How many crises will it take? The recent destruction wrought by Big Finance and Big Oil will pale in comparison to the destruction wrought by Big Nuclear if we do not use the Gulf disaster as an opportunity to end our dangerous addiction to dirty fuels and to reject the illusion that any industry will “regulate” itself.
The nuclear industry has captured our government and governments around the globe. One single nuclear mistake, whether it be an accident or a security breach, could leave a 10,000-year path of destruction. Even while functioning properly and in accordance with the law, nuclear power plants produce cancer-causing poisons, which enter the bodies of humans at toxic levels.
Today we face a nuclear peril unlike anything we have ever known. We are approaching a tipping point in the global spread of nuclear technology because of a largely out-of-sight, worldwide free-for-all among nuclear power companies and their allied national governments to expand their share of the fast-growing international nuclear energy market. Unless we begin to confront the mounting dangers, we have little chance of keeping nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists and carcinogenic toxins out of our bodies.
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The BP Oil Crisis: An Opportunity for Transformation
We must expose the delusions of the anti-government crusaders on the far right, who, in the name of populism, would empower corporations to set their own rules of the game.
The number of accounts of BP’s reckless disregard of risk before the Deepwater Horizon disaster are exploding as fast as oil from the blown well, but BP is not the corporate outlier that Exxon and other Big Oil CEOs paint it to be in their efforts to stave off a backlash against the oil industry in general and offshore oil drilling in particular. The problem is far more fundamental and goes to the heart of American democracy: our broken culture and our broken political system.
The BP crisis has created an opportunity for transformation that we cannot afford to waste. As Frank Rich recently wrote, “Let Deepwater Horizon be ground zero for a 9/11 showdown over the role of government.” percent20Rich percent20Clean percent20the percent20gulf, percent20clean percent20house&st=cse
In a democracy, the failure of government lays squarely at the feet of the governed. Average citizens’ personal choices, whether political or apolitical, create the reality in which we live – and that reality, shaped also by powerful technological and industrial forces, increasingly knows no boundaries. The air and the oceans no longer insulate us from far away misjudgments and derelictions of duty.
As Americans’ fears in the face of the financial crisis and BP disaster grow, their vision is alarmingly shrinking. Most Americans rail against corporate culprits, but don’t bestir themselves to fight corporate power even by changing their purchasing or investment patterns. We rationalize our learned helplessness.
As easy as it would be to learn how to conserve energy, switch to a less petroleum-dependent way of life, become the world leader in the new energy technologies and revitalize our economy, we remain subjugated to the special interests known as Big Oil and Big Coal. We are fossil fuel junkies.
The hardest lessons and the most urgent, are about ourselves, our learned passivity. The truth is that the Gulf disaster is part and parcel of the global environmental devastation that Big Oil has been causing for decades. In Nigeria, the United States’ fifth leading oil supplier, the amount of oil spilled in the ravaged Niger Delta over the last 50 years is equivalent to an Exxon Valdez disaster every 12 months. Regardless of how responsibility for individual oil leaks in the impoverished Delta is apportioned between the oil companies and the armed rebels fighting them, we surely fan the devastation with every drop of oil we consume.
However, nuclear energy is the dirtiest energy there is and is, therefore, an unacceptable alternative to oil and coal. Every nuclear plant emits a dangerous form of radiation (strontium-90) during its normal operations. These releases increase cancer rates – especially for childhood and breast cancer – among those who live nearby, as proven by a host of scientific studies over the years and confirmed by recent German studies. Joseph Mangano, an epidemiologist and the director of the Radiation and Public health Project in New York, describes on air the baby teeth study that did so much to expose these cancers.
Explosive Growth in Nuclear Industry
Nothing is more dangerous than our passivity in the face of Big Nuclear. Nuclear technology is surging through a series of commercial deals among countries and multinational corporations. Today, 30 countries operate commercial nuclear reactors. Some 50 more countries have expressed an interest in doing so.
Governments all around the world are ignoring the dangers of nuclear power in a headlong scramble to promote their own domestic nuclear power industries. China, France, Russia, the United States, Korea and Japan are all racing to become the leading global exporter of nuclear technology. To help their domestic corporations make a buck and to boost their own national economies, they are deliberately spreading nuclear technology in reckless disregard of known risks.
Countries in the Mideast and North Africa that aim to become nuclear power states include Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Yemen, the UAE, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya and Algeria. Other nuclear aspirants in Africa include Nigeria, Ghana, and Namibia.
Nuclear aspirants infamous for corruption include Kazakhstan and Georgia in Central Asia, and Bulgaria and Albania in Europe.
Countries chronically plagued by terrorism and civil strife that want to become civilian nuclear powers include Pakistan and India – which already have nuclear weapons – as well as Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Philippines.
Venezuela, Ecuador and Chile are trying to become nuclear powers. Even the king of near-bankrupt Tonga has declared that nuclear power is the answer to his country’s energy needs.
Many of these countries suffer from endemic pervasive corruption and incompetence and cannot deliver such basic services as food, water, electricity and education. The idea that, with a little technical training, they can develop government institutions capable of managing a nuclear power industry is ludicrous. The idea that the world can create a global nuclear nonproliferation regime capable of eliminating bribery and keeping nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists is madness. Once a country has mastered civilian nuclear power technology, it has mastered the technology to make nuclear weapons. By definition, any nuclear power state is a de facto nuclear weapons state. It is only a small step to go from producing low-grade reactor fuel to producing highly-enriched, bomb-grade uranium. The global spread of nuclear technology is bringing the world to a tipping point at which the current global nuclear nonproliferation regime will become useless.
Department of Energy: Another Flawed Regulator With a Conflict of Interest
Like the financial crisis, the BP Gulf crisis highlights the regulatory capture that turns federal agencies into industry handmaidens. The sex and drug scandal at the Interior Department’s Minerals and Management Service (MMS) was exposed in 2007, but the agency was left to operate under the conflict of interest inherent in its tri-partite mission to regulate the oil and gas industry while promoting it and maximizing royalty collections from oil and gas leases. MMS’ legendary failures on all three counts are well known. Americans again looked the other way, just as they looked away from the Securities and Exchange Commission’s failures that led to the financial system crash and scandal after scandal.
The US Department of Energy (DOE) is aggressively pushing nuclear power, operating under a fatally flawed and conflicted mission like the MMS mission, which enabled the reckless corporate conduct that led to the BP Gulf disaster. The DOE’s statutory duty to protect the national security, to protect the security of US nuclear facilities and to stop nuclear nonproliferation simply cannot be reconciled with its statutory duty to promote nuclear power.
US Taxpayers Subsidize and May Bail Out Nuclear Industry
At home, DOE is setting US taxpayers up for another industry bailout, pushing Congress to grant the nuclear industry $54.5 billion in new taxpayer loans to construct new plants, even though government watchdogs say that there is a 50 percent chance of default on such loans. Nuclear industry executives candidly admit they want taxpayers to bear the risk of such defaults, saying that the industry won’t build new plants without taxpayer-guaranteed loans.
Even risk-loving Wall Street won’t finance new nuclear power plants. A February 11, 1985, Forbes cover story, “Nuclear Follies,” called the United States’ experience with nuclear power “the largest managerial disaster in business history,” and described how guys in pinstripe suits, not protestors in beards, shut down the planned “nuclear renaissance.” Now, after 30 years in which no new nuclear power plants have completed construction anywhere in the world, the US nuclear industry looks forward to a rebirth, but only if taxpayers will foot the bill. Currently, the US taxpayer is on the hook for costs associated with a nuclear accident.
It is shameful that, even with the ongoing Gulf catastrophe, Congress lacks the votes to raise the $75 million cap on the oil industry’s liability for accidents.
It is shameful that Congress lacks the will to even discuss raising the decades-long cap on the nuclear industry’s liability for accidents, let alone the will to discuss eliminating it.
Those caps are a warning: why would we want to subsidize and then cap the liability of an industry that is afraid it may cause us so much harm it cannot afford to pay for it?
Smaller, Safer Nuclear Plants?
The nuclear industry is pushing the myth that newer, smaller, nuclear power plants will make nuclear power safe for the world. One type of small, new, nuclear power plant that is close to winning a license for commercial operation appears to be on the verge of triggering a global rush into a technology that will greatly escalate the risk of nuclear proliferation and terrorism.
Nuclear energy behemoths General Electric and Hitachi have formed a joint venture that uses laser technology to enrich uranium through a process known as “Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitation (SILEX).” Several countries have spent years trying to develop SILEX and still want the technology. Most of the technological details are classified, but the world has had a hard time keeping civilian nuclear technology secret.
Two dozen scientists and nuclear experts have sent a letter to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee warning of the proliferation risks posed by SILEX because the small size and power consumption of laser isotope enrichment facilities make them difficult to detect.
“‘New’ Nuclear Reactors, Same Old Story,” by Amory Lovins, rebuts the false hype about “new” (“Generation 4”) reactors that some people claim will solve current reactors’ economic, proliferation and waste problems. Proponents of new reactors, including the traveling wave reactor, overlook the fact that, even if such technology could be developed and commercialized, it will come far too late to appreciably cut carbon emissions before we begin to experience the worse ravages of climate change because the planet has already passed the tipping point. More fundamentally, proponents overlook the critical fact that the last thing our unsafe world needs is more commercial nuclear power technology.
Unresolved: What to Do With Nuclear Waste for a Millennium
No country in the world has solved the problem of where to safely store radioactive waste for millennium. Countries are using a variety of short-term storage methods, many unsafe. Reprocessing the waste somewhat reduces its volume, but creates more bomb-grade nuclear fuel, another fine legacy for the next generation. With some Russian reactors, the nuclear waste disposal problem is “solved” by freezing the reactors and the waste and storing them away. As a result of this practice, the Arctic is littered with hardened, liquid-metal reactor cores full of nuclear waste.
Nuclear advocates get away with touting nuclear power as cheap partly because they completely ignore the unknowable cost of long-term nuclear waste storage.
As the deepwater drilling disaster in the Gulf shows once again, human institutions cannot keep up with technological innovations. The problem with foolproof technology is that “there’s no system foolproof enough to defeat a sufficiently great fool,” as Edward Teller, the Hungarian-born nuclear physicist known as the father of the nuclear bomb, said.
The Gulf Crisis Is an Opportunity for Transformative Change
All around the world, national governments are letting corporations headquartered on their soil set energy policy based on the false assumption these corporations are some sort of “national champions” that operate in the interests of the people who happen to live in their place of incorporation. Nothing could be further from the truth. BP is not in business to be our friend, or even to spend what it takes to operate safely. Areva of France and all the other nationally-driven and state-owned nuclear companies, as well as the privately-owned nuclear companies, are even worse – they bear the worst hallmarks of statecraft welded to commerce without any attempt to consider safety as a legitimate part of the cost of nuclear technology.
Any illusion that nuclear technology can be limited to a privileged few is as dead as all those thousands of brown pelicans and turtles in the Gulf. The only way to stop the global nuclear surge is for every country to face the fact that nuclear power is dirty and expensive and cannot cut carbon emissions fast enough to prevent catastrophic climate change.
Citizens around the world must demand an end to taxpayer subsidies and liability caps for the dirty fossil fuel and nuclear industries. We must demand legal reforms that create incentives for clean power like solar, wind and geothermal.
The best energy and climate change approach is a “cap and rebate” system (sometimes called a “cap and dividend” system) to sell big industrial sources permits to emit carbon as a way to raise the price of dirty fossil fuels like coal and oil, and to stimulate investments in clean renewable energy. The proceeds from selling the permits would be rebated to consumers on a pro rata basis. A “cap and trade” system is much more complex and subject to manipulation by Wall Street than a “cap and rebate” system.
AARP has endorsed the bill for a “cap and dividend” system introduced by Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) and Susan Collins (R-Maine). Both The Economist magazine and The Washington Post have praised the bill (known as the CLEAR bill) as being pro-consumer. The Economist said:
“Of all the bills that would put a price on carbon, cap-and-dividend seems the most promising…. The most attractive thing about the bill is that it is honest. To discourage the use of dirty energy, it says, it has to be more expensive. To make up for that, here’s a thousand bucks.”
More and more people are recognizing that a cap-and-rebate system may be the only climate change strategy that is politically viable.
Far more than the 1969 oil spill off Santa Barbara that led to the founding of Earth Day, the BP Gulf crisis must become an impetus for change. Citizens around the world must seize the moment to restore democratic institutions, curb unbridled corporate power and build a clean energy economy that can support a vibrant middle class.
We must face the fact that we are all connected, that distance can no longer ward off danger. The air and the oceans carry the injuries we do the planet to all the Earth’s creatures in all the corners of the world.
We have the power to make change. To create a safe and sane future for ourselves and future generations, we must act and act now.
Read the full version of this article, including coverage of the expansion of the international nuclear energy industry at the World Business Academy website by clicking here.
About the Authors:
Rinaldo Brutoco is a well-known futurist and the founding president of the World Business Academy, a nonprofit think tank launched in 1987 with the mission to educate and inspire the business community to take responsibility for the whole of planetary society. He is a frequent public speaker and a prolific author on renewable energy, climate change and sustainable business strategies. He is the co-author of “Freedom from Mid-East Oil” (2007), a leading book on energy and climate change and “Profiles in Power” (1997), a college textbook on nuclear power and the dawn of the solar age.
Madeleine Austin is vice president of the World Business Academy and a member of the Hawaii Energy Policy Forum. She is the co-author with Rinaldo Brutoco of “The Nuclear Nemesis” (ABA, Trends May/June 2008) and “The Nuclear Nemesis Redux” (Forum CSR International, Dec. 2008).