Nuclear Bulletin #22
27 iv 2011
The Word is Bail.
A summation of events since Bulletin 21 is in order: Japan has extended the evacuation zone and imposed tough measures against violators, prompting tensions with evacuees who assumed such removal would be temporary. Japan upgraded the catastrophe to Category 7, the same as Chernobyl, while credibly reporting that the total amount of material released was about one tenth the radioactivity released at Chernobyl. Given the much greater concentration of releases in nearby territory in Japan, this highlights my prior point that the long-range fallout effects of Fukushima will be minuscule compared to Chernobyl. Correspondingly, the on-site and near-site effects will be of similar magnitude, and numerous reports of radiation sickness among the workforce are beginning to appear.
Activity at the site is now focused on construction of containers to hold contaminated water being pumped out, and Japan has acknowledged that much such water will have to be intentionally released to the sea. Mostly French and some US firms have been contracted to do the cleanup.
A report on Voice of Russia radio on the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl, which was yesterday, interestingly made the comparison between Fukushima and Chernobyl as being like stories of corruption in contracting and management. That story is bolstered by an in-depth report about corruption at Fukushima in today’s New York Times: Safety Becomes Victim in Japan’s Nuclear Collusion – NYTimes.com Corruption, of course, plagues all complex societies, and has shown little preference for one economic system over another. There is an argument to be made that intolerant technologies like nuclear power do not jive well with universal human frailties like susceptibility to bribery, dishonesty, and denial. There is not a comparable case that nuclear technology proves the superiority or inferiority of any given system of political economy.
That becomes especially clear in reviewing the six worst single-site nuclear catastrophes, only three of which have penetrated into media and public consciousness. In order of severity of effects, those include two Soviet disasters, two American, one Japanese and one French:
1. Chelyabinsk, Russia, 1957
2. Chernobyl, Ukraine, 1986
3. Fukushima, Japan, 2011
4. Idaho Falls, USA, 1961 SL-1 – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
5. La Hague, France 1980
6. Three Mile Island, USA, 1979
If the ranking were in terms of potential severity, the order would be substantially different with reference to the above list: 2-4-3-6-1-5. Interestingly, Chernobyl was not the worst Soviet disaster, nor was Three Mile Island the worst American one. It was, in fact, the Chelyabinsk disaster that provided the USSR with large numbers of radiation management specialists, radioecologists, and disaster teams that made Chernobyl much more manageable almost thirty years later.
Consideration of that full list is what has made the constant comparisons between Fukushima and Chernobyl so pointless. One thing we learned from the top two experiences, as well as from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and atmospheric nuclear testing around the world, is that psychosocial effects can be as, or more, severe than radiation effects, and by that I do not mean “psychosomatic” injuries.
What I do mean is that evacuations and the resulting impoverishment, food restrictions leading to malnutrition, social stigma applied to exposed populations, voluntary or imposed restrictions on reproduction, and depression leading to suicide will typically have a greater combined impact on health than the direct effects produced by radioactivity. This phenomenon was very pronounced in Central Asia, for example, where large populations were exposed concurrently to Chelyabinsk fallout, fallout from Soviet and Chinese weapons tests, and uranium mining wastes.
Consequent cancer rates were elevated, but this may not have approached the number of casualties caused by food and land restrictions, paranoia leading to non-reproduction, and skyrocketing suicide rates, the latter tied to false propaganda about downwinders’ incapacity to have healthy children. This is the phenomenon, to which (we know from the A-Bomb history) the Japanese are especially susceptible. And this is what the counter-factual “radioactivists” fail to grasp — that their spewing of disinformation causes real physical harm, aside from undermining the credibility of all critics. And yes, I’ll say it again. Helen Caldicott is by far the worst willful offender.
That is important to say because right now, in Japan, unfounded fears about magical radiation injury are causing a host of problems, given that the great majority of Japanese are not in the zone of significant hazard. People of good will need to speak up if the concern for human health is genuine.
Meanwhile, utility executives, financial analysts, and right-wing politicians are doing a thorough job of shutting the nuclear industry down in the United States, Germany, Italy, India, and elsewhere. On April 19, NRG announced that the South Texas nuclear reactor project is over, kaput. This was the biggest new reactor project in the USA, the one that defined the “Nuclear Renaissance” in America, the one next up at the plate for a federal loan guarantee. Texas also presented the most nuclear-friendly locale one could imagine. The death of this project was underplayed in the media. In retrospect it will be seen as the coup de grace for nuclear revival dreams.
In short, if you call yourself an “antinuclear activist”, the powers that be are trying mighty hard to make you redundant. There simply isn’t any work left on that agenda that the big money men aren’t already accomplishing. Sure, there are squeaks and murmurs on the investment websites, but these are coming from lackadaisical stock traders who hope to create some new mini-bubble, so that they can sell their own shares without absorbing a tremendous loss. The word is bail. That’s the word inside, outside, and altogether. Soon anti-nukers will be like the Japanese soldiers left behind in jungles on Pacific Islands after WWII, with only imaginary enemies to fight.
The guy who was right all along is Amory Lovins. He said long before Three Mile Island that the economics of nuclear power would doom the industry, and he produced lots of graphs to demonstrate that TMI had practically no effect on the industry’s established downward trend. He has now produced the same kind of graphs to show that the industry, in the United States, was dead long before Fukushima. There are open questions left in France, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, where reliance on nuclear power is high and access to natural gas is low. But there are few open questions in the USA, Russia, and most of Asia and the rest of the world, where nuclear was simply not a contender in a market dominated by natural gas, and surging renewables.
The task now is to build a future energy policy, and stop beating the dead horse.
Geoffrey Sea holds a bachelor’s degree in History and Science from Harvard. He did graduate work in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT and in radiological health physics at San Jose State University. He is co-founder of Southern Ohio Neighbors Group, which successfully defeated plans for the centralized storage of spent nuclear fuel at Piketon, Ohio. He has published in the American Scholar, the Columbia Journalism Review, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and many newspapers. He can be contacted via email at SargentsPigeon@aol.com