Since Ernest Rutherford, the ‘father of nuclear physics’, first split the atom in 1917, there has been a rush of human intelligence dedicated to unlocking the secrets of atomic power. These secrets would then require sophisticated regimes using clandestine methods to circumvent fears concerning the abuse or misuse of this technology. There has been widespread apprehension about rogue governments or agents using the power of the atom to bring the world to heel. Other nuclear-related dangers, however, receive rather limited attention by governments and their citizens.
Along with Hiroshima, Nagasaki and over 2,000 nuclear weapons tests, the nuclear age ushered in the so-called ‘peaceful atom’. US President Dwight Eisenhower promised that nuclear energy would set the stage for a new world in his 1953 speech to the United Nations: “This greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind.” The days of dependence on whale oil and wood were no more; petroleum and coal’s diminishing supplies would soon be replaced by “atomic energy as commonplace as gasoline”, according to a 1955 article in Look magazine. David O. Woodbury, the enthusiastic author of that midcentury article, even believed that this energy source could provide nuclear planes and ships, and eliminate cancer and most diseases. He challenged his readers, “Who is to say that atomic research and atomic power cannot give us the life of abundance and happiness that the atomic pioneers have promised?” (1).
Little of that promised abundance and happiness has appeared, however. Instead, the human race created, and has had to endure, Three Mile Island (Pennsylvania in 1979), Chernobyl (Ukraine in 1986), Hanford (the Washington State nuclear production complex that has been leaking radioactive materials since 1944), Fukushima (Japan, 2011) and a host of other leaks and accidents. According to the critics, atomic power is one of the greatest failures in history and we are not even a full century into this brave new world.
Attempts to mislead
Governmental collusion with the nuclear industry may have led to considerable threats to human health and environmental safety. We have seen extensive attempts to mislead and cover up. Japanese nuclear power operators and vendors, including TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company), the owner of Fukushima’s plants, knew well in advance that many reactors were not prepared to deal with major earthquakes, according to US State Department documents and the company’s own spokespeople. Yet this awareness only led to collusion with METI (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) in an effort to downplay or ignore legitimate concerns only a few years before the March 11, 2011 earthquake. The pro-nuclear forces in the country did everything in their power to dismiss the urging of experts warning of a major disaster in the years prior to the meltdowns. The Japanese government also overturned a court order for the closure of a plant in Kanazawa in Western Japan that was considered unable to withstand a major earthquake (2).
Critics such as Nuclear Policy Research Institute founder Helen Caldicott have argued that disinformation has been essential to the nuclear industry. Ideology and political systems are inconsequential when it comes to misleading the public on this issue. According to the Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization Physicians for Social Responsibility, a group focused on human health and safety surrounding nuclear issues, “the history of the nuclear industry (nuclear weapons and nuclear power) has been one of secrecy, cover-ups and minimization. It is apparent that this culture remains rampant today.”
Before Fukushima, we were supposedly on the cusp of the next major nuclear renaissance. Dozens of projects were planned around the world (including several more in Fukushima). “Tiny” nuclear reactors were considered a revolutionary strategy that would bring humanity toward a viable replacement for the burning of fossil fuels, and the Obama Administration is still pushing for these in the United States (3). Only days before the accident at Fukushima began to unfold, Dan Rather, one of the most famous faces of US mainstream media, told readers at the popular Huffington Post that everyone he asked agreed that nuclear power was the best way to “go green” (4).
That said, there has been resistance to the powerful nuclear industry and the governments that act as its guarantors (as most private investors and insurers continue to stay away because of the excessive risks (5)). For example, Germany has shown the world that, with enough determination, the most modern of global economies dependent on a high volume of trade can make the move toward renewable energy sources and conservation instead. In the initial years of its phase-out, the German government has done better than anyone had predicted in achieving its goals. Many naysayers argued that Europe’s largest economy would need to replace the domestic nuclear generation with imports from foreign nuclear plants, such as the Czech Republic’s. Yet, according to figures from the German Association of Energy and Water Industries, and another study by the Institute for Applied Ecology, utility companies sent out roughly 15 billion kilowatt hours of power (6). Earlier this year, German Environment Minister Peter Altmaier reiterated confidence in the country’s ability to phase out nuclear power once and for all. This confidence was exemplified early on by the Siemens CEO Peter Löscher, who called the Merkel government’s plans for renewable energy “the project of the century”, and also said that a goal of 35% power generation from renewables is “achievable” (7).
Italy has also clearly stated that it will never return to nuclear energy as a power source, expressing its commitment with a remarkably decisive referendum (roughly 94%) opposed to then-Prime Minister Berlusconi’s plans to bring back nuclear power. Switzerland, for its part, has also backed away from nuclear power after Fukushima. A new initiative led by a far-reaching alliance of parties and organizations may appear on a nationwide ballot there soon. This plan would see the country’s five nuclear reactors, which generate some 40% of their energy, phased out by 2029, earlier than the government’s plans for an eventual 2035 phase-out (8).
Meanwhile, Japan, site of three of the worst atomic disasters in history, had shown its ability to endure a total shutdown of all 54 reactors for two months of 2012. The decision by the government to restart reactors at Oi last summer sparked a rare show of critical mass in opposition. However, the new conservative leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe threatens to ignore the commitments to a gradual phase-out made by his predecessors when they were in power. Naoto Kan, the prime minister during the crisis that began with the massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, has backed away from nuclear power completely after leaving office. Kan stated his new position in a sworn testimony, “Gorbachev said in his memoirs that the Chernobyl accident exposed the sicknesses of the Soviet system…[and the] Fukushima accident did the same for Japan.” (9)
More troubling signs
Elsewhere in East Asia, there are more troubling signs. In Taiwan, to mark the second anniversary of Fukushima this year, over 200,000 protesters took to the streets around the country and declared their opposition to the construction of the Longmen Nuclear Plant. The country’s fourth nuclear power plant is scheduled to go online by 2016 in the northeastern region of the island, but its construction has been contentious for decades due to safety concerns. According to many of the country’s environmental activists, nuclear power on a densely populated island carries undue risks and the 17% of island-wide power generation coming from atomic sources is not worth it. Furthermore, this plant, which the government of President Ma Ying-jeou has insisted move forward, is ranked as the 14th most dangerous plant in the world by the World Nuclear Association, though its fuel rods have yet to be installed.
Yet, seismologists and tsunami experts appear more concerned about the nuclear power plant in the south of Taiwan. Shortly after the triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami, nuclear meltdown) in eastern Japan, scientists began an analysis of other potential hotspots. David Yuen, professor in the department of Earth Sciences at the University of Minnesota, and other scientists have pointed out that the world’s most problematic earthquake and tsunami area is located south of Taiwan. They are referring to the huge buildup of energy in the Manila Trench, where a major earthquake has not occurred in hundreds of years and is expected in the foreseeable future (10). If such a powerful temblor did occur in the region, then five plants, including four in Southern China, could theoretically be engulfed by water and suffer a fate similar to what Fukushima experienced in 2011. This could spell disaster of unprecedented proportions, as tens of millions live in the populous industrial centers of Shenzen, Hong Kong and Guangzhou.
The paradox of nuclear power is that it relies on proximity to a body of water for cooling, yet is also highly vulnerable to systemic failure if an accident involving water occurs. While oceans appear to present the most pressing dangers for nuclear energy sites, there are also problems with plants located near rivers or lakes. For example, in the United States, a nuclear plant in Nebraska was surrounded by water due to excessive rain and flooding. The plant was in cold shutdown prior to the event but the sight of the plant surrounded by water led to concerns about the potential for damage to backup generators and the loss of electricity for cooling. That same year, there were plants that lost power in Alabama and Virginia due to a phenomenal series of tornadoes.
Considering these vulnerabilities and the increasing severity of storms witnessed around the world, concerns are justified. It appears that if we are to continue to rely on aging reactors that have known flaws in their designs, we must factor in the worst-case scenario. Nuclear energy opponents say our governments are not adequately doing so. We may be able to go several years or decades without another disaster, but perhaps we should take a page from Germany, Switzerland and Italy, and begin to move our economies away from dependence on such a dangerous form of energy immediately.
George Monbiot, the environment reporter for the UK Guardian, has argued the opposite, saying that Fukushima actually made him stop worrying about nuclear power because the impact to the planet from the March 11th disaster was minimal. He believes it is better to embrace the atom as the less harmful alternative to fossil fuels, which would likely replace nuclear energy in any phase-out plan. However, his argument was made only 10 days after the meltdowns began, while most experts point out that the effects, though difficult to measure, are most significant over a much longer period of time.
No safe method of disposal
Another serious concern that critics of nuclear power often highlight is the complete lack of a safe method of nuclear waste disposal. The chilling documentary “Into Eternity”, about the Finnish nuclear waste storage site at Onkalo, reveals the depth of this problem and suggests that human beings have created a mess beyond remediation. This project, designed to deal with the enormous amounts of stockpiled nuclear waste, has required extensive deliberation of methods to deal with the curiosity of future generations. An engineer working at Onkalo said that the construction had to somehow be “independent of human nature.”
There have been opponents to nuclear energy nearly as long as there have been advocates. The aspect of human intelligence that envisions atomic power as a path to utopia is naturally counterbalanced by the cautious voices that argue against it due to the inherent dangers and our own natural inabilities.
I grew up in New York, where the federal government and the local utility planned to build a nuclear park with 11 reactors on Long Island, which includes New York City boroughs Queens and Brooklyn. There was a requirement to create evacuation plans for the millions of inhabitants however, and the state and county governments, alongside active citizen groups who strongly protested these plans from the outset, regarded this as unfeasible. The plan was eventually abandoned in the late 1980s. In October of 2012, Hurricane Sandy could have knocked out the power supplies to at least a few of those 11 planned sites (11). The US narrowly avoided a major nuclear disaster on the outskirts of its most populated and economically significant city.
A long-time opponent of nuclear power in Japan, Hirose Takashi, wrote a book called Nuclear Power Plants for Tokyo, arguing that if atomic energy is so safe, why not build the reactors in the center of the city instead of miles away where much of the energy gets lost in transmission ? (12) Shockingly, there are many places on the planet in which nuclear power plants are located near major population centers, such as Indian Point, located only 25 miles north of New York City.
Shouldn’t these facts require us to consider how we might soon replace the technology with clean energy?
As the 27th anniversary of the disaster at Chernobyl is now upon us, the issue seems more pertinent than ever. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development cites its longstanding commitment with the Ukrainian government to build a new shelter for the affected reactor building, although it is still far from complete. Much of the radioactive fuel remains trapped in the site and poses significant risks.
Albert Einstein, one of the brightest minds of the modern era, was an integral player in the development of nuclear physics. Nonetheless, his views in 1946 on human nature and atomic power seem particularly prescient today: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift towards unparalleled catastrophe.” (13)
The president of Germany’s Federal Environment Agency, Jochen Flasbarth, questions why Germany is under pressure to defend its decision for a nuclear phase-out, while countries like the US, France and the UK continue to promote nuclear power despite its potentially catastrophic nature. Germany, Switzerland and Italy, the countries that were in many ways the nexus for the genius that sparked nuclear fission, are now leading by example. The question is how to get others to follow.