats and yes people to the effects of raditation for the next thousand years for some electricity. Remember the first lies, it will be safe and far to inexpensive to meter. I still have a meter and safe what do you think?



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