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Nuclear Roulette: The Truth About the Most Dangerous Energy Source on Earth

An interview with our Progressive Pick of the Week's author about the lesser-known dangers of nuclear energy.

You can learn more about the most dangerous energy source on earth by reading Nuclear Roulette. Receive a copy from Truthout with a minimum contribution.

According to Chelsea Green, the publisher of the new book Nuclear Roulette:

Each new disaster demonstrates that the nuclear industry and governments lie to “avoid panic,” to preserve the myth of “safe, clean” nuclear power, and to sustain government subsidies. Tokyo and Washington both covered up Fukushima’s radiation risks and – when confronted with damning evidence – simply raised the levels of “acceptable” risk to match the greater levels of exposure.

Nuclear Roulette dismantles the core arguments behind the nuclear-industrial complex’s “Nuclear Renaissance.” While some critiques are familiar – nuclear power is too costly, too dangerous, and too unstable – others are surprising: Nuclear Roulette exposes historic links to nuclear weapons, impacts on Indigenous lands and lives, and the ways in which the Nuclear Regulatory Commission too often takes its lead from industry, rewriting rules to keep failing plants in compliance. Nuclear Roulette cites NRC records showing how corporations routinely defer maintenance and lists resulting “near-misses” in the US, which average more than one per month.

Truthout interviewed the book’s author, Gar Smith:

Mark Karlin: The first part of your book covers 14 arguments against nuclear power. Let’s talk about a couple, starting with one that is a bit inclusive of most of the others. What are the catastrophic dangers of nuke plants that you detail in Chapter 4?

Gar Smith: Atomic energy is impractical on many levels. Nuclear power has proven too costly to survive without massive government support and taxpayer bailouts. Nuclear power is inherently unreliable because reactors must be regularly shut down to replace used fuel assemblies. Reactors also experience “unplanned shutdowns,” which means they can be offline more than 10 percent of the time. In 2011, the NRC’s own records revealed at least 75 percent of US reactors were routinely leaking radioactive tritium.

Nuclear reactors are not energy efficient. They produce far more heat than they can possibly use. It takes as much as 500,000 gallons of water per minute to keep these plants cool. Even then, around two-thirds of the heat is wasted and needs to be spilled into nearby waterways or into the atmosphere. A reactor is like a sports car built to travel 600 miles per hour in a world where the speed limit is 60 mph. To operate it safely, you need to have your foot on the brakes – at all times. And good luck if the brakes fail.

The world now has experienced three catastrophic events in three decades – with explosions, fires and meltdowns at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. Add to that the increasing number of accidents as aging reactors in the US and around the world continue to crack, leak and fail. Whether the industry likes it or not, it is inevitable that nuclear accidents are going to increasingly make the evening news.

Mark Karlin: We hear so much nuclear industry talk of new and improved reactors. What is the reality behind that claim?

Gar Smith: While there are new designs, as yet, none of them have been built or fully tested. Most of the so-called Generation IV reactors will probably never be built. The new AP1000 reactors under construction in Georgia and South Carolina have fundamental design flaws that prompted the former chair of the NRC to vote against granting them a license. Construction of Georgia’s two AP1000 Vogtle reactors (supported with billions in taxpayer-backed loan guarantees) has been plagued by shoddy construction and second-rate building materials.

In addition to the proposed new reactors (which would operate at temperatures two to three times greater than existing plants), the Department of Energy is providing funds to kick-start something called a small modular reactor. These “mini-nukes” could be housed inside a two-car garage but would probably be placed underground. Dispersing these small reactors across the landscape would increase security risks, magnify supply-and-transportation hazards, and do nothing to reduce the danger of reactor accidents and routine releases of radioactivity.

Let’s be clear: nuclear plants don’t generate electricity. They produce only three things: vast amounts of heat (which is used to spin the turbines that generate electricity), radioactive fallout (in the form of “permissible” leaks that have been linked to thyroid tumors and childhood leukemia) and tons of radioactive garbage.

Recently, nuclear power has been promoted as a clean alternative to fossil fuels, but even if atomic power were carbon-free (which it is not), relying on nuclear to eliminate even half of the world’s climate-warming CO2 emissions would require building 32 new reactors a year. That’s not gonna happen.

Mark Karlin: In the 50s and 60s, there was a large European and United States anti-nuclear movement that included massive protests against nuke bombs and plants. What happened? Nuclear power hardly is in the news anymore except when there is a meltdown such as at Fukushima.

Gar Smith: Well, many of those protests were staged to halt construction of new reactors. Once the reactors were up and running, the protests lost their purpose. As to the general lack of critical news, that could have something to do with the fact that the major networks are corporate and have consolidated to just a few over the years. Their interests are corporate.

When the fallout from Fukushima reached the West Coast, the public was assured that the iodine-131 in the rainwater had a radioactive half-life of “only” six days. But if you really want to know how long an isotope remains hazardous, multiply the half-life by ten.

Mark Karlin: Truthout recently ran an excerpt from Nuclear Roulette about industry-government public relations to promote nuclear power. How does this manifest itself?

Gar Smith: A nuclear engineer once observed: “Nuclear power can be safe and nuclear power can be cheap. Just not at the same time.” The nuclear disasters in Pennsylvania, Ukraine and Japan all demonstrated a common response from industry and government – a pattern of hubris, denial and deception. The basic premise is that the technology will never fail. When it does fail, you deny a problem exists. Finally, when the problem spins out of control, you resort to deception to avoid accountability.

Following the Fukushima meltdowns, the White House falsely assured the public the fallout would not reach the US. The Environmental Protection Agency then failed to release evidence that its RadNet monitors detected radioactive iodine and cesium in West Coast rainwater. In Japan, when radiation levels rose above “safe” levels, Tokyo responded by raising the “allowable” exposure to radiation. The US did the same. The US has cut back its monitoring of fallout from daily detection to quarterly tests. With the Fukushima meltdowns still not contained, this is indefensible.

You can learn more about the most dangerous energy source on earth by reading Nuclear Roulette. Receive a copy from Truthout with a minimum contribution.

Mark Karlin: What is President Obama’s current position on nuclear energy development?

Gar Smith: It was George W. Bush who tried to create a so-called “nuclear renaissance” by expediting the reactor licensing and promising the industry billions of dollars in government handouts. President Obama initially outdid Bush, offering to double the amount of the government’s nuclear bailout. While Obama has made important commitments to funding renewable energy programs, he still remains wedded to the nuclear lobby. Fukushima provides the most egregious example.

Following the triple meltdown, Tokyo closed all of its reactors. (Two were subsequently restarted, but their days are numbered since it’s been discovered they are sitting atop an active earthquake fault.) Japan publicly announced plans to permanently close all its reactors by 2030, but suddenly had an abrupt change of mind. What happened? According to reports in the Nikkei News Service, Secretary of State Clinton informed then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda that Japan’s anti-nuclear plan posed a problem for America’s “energy strategy.” He was advised not to abandon the nuclear path.

Mark Karlin: In Nuclear Roulette, you address the perils of aging reactors. What is the magnitude of this danger in the United States?

Gar Smith: In 2008, a government study found “degraded conditions” in aging US reactors were responsible for 70 percent of the industry’s “potentially serious safety problems.” Despite these warnings, the nuclear industry successfully pressured the NRC to begin extending the 40-year operating life of 52 aging US reactors to 60 years. In June 2012, the NRC met to consider extending some operating permits for up to 80 years – twice the reactors’ intended operating life.

Mark Karlin: How cozy is the NRC with the industry it regulates?

Gar Smith: As a presidential candidate in 2008, Barack Obama called the NRC “a moribund agency … captive of the industry that it regulates.” There are good people in the NRC but, too often, the NRC (like other government agencies) acts less like a watchdog and more like an enabler. Thanks to this regulatory-industrial complex, the NRC has repeatedly rewritten the rulebook to allow failing plants to receive passing grades.

A 2011 investigation by the Associated Press revealed how the NRC had been “working closely with the nuclear power industry to keep the nation’s aging reactors operating within safety standards by repeatedly weakening those standards, or simply failing to enforce them.”

Mark Karlin: You have a chapter on near misses and unbelievable mishaps. What are some of them?

Gar Smith: There have been more than 50 major nuclear disasters around the world over the last 60 years – including fires, explosions and meltdowns that resulted in deaths, mass evacuations and permanent contamination of downwind lands. At least 11 workers have been killed in US reactor accidents. Three Army technicians were killed in an explosion at a government reactor in Idaho in 1961 (their bodies had to be buried in lead-lined coffins). Another eight workers were killed in a series of three explosions over a 14-year span at the Surry reactor in Virginia.

In addition to these fatalities, there have been scores of near misses. In 1975, a worker using a candle to check for air leaks accidentally set fire to the Browns Ferry plant in Alabama. The fire burned for more than seven hours and one of the two reactors suffered a near-meltdown.

In 1981, California’s two San Onofre reactors were closed to repair 6,000 damaged steam generator tubes. During the restart, the plant caught fire, knocking out one of the plant’s two emergency backup generators. In February 2012, a similar steam-tube problem caused a release of radioactive hydrogen gas that again shut down San Onofre’s reactors. Despite a second hydrogen leak in October, the plant’s operators have asked the NRC for permission to restart one reactor and run it for five months at 70 percent power to “see if it is safe.”

In 2002, inspectors in Ohio discovered a “hole in the head” of the reactor vessel at the Davis-Besse plant. The corrosion was so extensive it posed the imminent danger of a massive explosion and radiation release.

It’s important to note that the Fukushima reactors were designed and built by General Electric, and 23 of these “Fukushima-style” reactors are currently installed at 16 sites in 12 US states. When Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast, it knocked out five reactors in its path – including three GE Fukushima-style reactors. The Nine Mile Point reactor was shut down, the Fitzpatrick reactor caught fire, and flooding at the Oyster Creek reactor came within six inches of disabling the spent fuel pool cooling pumps. (If these had failed, the NRC’s recommended “fix” was to use a “fire hose” to cool the plant.)

Nuclear power is exponentially more dangerous than any other energy source. Reactors were designed to operate on a more benign planet – not in a world torn by record earthquakes, epic solar flares, extreme hurricanes, floods, fires and droughts.

Mark Karlin: You conclude with a section on alternatives to nuclear power. What are some of the major ones, and why aren’t we moving aggressively forward with them?

Gar Smith: I’m glad you asked that question. For all the attention on the downsides of nuclear power, it’s important to note that the last third of the book is devoted to solutions.

Wind energy is the world’s fast-growing energy sector. The potential for land-based wind power is estimated to be 20 times greater than the world’s current electric power consumption. While it took 24 years to build the last US reactor, a 1.5-megawatt wind turbine can be installed in a single day and will be producing electricity in a matter of weeks. In California, 100,000 rooftop solar panels are generating more than 1 gigawatt of clean electricity.

These technologies are being abetted by new structural approaches ranging from mixed-tech microgrids to municipal ownership and production. And there are policy options that promise to increase efficiency, reduce consumption and usher in an age of “energy democracy” where energy is produced locally by homeowners instead of commercial utilities.

Just look at Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel was a nuclear advocate until Fukushima happened. Now she has closed eight of the country’s 17 reactors and plans to complete the transition from nuclear energy by 2022. In two years, Germany has added more than ten gigawatts of solar power to the grid and has opened powerful wind farms off the coast.

What stands in the way? A powerful and entrenched elite dominates US energy policy. The growing disparity of wealth has transformed the US. Our struggling democracy has been replaced by a strangling plutocracy. Like every other corporate energy provider, the nuclear industry is deeply embedded in the economic and political life of the US. Whenever great wealth and power is allowed to accumulate, those who profit from this concentration inevitably seek to defend and extend their control – regardless of the cost to public health, democracy or even the long-term well being of the planet.

Mark Karlin: Ernest Callenbach and Jerry Mander write in the foreword to Nuclear Roulette: “It will be an auspicious start to our new century if we can encourage a revitalized movement to stop all nuclear production and immediately close down every nuclear facility – military and civilian. Then we can dedicate our skills and resources to finding true solutions to the real challenges of our time: evolving a sustainable, energy-wise, and peaceful society.” What would make such a transformation in our culture and politics possible?

Gar Smith: Individuals have already begun the transition from fossil fuels to clean renewables. The dig-it-up/burn-it/dump-it approach to energy is being challenged by the new technologies that harvest the clean, free energy that pours from the sky in the form of sunbeams and breezes.

The world is not only running out of cheaply obtainable fossil fuels; we’re also running out of high-grade uranium ore. Because all these mineral resources are finite, some kind of transition is inevitable. The only question is, how much damage will we inflict on human and planetary health in the meantime?

We really need to turn our focus toward decommissioning our reactors. Sure, decommissioning is a long and costly process, but it is infinitely more affordable than cleaning up the aftermath of a single nuclear meltdown. Decommissioning one reactor can cost $10 billion over ten years, but cleaning up the mess at Fukushima is expected to take 30 years and cost $137 billion.

What might the future look like? Take a look at Saudi Arabia. Even the Saudi royal family can see the writing on the wall. The kingdom recently announced plans to install a dramatic increase in renewable power over the next 20 years.

You can learn more about the most dangerous energy source on earth by reading Nuclear Roulette. Receive a copy from Truthout with a minimum contribution.

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