Curing Plague with Cholera
The nuclear power lobby has launched a fresh offensive,
and it is vital to mobilize resistance before it is too late.
24 January 2007
Published in Swedish in Aftonbladet (Sweden), 24 January 2007,
An international offensive for nuclear power is currently under way. The general public’s knowledge of the issue has declined, and in Sweden it has long been treated as merely an obstacle to an alliance of bourgeois political parties. In addition, we have been ill-served by the major media, which usually mention nuclear power only as a necessary means of counteracting global warming.
In fact, there are several reasons why nuclear power is incapable of serving that purpose, as explained by many highly qualified international experts. But for some reason, their message is seldom conveyed by our major media — a phenomenon which, in itself, is a suitable subject for research.
Whatever else is done, the use of fossil fuels must be drastically reduced. There are many reasons to change our priorities, including the depletion of resources, the growing mountains of waste, population growth, dangerous conflicts in a world with weapons of mass destruction, and the contamination of air, soil and water. In such circumstances, to replace oil and coal with nuclear power is to cure plague with cholera. All other alternatives — and there are alternatives — are better.
In order for nuclear power to make a significant contribution to the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions, at least 1500 new reactors would have to be built. At present there are 440 reactors worldwide. About 100 new ones are being planned, primarily in Asia; but roughly the same number must be shut down for safety reasons within the next few years.
Building a new reactor requires a great deal of energy — for uranium mining, nuclear fuel enrichment, thousands of transports, construction of the reactor and its holding ponds, etc., etc. Then there is the energy required for dismantling and ensuring the safety of exhausted reactors, the storage of radioactive wastes, and the long-term maintenance for which future generations will need sufficient competence and financial resources. According to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, storage and maintenance will have to be sustainable for at least a half million years and be able to withstand earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and ice ages.
Global warming in itself creates serious problems for nuclear power. Reactors require large volumes of water for cooling, and are therefore sited by seas, lakes and rivers. Their cooling systems must never be allowed to fail.
But at some locations, the water level is expected to rise and flood reactors. At other sites, drought is expected to have the opposite effect: Water shortages will create potentially catastrophic problems for reactor cooling systems.
Earthquakes are expected to become more frequent on a warmer earth, while the increasing strength of hurricanes will cause other problems for the complex nuclear facilities.
What’s more, nuclear power contributes to ocean warming, one of the most powerful factors affecting climate change. The water taken from seas and rivers to cool reactors is considerably warmer when it is returned to its source, and thus contributes to both global warming and problems of marine ecology. For an example of the latter: The eighteen nuclear reactors that now border the Baltic Sea are aggravating the effects of over-fertilization, including massive algae blooms. According to Russian environmental organizations, the nuclear power plant near St. Petersburg needs tens of cubic metres of seawater every second for its cooling system.
That shortages of cooling water eventually lead to meltdowns has been acknowledged even by researchers in an article published in New Scientist; but for some reason, they contend, meltdowns will not occur until humans have become extinct. An ordinary layperson might wonder why there could not be any humans left to be affected by nuclear meltdowns when cooling water becomes scarce.
The Swedish public has been lulled with endlessly repeated reassurances of “our safe and well-functioning reactors”, despite the fact that they often need to be shut down for safety reasons. If they were subject to risk due to war or terrorist attack, all of them would have to be shut down; and they continue to pose risks even after shutdown.
For the nuclear power industry, it is absolutely essential to secure public acceptance in order to expand, which in turn requires that it be able to cope with the mounting problem of waste disposal. But all available resources must be allocated to the latter, for example in the clean-up of the Kola Peninsula in Russia where the risk of meltdown is 25 per cent, or in attempting to solve the immense problems at Sellafield in England, La Hague in France and Livermore Laboratory in the United States.
Nuclear enthusiasts have now found the perfect ally in the person of James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia Hypothesis — i.e. that the biosphere and the earth’s physical components together form a complex, interacting system. In his latest book, The Revenge of Gaia, Lovelock makes an impassioned case for the use of nuclear power instead of coal and oil to counteract global warming. That argument has been warmly embraced by individuals who were previously inclined to ridicule the Gaia Thesis, and still reject Lovelock’s contention that the goal of economic growth must be abandoned immediately.
Lovelock’s standpoint is easy to understand within a psychological perspective, since he has struggled longer than most and against strong resistance to spread awareness of the global warming threat and crucial ecological relationships. But, surprisingly, his advocacy of nuclear power is both demagogic and inconsistent.
All of the changes proposed by James Lovelock are based on the premise that people must first become deeply frightened by the threat of global warming, and deeply engaged as a result. Yet, he heaps scorn on “emotions and feelings” whenever they do not conform with his beliefs. He paints a picture of a nuclear industry that is weak, and bullied by a gigantic environmental lobby that has pulled the wool over the public’s eyes and has nearly broken the nuclear power industry and its quest for scientific truth. What’s more, the industry suffers from low social and economic status!
He expresses regret for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, primarily because they gave rise to an erroneous conception of nuclear power. The atomic bombs that destroyed those cities have prevented us from seeing what a wonderful gift nuclear power is. Instead, our minds have been benighted by fear of nuclear war.
Naturally, Lovelock makes light of the Chernobyl accident, and the long-term health risks of nuclear power are dismissed with the argument that a third of us are going to die of cancer sooner or later, anyway. He ought to be aware, however, that rates of thyroid cancer and leukaemia among children have multiplied in Ukraine and Belarus since the Chernobyl accident. In Ukraine, the genetic damage that can be measured has increased by a factor of 15. It has been reported that in the German state of Bavaria, which also received a large amount of nuclear fallout, the rate of stillbirths increased by 40 per cent during the three years following the accident.
Many similar reports have come from the contaminated area, which is considerably larger than Denmark. Kofi Annan, U.N. Secretary-General at the time, wrote in 2002 that: “At least three million children in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia are in need of medical care due to the Chernobyl accident. We will not know until 2016, at the earliest, how many are likely to become seriously ill.“
The cost of cleaning up at Chernobyl has been calculated as €440 billion (ca. USD 68 billion). But that figure does not include the costs of long-term medical care related to the accident, nor of the sarcophagus (containment structure) that must be built over the ruin as soon as possible because the old one is on the verge of collapse.
That it is still politically possible to consider nuclear power as a viable energy source is due to four factors: the most serious health effects are on foetuses and infants; it takes a long time for many forms of cancer to develop; chromosome damage does not fully manifest itself until many years have passed; the increasing concentration of radioactive substances in the food chain is a process that is not very well understood by the general public.
That women everywhere comprise a large majority of nuclear opponents is probably due to the fact that they are most directly affected by the kind of suffering involved. But the fact that the majority are women has also made it easier to run over the opposition.
Another weakness of James Lovelock’s position is that he appears to be unaware of perhaps the most serious consequence of nuclear proliferation — the increased potential for the construction and spread of nuclear weapons.
That, which many during the 1970s and ‘80s realized should never be allowed to happen, has now happened. The number of countries with nuclear weapons or the potential to acquire them has doubled. Nuclear materials are in circulation, uncontrolled. The threshold for use has been lowered by “adaptation to limited purposes”. There is a growing acceptance and trivialization of “the unthinkable”. The United States upgrades its arsenal and develops new variants. The United Kingdom is planning to modernize its nuclear weapons fleet. Meanwhile, advocates of nuclear power for civil uses are on the offensive.
Thus, there are plans to spread and further develop nuclear power in a world where powerful leaders do not appear to have grasped what nuclear weapons are and what is required to get rid of them.
In a science programme recently broadcast by Swedish public television, it was emphasized that, if nuclear power is to be expanded in the world, a way must be found to prevent linkages with nuclear weapons. This is a message that has been repeated for the past thirty years, but no such “way” has yet been found. Instead, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has served both to allay public anxiety about nuclear weapons and as a promoter of nuclear power.
The nations that were the first to acquire nuclear weapons are now regarded as possessing the sole right to keep them. Attempts by other nations to follow their example are portrayed as threats to humanity — unless the imitators are allies, of course.
It is difficult to understand how any power-seeking leader in any part of the world can draw any conclusion from the behaviour of the nuclear powers, other than that it is necessary to become one of them. Why should one forgo something that confers so much status and respect in the world? This basic question is almost never publicly addressed to presidents, prime ministers or foreign ministers of the nuclear powers and their allies.
But it is the most crucial question confronting the world today. If it is seriously maintained that the threats posed by nuclear weapons must be eliminated, it is necessary to stop respecting those who possess such weapons and to regard any possession as criminal. U.N. Resolution 36100 declares that any doctrine which allows first use of nuclear weapons is “incompatible with the moral norms of humankind”, and that any use of nuclear weapons is “the most serious conceivable crime against humanity”.
To questions regarding weapons that might conceivably be used against Iraq and Iran, President Bush has on several occasions replied, “All options are on the table”. In other words, nations are threatened with nuclear weapons in order to pressure them to forgo nuclear weapons. In the future, any nation with nuclear power that becomes involved in an escalating conflict may be suspected by neighbours and/or enemies of developing such weapons.
Mohamed El Baradei, head of IAEA, has referred to the threat of terror attacks against nuclear power plants as something new. That is not correct: The risk of terrorist actions against nuclear facilities has been discussed for decades, but apparently only in journals and documents with which the IAEA is not familiar.
Among the most frightening aspects of the current situation are the silence, apathy and indifference to what is happening. Is that a consequence of the ignorance which is nurtured by our media?
The most common technique to disarm those who attempt to alert and wake up the general public is to label them as “doomsday prophets”. Using the power of words over thoughts, that phrase is used to turn reality on its head. The biblical doomsday prophets declared that the Day of Judgement was at hand, and that it was necessary to mend one’s ways in order to avoid damnation.
Those who today are labelled “doomsday prophets” are trying to do something very different — to prevent disaster because they believe that it is possible to do so.
Translation: Al Burk.