Nuclear Power and Climate Change

Against the Current No. 210, January/February 2021

Ansar Fayyazuddin

Chernobyl’s”accident” continues.

NUCLEAR REACTORS AS sources of electrical power date back to the late 1940s, when Soviet scientists first harnessed heat produced as a by-product of plutonium production to generate steam to drive electricity-producing turbines. From these ignominious beginnings in weapons production, nuclear reactors were quickly elevated to a “peaceful” and socially beneficial technology by the propaganda machines of both belligerents of the Cold War.

In this carefully crafted public image, nuclear power came to represent science with the aura of magic — it would be, in the famous and now discredited words, an energy source “too cheap to meter.”

Far from delivering on this promise, nuclear power has been an abject failure in every respect that its advocates themselves proposed as measures of its success. Yet despite this record of failure, we are seeing a revival in the advocacy of nuclear power. It is touted by some as a climate-change mitigation strategy. The purpose of this article is to interrogate the claims of these proposals and explore nuclear power’s larger consequences for humanity and nature.

In Case of Malfunction…

When we begin to examine a technological solution to a particular problem, we are tempted to delve right away into the mechanics of the technology. In this way, we predispose ourselves to the functioning of an idealized mechanism.

One might consider instead to begin from, in a sense, the opposite vantage point — the consequences if the technology were to malfunction even in some small respect. Thus, before building a chemical plant, we should ask not how it would operate ideally but about the consequences of a leak, a fire, an earthquake.

In the case of nuclear technology, we are not only able to imagine failures, we have a historical record that vividly illustrates what failure can look like. These events by no means exhaust the ways in which nuclear reactors can malfunction or fail. Most cases of malfunction are not reported and information about them is actively suppressed.

Even for the major accidents that we know about, the public record is not complete due to the secrecy that shrouds all nuclear ventures, whether “peaceful” or military.

Here I will delve into some considerations that should be part of any thinking about the use of nuclear power, in the light of historical experience. We tend to value reason over experience, particularly when experience contradicts our analytic framework. It is time to reverse that hierarchy, which should surely be science’s sine qua non — giving observation precedence over our theoretical prejudices.

Chernobyl and Its Lessons

Let us begin with a particular accident: Chernobyl. In history books you will find a date and a place for this disaster: April 26, 1986 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant located in the Ukraine.

As Kate Brown in her book Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future emphasizes, “accident” conceived as a localized occurrence in space and time is not an adequate way to describe Chernobyl or, by extension, any nuclear disaster.

The date marks only the beginning of the accident — it is not done, even now. The time over which radionuclides decay depends on the particular isotope involved, and those originating with Chernobyl will continue to be active for thousands of years to come.

But it is not only the surrounding ecology of the power plant, the Pripyat marshes and environs, that have been transformed indelibly. The radionuclides spewed out into the atmosphere during the meltdown were transported throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

The first notice that the international community received of the disaster was when radiation exposure from radioactive isotopes from Chernobyl were detected via the radiation badges worn by workers at a Swedish nuclear power plant. This was hundreds of miles away and only two days after the incident. The detectors at the Swedish reactor facility indicated that workers had been exposed to unsafe levels of radiation, by the standards of the nuclear power plant itself!

The environmental historian J. R. McNeill notes that everyone living in the Northern Hemisphere has received a radiation dose from Chernobyl. Nuclear disasters thus cannot be localized in space and their span in time lasts thousands of years.

In the preferred analytic frameworks of modern sociology and a certain type of history, impersonal ways of representing the world tend to dominate. This impersonal accounting, “data” in their parlance, has its place and can be helpful.

These numbers and technicalities, however, often fail to make disasters comprehensible. How can one translate the symbolic representations of facts into a picture of reality? The answer in my view is that it can’t be done, as these symbols leave out the very thing that gives them their relevance — how these events are actually experienced by human beings.

In the case of Chernobyl, we are fortunate to have Svetlana Alexeivich’s Chernobyl Prayer (some editions are titled Voices of Chernobyl), in which the people affected by the disaster tell their own stories.

These stories are not just accounts of physical injury and loss, although there is much horror to recount, but are also the stories of living with the knowledge that your way of life has been permanently disrupted. These are the stories of never being able to return to a place, of everything being contaminated by radioactivity, of living in a state of trauma that will never pass. It means living with the realization that having a child will require asking what will this child’s physical needs be, and whether society will be able to provide that support.

As the surrounding areas of the Chernobyl plant were evacuated and the inhabitants relocated, they found that they became pariahs. Their bodies were transformed by the accident into sources of radioactivity from the inhalation of radioactive dust and from consuming contaminated food grown in the area, and having these isotopes lodged in their physical bodies.

They became unsuitable partners with whom to have children. Indeed, the injuries of Chernobyl ran much deeper than the recounting that our data-based method­ology can capture. Only once the testimony of individuals gives us a sense of how a single person can be affected are we able to begin to gain an appreciation of the magnitude of the tragedy of Chernobyl through numbers.

The amount of radiation released by the Chernobyl explosion (not a nuclear explosion) was the equivalent of several hundred Hiroshima bombs. Had the fire spread, to one or more of the other three reactors, the result would be hard to imagine.

We were spared that fate either by luck or by the sacrifice of the first responders whose own fate was sealed the moment they arrived at the site. Within the first year of the accident, 135,000 inhabitants were evacuated from the surrounding area now known as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

This zone had to be expanded from an initial radius of 10km to 30km from the site of the accident. This area will remain uninhabitable for thousands of years.

The problem with using Chernobyl as epitomizing nuclear disaster is that it is subject to the prejudice that what it reveals is more about the Soviet Union than about the dangers of nuclear technology. However, the most relevant aspects of the accident are universal and repeated in the so-called West and elsewhere.

The Japanese Fukushima Daiichi disaster from 2011 shows many of the same features, including the secrecy, lack of accountability and misinformation that characterized Chernobyl. We are yet to have a full accounting of the consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi accident.

The only reason why we have some level of understanding of Chernobyl is because of the dogged work of activists and researchers, who have tried to piece together the scope of the disaster, despite the hurdles actively placed in their attempts to uncover what happened and its consequences.

Extraction, Eco-destruction, Indigenous Rights

Nuclear reactors pose a grave threat to humanity because of their use of radioactive isotopes that can easily result in the exposure to harmful levels of radioactivity of both workers and the population at large. These exposures can take place at various stages of the lifecycle of nuclear reactors.

If we view the reactor’s lifecycle in terms of certain moments, one could tentatively enumerate (a) the extraction and enrichment of nuclear isotopes that serve as fuel for the reactor, (b) the running of the reactor, (c) decommissioning reactors. All three stages pose threats to safety.

(a) Nuclear fuel — typically enriched uranium — requires the mining of radioactive ores, separation of the compounds and the enrichment of the needed isotopes. As is the case of most mines, these are typically located in areas where marginalized communities reside.

Mining often requires the dislocation of populations and the disruption of lives and ways of living, sometimes in exchange for “compensation.” This displacement and disruption is mostly done without the consent of the population.

For the Manhattan Project (World War II development of the atomic bomb), the United States obtained a large fraction of its uranium from mines located in the Belgian Congo, where the mines were controlled by the colonial Belgian regime known for its distinctively murderous and sadistic rule.

The natives who worked the mines were not provided with protection. We know very little about the impact of uranium mining on the Congolese miners and the surrounding population, as is so typical of the colonial disregard for the wellbeing of their dispensable colonial subjects.

After the war, the United States started looking for uranium sources at home and discovered that it could be separated from a mineral ore found on Navajo land in the areas now called Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. Over 1000 mines were established on this land for extracting uranium, employing miners from the Navajo population.

The milling technique used to extract uranium involves separating other radioactive ores from the uranium through a process that disperses radioactive dust into the surrounding area. Then the unneeded radioactive remains are dissolved in water and discarded, which then leaches into the ground. The process results in the contamination of the surrounding ecology and water reserves.

The most active uranium mines in the world, including the ones in Canada and Australia, have similar impacts on Indigenous populations. Thus, the brunt of uranium mining and enrichment — a highly toxic process — has been felt most acutely by marginalized communities, particularly those of Indigenous populations and colonial subjects.

(b) During the lifetime of a functioning nuclear reactor, there is great potential for accident. As Charles Perrow in Normal Accidents explains, the complexity and interdependent processes taking place in a nuclear power plant make major accidents triggered by a minor glitch a very real possibility.

While the behavior of workers is often blamed for nuclear accidents, Perrow points out that accidents are in actuality inherent to the technology itself. The sensible behavior of workers acting on what they know at the time often cannot be reasonably criticized.

Studying previous incidents like Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl shows that accidents are the result of a cascade of interconnected failures that are built into the system although not by conscious design. Even more severe versions of these accidents could have occurred were it not for something fortuitous, planned or unplanned, that curbed the cascade.

In addition to the potential of accident, nuclear power plants produce radioactive waste, the disposal of which remains an unsolved problem.

(c) The closure of nuclear reactors poses a distinctive set of additional problems. Once closed, these sites are virtually permanent sites of radioactive contamination. If they go through a process of decommissioning, radioactive parts of the plant and nuclear waste need to be disposed properly.

There are still no good options for the disposal of nuclear waste. Various “remote” sites have been designated as dumps for radioactive remains, but this comes at the cost of making the surrounding areas of these sites hazardous for human habitation and putting the local ecology at risk.

The site of the closed reactor itself poses dangers as effluents from power plants leak into the surrounding environment and require independent remediation during decommissioning. The process is resource-intensive and requires years of remediation.

Privatized Profits, Socialized Risk

The history of nuclear reactors is the history of corporate welfare that socializes the costs and risks associated with their construction and running, while privatizing any profit. In his environmental history of the 20th century, the historian J. R. McNeill writes:

“Nuclear power held some of the same political attraction as dam building: it signified vigor and modernity. Admiral Lewis Strauss, head of the American Atomic Energy Commission, predicted in the 1950s that by the 1970s nuclear power would be too cheap to meter…. But no nuclear power plant anywhere made commercial sense: they all survived on an “insane” economics of massive subsidy.” (Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World, W. W. Norton, 2000: 312)

McNeill goes on to explain that when Britain privatized its electrical industry, there were no private takers for the nuclear power plants. Thus the only way corporations made money from nuclear power is through massive subsidization from public funds.

While the state guarantees profits to corporations that build and manage publicly funded power plants, the risks associated with accidents are always socialized. The Price-Anderson Act dating back to 1957 and serially renewed until its current expiration date in 2025, caps corporate responsibility for liabilities associated with accidents.

Private insurance companies are also protected from the costs of nuclear disasters. The costs of the management of nuclear disasters are therefore almost entirely relegated to the public sphere. Moreover, the management of radioactive waste associated with nuclear power are also the responsibility of the state.

Risk of nuclear disaster associated with reactors are routinely misrepresented. In the design and commissioning phases of nuclear power plants, so-called experts assess the risk by various modeling techniques and providing a reified number representing the probability of disaster.

These exercises are carried out by people with a direct interest in the approval of the power plant, and are based on assumptions that are not always warranted and often not spelled out.

Looking at actual disasters (Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi, say), the specific circumstances of each illustrate very clearly that, while each particular scenario may be highly unlikely (at least in one’s imagination), there is a cumulative compounding effect of many individually unlikely pathways contributing to making disasters possible and even likely. Furthermore, as nuclear reactors proliferate they multiply the possibility of disaster.

Green New Deal, or More Corporate Handouts?

I have argued that nuclear power is a dangerous technology that poses distinctive hazards at all stages of its lifecycle. But how does it compare economically to renewable energy sources such as solar and wind?

Although an aura of innovation emanates from nuclear power, it is wholly undeserved. In reality, it is a technology of the past whose efficiency and cost have remained uncompetitive and stagnant in the many decades of its existence. Solar and wind power technologies, by contrast, continue to improve in efficiency and cost.

If we compare the present-day cost per MegaWatt-hour of electricity, solar and wind power are notably cheaper than nuclear power. When one further takes into account that solar and wind technologies are becoming more efficient with time, it becomes clear that they are better suited for public investment.

A notable feature of wind and solar power is that they don’t require much in terms of operational costs, whereas maintenance and operation are significant sources of cost throughout the lifetime of nuclear power plants.

Despite its lack of new ideas, the nuclear industry is adept at promoting old ones as if they were innovations that solve longstanding problems. One such idea that is receiving renewed attention is so-called breeder plants. They are based on using more abundantly available non-fissile radioactive isotopes, such as those of thorium, that when combined with fissile uranium isotopes lead to the net production of fissile fuel in the process of energy production.

However, as M. V. Ramana has shown (and the references therein), practical implementation continues to be hounded by problems.

While all the dangers and issues attendant on regular nuclear power remain for these breeder plants, new ones particular to them are added.

A further important consideration in deciding between technologies is to take proper stock of the climate emergency and the need for immediate decarbonization of our energy supply.

While solar and wind technologies are easy and quick to deploy, nuclear power requires significant lead time. In fact, typical timelines require close to a decade from an accepted proposal to an operational power plant. Historically, nuclear reactors have a long record of delays in construction and of running well over the initial cost estimates.

We have neither the time nor monetary resources needed to implement decarbonization using nuclear power if we are to achieve it within a timeline that avoids an even worse climate catastrophe than what we are on target to confront.

The Green New Deal for state-sponsored radical ecological intervention takes its inspiration from the New Deal of the 1930s. Public sector investment through the GND should therefore be about encouraging the growth of good jobs that provide security and good living standards as well as building publicly-owned infrastructure beneficial to humanity and subject to democratic control.

Nuclear power fails on all these counts. Several studies indicate that nuclear power will make only a marginal contribution to job growth, unlike solar and wind power, which are already contributing significantly to job growth.

Hazardous nuclear technology cannot be democratically controlled because of its close connection to nuclear weapons manufacture. Most importantly, in my view, any Green New Deal should not contribute to the further environmental degradation of our planet, which nuclear power most certainly will do.

January-February 2021, ATC 210

3 comments

  1. This article’s content is factually false with respect to near every point made. Indeed, it’s little more than hysteria-mongering regarding non-existent “dangers of radiation” and of nuclear power. By all credible evidence collected by science and medicine over the last 60 years. The article’s content is also in denial of all available evidence regarding solar and wind (“renewable”) power, which has proved in every case it’s been tried on a large national or provincial scale a fraud, con, scam, and massive dismal failure. It is sad to see avowed socialists / revolutionaries printing such malignant, deadly scientific and medical mis-information. I say this as one who has identified as a socialist / revolutionary / Trotkyist all my adult life. I’m also trained as a scientist, and am an MD as well.

    I’d be curious what qualifications the author of this article has to understand medical and scientific studies, and discriminate between ones that are junk or even deliberately deceitful, vs those done intellectually honestly and well, using proper scientific method and clinical study format, and thus likely to provide valid and useful information? I’ve a lifetime of such experience, professionally and personally.

    As noted above, pretty much NOTHING asserted in this article is true. It is merely regurgitation of myths and deliberate lies, often promulgated by the fossil fuel industry, who know that ONLY nuclear power challenges ongoing sale and consumption of their product, and that investing in (uselessly intermittent) solar and wind guarantees dependence on their product. Note that the “independent, environmentalist” organizations the Sierra Club and the NRDC, during their campaign to prematurely close Diablo Canyon nuclaer power plant, received tens of millions of dollars from the natural gas industry, to thank them for their efforts (and tried hard to deny and hide this, until such was no longer possible).

    Yes, mining is deadly to the health of workers doing the mining… but this has nothing to do with radiation, which is essentially entirely harmless. It’s a function of the silica dust breathed in (and inadequate means to protect workers offered by owner of the mines trying to maximize profits). Indeed, uranium mining is thousands of times less harmful to miners, if only because uranium is a 1,000,000 fold more energy dense fuel for making electricity than is coal or natural gas. So very much less of it needs to be mined to produce a given amount of energy. This also has huge implications in terms of environmental impact of mining the fuel for nuclear power plants… it’s near totally harmless to the environment, compared to the massive environmental destruction entailed by coal mining. Nuclear power kills 1 person per peta watt hour of electricity made, per year. Coal kills 5000, oil 1000, and natural gas 500 per year per peta watt hour of electricity produced. Between 200,000 and 1,000,000 workers die each year from the mining and burning of coal. The figure is around a dozen or so per year, if that, for nuclaer power.

    The article repeatedly wails about the “dangers” of nuclear power, and infers this is from exposure to radiation. This is total bunk. Deadly, misleading falsehood. I’ve spend years examining all of the major studies on which all our knowledge of biological effects of radiation are based, and they all show radiation to be essentially entirely harmless in all but extraordinary large dose exposure and only then when combined with that exposure being acquired very rapidly. The issue of the biological effects of radiation is best presented in Wade Allison’s book “nuclear is for Life”, which references and discusses most of these key studies.

    France went from no to near all nuclear power in 20 years. So much for the lie that nuclear power takes too long to set up. Germany spent a half trillion dollars on the fraud that is solar and wind power (and also prematurely closed down its nuclear power plants). Neighboring France went near all (75% to 85%) nuclear for electricity. Result: Electricity in France costs half as much as that in Germany, and results in ONE TENTH as much CO2 released per kw-hr of electricity made, compared to Germany. NO WHERE ON EARTH has investment in “renewables” been other than the same sort of dismal failure to reduce CO2 output or produce economical electricity. Not in any major industrial country or province. The only places on earth where CO2 output per kw hr of electricity produced has been reduced to levels consistent with addressing greenhouse gas accumulation / climate change has been where this has been achieved by nuclear power. There is no other way to do this… and fortunately nuclear is overwhelmingly safe, sustainable, economical, and without any significant environmental impact compared to any of the alternatives.

    An honest and careful examination of the facts relating to the three major nuclear power accidents (TMI, Chernobyl, Fukushima) further prove how overwhelmingly safe nuclear power is. Two of those involved zero harm of any sort… short or long term… to the surrounding population from radiation, given the insignificant levels released / how well the containment worked. At Chernobyl an obsolete cold war reactor design, grossly mis-managed, without a containment, was blown apart in a steam explosion, and literally tons of highly radioactive core material blasted into the air. Yet even in this horrific worst case, the death toll from radiation was about 35 immediate deaths, and perhaps 20 to 100 delayed ones over the next 50 year… solely from thyroid cancer, the only cancer which credible evidence showed resulted from the accident. Compare that to the 100,000 to 240,000 who died acutely in the worst of hydro disasters, or the 200,000 to 1,000,000 who die each year from the normal, non-accidental mining and burning of coal to make power.

    To learn why renewable power is a total fraud, scam, con, and proved dismal failure, I suggest you read “Roadmap to Nowhere” by Conley and Maloney, a book that is available free as a pdf file at thiis linke:

    https://www.roadmaptonowhere.com/

    There are several books I’d recommend as a general introduction to the facts regarding nuclear power, overall.

    One of the very best of such is available free, as a pdf file, thanks to the kindness of its (best selling, now generoud) author. This is “Unintended Consequences / The Lie that Killed Millions and accelerated Climate Change” by George Erickson, available at this site:

    http://tundracub.com/htmls/unintendedconsequences.html

    I also recommend “Climate Gamble / Is Anti Nuclear Activism Endangering our Future” by Partenan and Korhonen, available for about $6.00 on Amazon and many other sites.

    And “A Bright Future” by Qvist and Goldstein.

    If we socialists and revolutionaries are to be taken seriously, we must stop spouting myths and lies and quack medicine, when addressing issues of science and medicine, and stick to that which is supported by intellectually honestly conducted scientific method. No revolutionary who claims MMR vaccine causes autism or bowel disease, or that the earth is flat, not round, or that nuclear power is dangerous, or that renewable power is other than a fraud, should be trusted… for such a person’s judgement and/or honesty can reasonably be held in question for promoting such overwhelmingly demonstrated medical or scientific falsehood. Revolutionaries have an obligation to speak truth to the masses, and to get their facts right when they publicly address matters of science, medicine, or engineering.

    Promoting falsehood and hysteria regarding the non-existent dangers of nuclear power and radiation is not merely intellectually wrong. It KILLS huge numbers of workers.

    In the aftermath of the Fukuyama accident, radiation levels even very near the plant were measured both by UN WHO teams and by a research that published in Nature, within a week or two of the accident, as 20 to 100 fold or more below those that could possibly entail any risk of any medical at all to humans. Yet due to the same sort of hysteria and falsehood presented by the author of this article, 60,000 were evacuated for many years. Result: 2000 died acutely as a result of the hasty evaluation. Tens of thousands of lifes were hugely disrupted. indefinitely. Radiation in this case was basically entirely totally harmless, but hysteria and ignorance and fear of radiation kills thousands.

    In the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident, between 10,000 and 100,000 pregnant women in western Europe (number depends on whose study you want to accept) elected to abort otherwise wanted pregnancies due to fear they would give birth to deformed or genetically harmed babies due to their “exposure to the plume of radiation” coming over from Chernobyl that ignorant and/or deliberately deceitful hysteria mongers… like the author of this article… were screaming about in the media. A “plume” that entailed added levels of radiation well below background levels. Levels 1000 to 10,000 times LOWER than those encountered by pregnant survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings… who all gave birth to normal babies, with zero evidence of an iota of harm from radiation. These babies…and their mothers… were followed for decades… with never any indication of the slightest harm from radiation compared to matched controls. [ref: the Hiroshima Nagasaki LSS study]. To be sure, I’ve fought for the last half century for the right of women to control their own reproductive function, including via education regarding birth control, freely and widely available birth control means, and easy free access to abortion on demand. But aborting an otherwise wanted pregnancy due to hysterical fear of a non-existent threat is a horrible thing.

    Please, comrades: Abandon the lies and myths promulgated regarding fear of radiation and nuclear power, claiming such are “unsafe” or “dangerous”. Please also abandon the lies and myths regarding the utility of “renewable” power (solar and wind), which in fact are beyond an iota of doubt proved dismal failures in practice… frauds, cons, and scams. Support for junk science and quack medicine only harms our credibility in all matters… including political analysis.

    Marxists when addressing matters of science or medicine should stick to what is supported by intellectually honestly, properly collected (via appropriate application of scientific method) evidence. Not promulgate ideologically-driven, politically-correct falsehood, hysteria, and deceit, as does the author of this article. Else we just repeat the mistakes of the past. Remember Lysenko-ism.

  2. The author of the article, Ansar Fayyazuddin, asked that ATC post this comment to Dr. Goodman:

    Although Dr. Goodman is critical of my article, I am grateful that they wrote. It is only fair to the readership of Against the Current that the counterarguments to my own also be available to them to evaluate. Since Dr. Goodman rejects in a blanket way my arguments, I see little point in trying to reargue what I present in my article. I provide sources for the more technical claims that I make about nuclear power where the reader can find more detailed arguments. Note that my claims are based on historical experience and my sources are to works that engage with that history. Here I want to provide interested readers a guide to sources that may help them to evaluate the competing claims made by Dr. Goodman and myself.

    The issue of the relationship between mining, indigenous land rights, radiation exposure and health is a topic that has not received sufficient attention. Dr. Goodman’s claims on uranium mining do not align with the conclusions of non-industry researchers. For those interested in reading further, a good starting point on the US is the The Atomic Heritage Foundation’s webpage on uranium mining and its effects on the Navajo population and local ecology (https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/uranium-mining). I found the following paper on the history of uranium mining on Navajo land to be helpful: ”The History of Uranium Mining and the Navajo People” by Brugge and Goble (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3222290/). On Australia, an article by Jessica Urwin (https://theconversation.com/uranium-mines-harm-indigenous-people-so-why-have-we-approved-a-new-one-116262) gives a sense of the issues there. On Canada, I found the article by Heather Tufts (http://ecosocialism.ca/2010/02/the-impact-of-uranium-mining-on-indigenous-communities/) to be a helpful starting point.

    On the question of casualties of nuclear accidents, I disagree with Dr. Goodman’s characterization of the numbers and the longterm health effects of radiation exposure. The figures cited by Dr. Goodman on Chernobyl are not accepted by scholars and I urge the interested reader to consult Kate Brown’s book on Chernobyl where the subject gets the attention it deserves. The quantification of the health consequences of nuclear disasters hinges on how one goes about linking health to radiation. The denial of the health consequences of nuclear tests and disasters is not surprising as there is a lot at stake for governments and nuclear regulatory agencies alike. However, despite these efforts, we have access to information that has not been filtered through them. Children are particularly susceptible to radiation exposure. One window into the ongoing Chernobyl disaster is provided by Cuba’s treatment of children affected by the accident. Cuba, between 1990 and 2010, treated about 24,000 children who developed cancers due to exposure from Chernobyl radiation (see https://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/jul/02/cuba-chernobyl-health-children). These figures give a sense of the enormity of the health consequences of Chernobyl. These children were not by any means the only ones who suffered from cancers due to the accident. Thyroid cancer incidence among children increased thirty-fold in the Ukraine and Belarus in the aftermath of Chernobyl.

    It is one of the tragedies of the victims of nuclear bombs, tests and disasters, that their health and experience has itself become a terrain of active dispute. Even the early work of John Hersey on Hiroshima recounts the distress felt by victims because the diffuse symptoms that are now recognized to be due to radiation exposure were not recognized as being such. Svetlana Alexeivich’s ”Chernobyl Prayer” recounts health problems in the population at large and disabilities in children for which people sought acknowledgment from authorities that was not forthcoming, a failure that was the cause of much unnecessary suffering for the victims and their caregivers.

    Although Dr. Goodman makes confident claims about Fukushima and ”low” doses of radiation more generally, these are disputed by non-industry experts. See for instance the paper by Beyea, Lyman and von Hippel (https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlelanding/2013/ee/c2ee24183h/unauth#!divAbstract) on Fukushima. On the effects of radiation even at low levels, readers should consult the report of the U.S. National Research Council’s BEIR committee’s report that states “the risk would continue in a linear fashion at lower doses without a threshold and that the smallest dose has the potential to cause a small increase in risk to humans” (see https://www.nap.edu/resource/11340/beir_vii_final.pdf).

    We know from the work of many on nuclear disasters that the possibility of much worse outcomes is often a hair’s breadth away. Charles Perrow’s analysis of Three Mile Island showed that structural infirmities in the plant could have resulted in a much worse disaster were it not for blind luck. In the case of Fukushima, the direction of the winds was fortuitous. And Chernobyl could have been even more horrific than it turned out to be if the other reactors had also caught fire. Each one of these major accidents is a cautionary tale. We should heed their prophetic message.

    Finally, although I dispute the figures claimed by Dr. Goodman, I am sure that I am not the only one who finds no comfort in them. I find them horrific and I fear that by treating them as abstractions (and as Marxists and others might say, by reifying them) we lose the only thing that matters about them – that people suffered for reasons that were preventable.

  3. Loved the article…if more people understood the true danger of nuclear power…it would be banned from the planet!
    Being a solar & wind power advocate and actually doing solar water heating for my home in the 1970’s and finally going to photovoltaic cells for my new home in 1989, does allow me a degree of bragging rights.
    While Wind electric generation, just in the Province of Ontario, offers such real promise…the reality of impending tragedy surrounding the nuclear plants on the shores of Lake Erie should scare any logical person. No more Nukes, please!

Leave a Reply