Nuclear Power

As the United States expanded its nuclear weapons infrastructure, nuclear power was proposed as a concomitant benefit. Nuclear engines, we were told, would be installed in cities, homes, aircraft and cars. Nuclear power stations would provide energy “too cheap to meter”…

The reader already knows that this did not occur. Nuclear power plants proved subject to enormous cost overruns. Some failed catastrophically and had to be entombed in concrete. Some were abandoned before they were complete. The power stations which were constructed provided very expensive electricity. No matter, as far as the mandarins were concerned: nuclear power was the icing on the weapons cake — essential icing, nevertheless, since without nuclear plants and fuel cycle facilities there would be no Highly Enriched Uranium, and no Plutonium.

The history of nuclear power is one of optimistic lies, accidents, near-disasters, and cost overruns. Its legacy, literally, is toxic garbage.

There are many good sources if you’re interested in nuclear power, its failures, and its enthusiastic promotion by the nuclear weapons states. Let me turn to just one — an interview in the Bulletin with Brice Smith, a professor of physics at the State University of New York and the author of Insurmountable Risks: The Dangers of Using Nuclear Power to Combat Global Climate Change. The interview ran in the Nov/Dec 2007 Bulletin.

Smith points out three “classic risks” of nuclear power: 1) the link between the fuel cycle and nuclear weapons proliferation; 2) the issue of reactor accidents; 3) the disposal of nuclear waste.

1) nuclear power generation is expensive and inefficient, but it puts the possessor of the facility well on the road to building an atomic bomb. This is why Israel bombed the Iraqi nuclear power facility at Osirak in June 1981, and why the US and Israel are obsessed with Iran’s attempts at atomic energy generation. Cuba began construction of a nuclear power plant in 1983 but never completed it. Fidel Castro’s son, Fidel Jr., trained as a nuclear engineer – I had the pleasure of meeting him a few years back and he is still an enthusiastic proponent of nuclear power. But the Juragua nuclear project was abandoned in 1992.

On the other hand, America’s allies are still encouraged to develop nuclear power complexes, and successive presidents winked as Israel, India and Pakistan all turned their nuclear power projects into weapons programs. Currently, with US approval, the United Arab Emirates is building nuclear power plants, while Saudi Arabia has also “embarked on a commercial nuclear power program that makes little economic sense, but could, if it becomes reality, aid a Saudi nuclear weapons program” (online Bulletin, 12/17/2013).

US policy of encouraging its client states to develop nuclear power is singularly stupid, since they don’t remain clients indefinitely, and before long will need to be bombed. In the early 1970s the Americans encouraged their proxies, the Shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, to develop nuclear power – using American technology, of course. In both cases a US ally soon became a US enemy. At which point the response was violence or apocalyptic threats — a good way to guarantee a blowback of violence and apocalyptic thinking in return.

Thirty-two countries that do not currently possess nuclear weapons own sufficient fissionable nuclear materials to construct them, some in a relatively short period of time. If one wishes to reduce the danger of nuclear weapons proliferation, one should remove the “fig leaf” of nuclear power.

2) if nukes as a means of electricity generation were left to the “invisible hand of the market”, they would not exist. Smith observes that reactor accidents are unique in the energy system as they are of statistically low probability, but potentially extremely catastrophic. There is literally no way to say how much damage – immediate and long-term – a power plant melt-down can cause. Chernobyl is still with us, its temporary concrete tomb cracking and in need of replacement; Fukushima is an ongoing disaster which continues to flood the atmosphere and ocean with radiation. Neither disaster has been contained, and there is no consensus as to the number of people killed or injured, nor as to the extent of the damage, nor what the final cost of “clean-up” – if it ever takes place – will be.

In circumstances where liability is unforeseeable and unlimited, no private insurance company will issue a policy. Thus it is with nuclear power: it is the state, not State Farm, who is the “insurer of last resort” – in other words, to have a nuclear power program, the government must guarantee that the taxpayer will pick up the entire tab when something goes wrong.

Ironically, nuclear power is anti-capitalist, a technology so risky and dangerous that the insurance marketplace won’t take a chance on it. So it relies on limitless taxpayer subsidies in order to survive.

3) waste disposal is probably the worst problem of all three, as it is so long-term. Since the time of the Manhattan Project, nuclear power has been generating volumes of extremely high-level radioactive waste. No one knows what to do with it. It is all still with us.

Smith says that the waste issue is even more problematic as “we don’t have a good way of understanding what it means to have a waste product whose peak risks occur thousands, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of years in the future.” Consider that for a moment. When general readers such as you or I read about atomic “half life”, we tend to assume that the decay of nuclear material happens uniformly, and in a downward direction, and that as time passes the material becomes less dangerous, not more. This is not the case. Some forms of nuclear waste increase in radioactive toxicity as the years pass: Smith points out that much of the nuclear garbage military and civilian reactors have already accumulated is growing in toxicity, and will continue to do so for millennia.

In other words, stuff which is deadly now, and which we don’t know how to deal with, will be many times more deadly ten thousand or a hundred thousand years from now.

Consider what this means for us, as a species. What we call civilization is a few thousand years old. Christianity and capitalism have coexisted for two thousand years, at most. Most of the technology we use and think we cannot do without only appeared within the last two or three hundred years. Unless you believe a Divine Being is guiding humankind towards that City on the Hill, there is no reason to imagine our civilization will survive any particular length of time. Nuclear war, conventional war, disease, resource depletion, climate change, overpopulation — any one of these, or more likely a combination of several, could exhaust or even extinguish our current civilization within a few hundred years.

But the nuclear garbage will still be there, growing in poisonous toxicity, long after its creators have forgotten what it is.

And where will it be growing? The US plan has been, for several decades, to store its most toxic nuclear garbage under Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Poor Nevada! This lovely desert state has been the most ravaged of all by the military-industrial complex. A drive from Reno to Las Vegas will take you through a landscape of bunkers surrounding Hawthorne (which proudly proclaims itself “The World’s Largest Ammo Depot”), past the town of Mercury, which you are not allowed to enter and which is the dead centre of the US nuclear testing range, and skirting Creech Air Force Base (“Home of the Hunters”) where USAF Reaper and Predator drones are flight-tested.

How did Nevada get to be so lucky? Big state, small population, and an entirely predictable nexus between the mob, who run the brothels and casinos, and the military, who are among their customers.

Somehow, though, the plan to turn yet more of Nevada into a radioactive military playground has become bogged down. Patriotic to the core, Nevadans still aren’t keen on seeing their state turned into the permanent home of America’s most toxic nuclear waste.

The New York Times reassures its trusting readers that the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site is “now deemed safe.” US representative John Shimkus (a Republican from far-off Illinois) has declared: “Nuclear waste stored under that mountain, in that desert, surrounded by federal land, will be safe and secure for at least a million years.”

Only an American politician could come up with such positive, decisive, and exceptional thinking. A million years? Really?

In fact, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not yet approved Yucca Mountain as an underground repository for nuclear waste. When the site was chosen it was believed to be dry, but Yucca Mountain has turned out to be full of underground channels of flowing water. The canisters holding US nuclear waste are metal and subject to corrosion. Their life expectancy, according to the Energy Department, is one thousand years – after which the radioactive garbage will leak out and enter the water channels and the environment.

But worry not! The Energy Department has proposed a plan to the NRC to make Yucca mountain a viable dump after all: corrosion-resistant, titanium-alloy “drip shields” which will sit above the canisters of nuclear waste, preventing them from getting dripped on.

Given the enormous cost of these titanium shields, and the difficulty and precision of their installation, the Energy Department doesn’t plan to install them for a hundred years – presumably to spread the enormous cost of the repository over several generations. The idea is to stick the nuclear waste in there now, and forget about it. Then, in a hundred years time, robots will go in, carrying the five-ton drip shields, and meticulously install them.

That is the official plan. Stick the nuclear garbage under Yucca Mountain now, forget about it for 100 years, and then robots will fix it. Robots which don’t currently exist. Because the canisters will already be leaking radioactivity, and it won’t be safe for humans to venture into those tunnels for hundreds of thousands of years…

“Realistically, a century into the project, the underground tunnels would have deteriorated considerably and collapsed in part. Dust would sharply limit visibility. The tunnels would have to be cleared of rubble for a remotely operated underground rail system to transport robotic equipment and the five-ton drip shields to the waste canisters. The shields would then have to be installed end-to-end, so as to form a continuous metal cover inside the tunnels, obviously a delicate, complex, and extremely expensive operation. Is it reasonable to believe that after 100 years, with the nuclear waste in the repository long out of the public mind, that Congress would appropriate enormous sums of money for the Energy Department to go back into the tunnels to install the shields? Can we really rely on an agency that hasn’t yet cleaned up a nationwide radioactive mess that dates from World War II to keep a promise that it will do something a century into the future? Will there even be an Energy Department in 100 years?”

Those were the words of physicist Victor Glinksy, who worked for the State of Nevada, which opposes the insane robots-will-save-us scheme. You can read his excellent piece about the current state of Yucca Mountain here.

Climate Change

Over the last decade or two there’s been a trend among some Greens to say that nuclear power should be forgiven its terminal vices, and embraced as a “carbon-neutral” or even “carbon-friendly” energy source, given the threat of global warming. The nuclear industry and its media supporters have promoted such claims with vigor, but they have not brought about a nuclear power renaissance.

There are two clear objections to this argument, I think: 1) George Monbiot’s new-found enthusiasm notwithstanding, nuclear power is far from “carbon free” or “carbon neutral” and 2) the nuclear power and weapons industries are interlinked, and if a nuclear war occurs, all bets are off regarding climate change.

1) The claim that nuclear power is eco-friendly is easily addressed. It’s the same fallacy as the notion that having your groceries delivered by solar powered drone helps the environment.

Mechanical things like cars or power plants don’t just exist at the moment of fueling, or fuel consumption. They have to be made. They have to be maintained. And, when no longer useful, they have to be disposed of. Where were the metals in your Tessla mined? What powered the plastics factory? The true environmental cost of a thing must include both manufacture and disposal. So, in the case of nuclear power, the plant has to be built, with metal and concrete and plastics and glass and cement mixers. Construction of a power plant consumes an enormous quantity of gas and diesel and electricity. Once the nuclear plant’s built, it has to be protected – by fire trucks and security guards in cop cars and armored vehicles, for the duration of its life.

None of this is ‘green’. If it takes tonnes of burned carbon to make a brand-new car car, imagine the carbon contribution of a brand-new nuclear power plant to the atmosphere.

And then there is the waste. Which no one knows what to do with. So, long after the plant has ceased to operate, it sits there, under guard, or gets trucked around the country, or gets dumped illegally, in a landfill or off-shore.

2) Nuclear power produces the fire-power for nuclear weapons: HEU and Plutonium. To rely on nuclear for power generation guarantees a continued supply of material which can be used as  warheads, or as bombs. The more nuclear power plants, the more countries developing nuclear power facilities, the more likely the spread of nuclear weapons technology, and of nuclear weapons.

Since Lynn Eden’s book was published, other authors have delved further into the results of mass fires started by atom bombs and a picture has emerged of their likely impact on the climate.

It is the exact opposite of what scientists currently anticipate as “climate change.”

A majority of scientists believe that global warming is taking place, and that it is mainly caused by man. It’s the scientific consensus that temperatures are rising as a result of anthropogenic releases of carbon, methane, and other gases into the atmosphere. If the temperature continues to rise at its current rate, there will be mass extinctions, and a rise in sea-levels which will make many coastal areas uninhabitable. The rise in temperature will stress agriculture, and almost all the surviving life-forms.

Despite the efforts of the Fossil Fuel Party in the United States, most governments of the world acknowledge that the temperature is rising, that this climate change is man-made, and have begun to make some small efforts to combat it. World-wide, politicians, scientists and the media focus on the danger of global warming and the need to mitigate it, or combat it. Some activists call for a declaration of “war” on climate change. As a pacifist and a Green I’m not keen on that particular characterization of the struggle, but I have a more fundamental criticism of this heroic focus on global warming.

It may not happen. A belief that the planet’s temperature will rise by five degrees by the year 2100, say, is predicated on an expectation of continued capitalist growth and human population increase. Most academics and politicians are drawing up plans to combat global warming – with the best intentions – based on the notion that ahead of us lie eighty years of relative world peace. Perhaps their calculations include a number of regional, non-nuclear wars, fought also with the very best intentions. But they cannot include a serious nuke war in their calculations, because that would cause an entirely different catastrophe.

If a nuclear war takes place, instead of a gradual, predictable global warming, the northern hemisphere (which is where that war will occur) will undergo a sudden, unpredictable but severe cooling. The ensuing climactic changes will affect the entire planet.

Steven Starr, the Director of the Clinical Laboratory Science Program at the University of Missouri, has written a paper on the state of scientific understanding – in 2008 and 2009 – of the environmental consequences of nuclear war. He also discusses a right-wing backlash to the original notion of nuclear winter which seems to have operated very effectively two decades ago. His piece is titled The Catastrophic Climactic Consequences of Nuclear Conflict.

In the case of a “small” nuclear war, in which two countries attack each other’s cities with 50 Hiroshima-size bombs, Starr writes:

“Although there would not be enough sunlight blocked to create a “nuclear winter”, the massive smoke emissions from the fires of a small “regional” nuclear war would cause a global climate change unprecedented in human history. In a matter of days, average temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere would become colder than any experienced during the last 1000 years. Growing seasons in the middle latitudes would immediately be significantly shortened, completely eliminating some crops that had insufficient time to reach maturity.”

So a war between India and China would result not only in millions of deaths in both countries and widespread radiation, but also harvest failure, disruption of agriculture, and famine. (Researchers believe that as many as a billion people might be threatened by famine following this “small” nuclear war).

Starr reports that for three years, the temperature worldwide would drop by 1.25 degrees Celsius. For ten years, the ozone layer would be seriously depleted, with unpredictable results.

Using more powerful computers, the same researchers modeled the climactic results of what they called “moderate” and “large” nuclear wars between the US and Russia. In the “moderate” scenario, one third of the global nuclear arsenal (1,667 megatons) was used. In the “large” war scenario, the whole arsenal – 5,000 megatons – was exploded. Following the “moderate” war, the world’s temperature would drop by 4 degrees Celsius. The “large war” would be followed by a temperature drop of 8 degrees. Researchers with even more powerful software found these figures conservative, and estimated that a “large” war would be followed by temperature drops of 20-30 degrees.

No matter what the scenario, then, nuclear war between the United States and Russia means the end of civilization, and possibly the end of the species itself. Agriculture would fail completely and daily minimum temperatures would be below freezing…

Starr concludes: “we cannot allow our political and military leaders to ignore the grave threats which their nuclear arsenals pose to the global environment and human existence… The environmental consequences of nuclear war must be included as primary considerations in the ongoing debate about the abolition of nuclear arsenals… The US and Russia must recognize the senselessness of continued planning for a nuclear first-strike, which if launched would make the whole world – including their own country – uninhabitable.”

Global warming or a post-nuclear ice age? Which does the reader think more likely: decade upon decade of world peace? or a nuclear war?