Nuclear power debate: How much of our fear is rooted in propaganda?
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.
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.
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.
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.
--Alexandra Le Tellier
Photo: A cooling tower at the Chernobyl complex. Credit: Rory Carnegie