Atoms and Ashes

Nuclear power has been a bête noire of mine for decades.  When I was a kid, I thought this was the future – power “too cheap to meter” as the high priests of the cult of the atom told us.  But a book came out in 1971 by two veterans of the American nuclear project that was an epiphany for me:  Poisoned Power.  Long before Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, it made a convincing case against nuclear power.  In the half century since, I have seen virtually nothing that has made me rethink my opposition.  A brilliant new book, Atoms and Ashes – A Global History of Nuclear Disasters, has further deepened my convictions – not that they really needed any deepening, as my posts here will attest.

Serhii Plokhy is a leading scholar of Ukrainian history and previously published Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe.  The present book zeroes in on six horrific accidents, the first being gross miscalculations by the Americans with a hydrogen bomb test at the Bikini Atoll in 1954.  Then there are the accounts of the fallout from a reactor accident at Kyshtym in the Soviet Union in 1957, and at the Windscale nuclear complex in Britain later in ’57, both of these integral to their countries’ bomb programs.  The power plant accidents at Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986), and Fukushima (2011) round out the grim history.

Plokhy’s research is deep and penetrating.  His writing is lucid and it has the impact of a thriller, as we are up close and in living color with the events as they unfold.  Hair-raising events, to be sure.  Each of the three power plant fiascos that he recounts has heroes and villains.  The heroes are largely the plant operators and emergency response personnel who risked their lives – and in some cases lost them.  31 men, at least, died fairly soon after the Chernobyl explosions, with 140 cases of severe radiation poisoning for others.  Nearly two hundred Japanese emergency workers were exposed to very high levels of radiation, but none died immediately.  The villains were the nabobs of the government and power industries who looked the other way when safety concerns were raised.  When the accidents happened, the Soviets assiduously suppressed information.  The Americans after the Bikini accident and the British with  Windscale did too.

Sadly, the pressures to expand nuclear power to further the special interests of the industry are still very much present.  France, Russia, and China are all guilty of pushing their technology out for commercial gain.

There are serious concerns about nuclear power beyond the immediate concerns regarding the safety of operations.  Lethal nuclear waste is an omnipresent problem.  How many long-term high-level radioactive waste storage facilities are in operation today?  If you said none, you’d be right.  Finland, to its credit, will have the first one up and running in 2024, according to the timetable now.  Let’s hope it stays secure for the 100,000 years or so it will need to operate until the wastes are safe, and that others build these essential repositories.

Another concern, of course, is cost.  The industry has been largely in remission – pun intended – for decades.  Yes, publics around the world have been increasingly in opposition since Three Mile Island, but the real albatross has been cost.

One argument for promoting nuclear power that has been made in recent years is that it will serve to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.  In an Afterword to his book, Plokhy raises this idea but concludes:  “The risk of increasing dependence on nuclear power is that we might not be able to build enough reactors in time to stop or significantly mitigate climate change, while putting ourselves and the environment in jeopardy.  It is too costly and takes too long to build a reactor, and it is inherently unsafe not only for technological reasons, but also because of the risk of human error.  Investing money in nuclear energy today means reducing the development of renewables, without which even the proponents of nuclear power do not believe we can solve the crisis.”

I quote Amory Lovins in my book from his eloquent essay from 2009, “Four Nuclear Myths.”  He wrote then:  “…expanding nuclear power is uneconomic, is unnecessary, is not undergoing the claimed renaissance in the global marketplace (because it fails the basic test of cost-effectiveness ever more robustly), and, most importantly, will reduce and retard climate protection.”  That is even more true today than it was 14 years ago.

And I wrote in my Foreign Policy Association blog on climate change (also way back when), “Another tired axiom – or Big Lie if you prefer – from the nuclear power industry, as well as from the coal and oil interests, is that renewables can’t get the job done.  As I have pointed out here on any number of occasions, renewables are blowing the doors down.”  That was 13 years ago and the arc of renewable power production has skyrocketed beyond even what I and many people smarter than me thought possible.

It’s long past time to pull the plug on nukes.  Atoms and Ashes gives us more clear thinking on why this is such an essential task for us.

Nuclear power is a vast topic.  There is no better resource than the World Nuclear Industry Status Report.  I also recommend the video here from the excellent “Just Have A Think” channel.

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