Guest editorial: Nuclear power is subject to human error — and that makes it a poor solution to climate change
I would like to respond to Allison Cook’s editorial in a recent Park Record by agreeing with her premise that man-made global warming is an existential threat to human survival on this planet
I disagree with her thesis that nuclear power is the best solution. I know folks who are afraid of industrial nuclear power merely from watching “The Simpsons” on Fox. Sadly, that’s not as silly as it should be. The physics and engineering supporting nuclear power are sound. Unfortunately, the human administration and operation of it is not. We are as a people prone to error, greed and arrogance, with the first often resulting from the latter two. Behind every Homer is a Mr. Burns; ask any engineer if he or she has a story about corners cut by some bottom line-obsessed executive. U.S. nuclear plant workforces have been trimmed by 26,000 jobs in the past decade. A constant call for deregulation at the behest of lobbyists reveals a corporate culture that prioritizes monetary profit over environmental safety, just like the fossil fuel industry.
Ms. Cook asserts that there have been “zero radiation illnesses/casualties” at Fukushima. The tragic facts are that one worker has died from radiation-induced illness. Time will determine the ultimate price paid by the volunteer “Suicide Squads” who exceeded lifetime legal limits and face hundredfold cancer risk. Three studies estimate 130 deaths. The evacuation of the area surrounding the Daiichi and Daini plants resulted in an estimated 1,368 deaths (people, not eagles or tortoises). As of 2015, 166 children in the area have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, exceeding normal rates by a factor of 30.
The 1979 partial meltdown of reactor No. 2 at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania sparked widespread anti-nuclear power protests. The cumulative human error that led to radioactive release into the atmosphere inspired the engineering maxim “Normal Accident Theory.” Charles Perrow posited that “normal accidents” result from the “unanticipated interaction of multiple failures in a complex system.”
Seven year later the Chernobyl Plant in Pripyat, Ukraine, caused at least 42 deaths from acute radiation sickness. In a 2005 report, the environmental NGO Greenpeace (which actually supports the use of nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuel burning) estimates “270,000 cases of cancer attributable to Chernobyl fallout,” with an estimated death toll of 93,000. How one contracts thyroid cancer is debatable but the fact is that by the year 2000, the number of Ukrainians receiving state benefits for radiation related problems was over 3.5 million.
“Radiation” is a catch-all term for myriad forms of energy — my mug of tea is radiating infrared photons into my hand. The nuclear power industry likes to point out the natural radiation occurring around us, from sunshine to bananas and cellphone transmission. Most forms of radiation are harmless as all radiation should be considered in terms of dosage. We need doses of solar radiation to produce vitamin D. Not so with ionizing waves called gamma rays that radiate from isotopes used and produced by nuclear power plants. With short wavelengths and high energy, gamma rays disrupt cells and chromosomes throughout the human body and require dense materials to block them. Like all electromagnetic radiation, they are invisible. It is reasonable for people to fear invisible things that can make you horribly sick and die.
Nuclear science has given us tools to combat cancer, diagnose injuries and illness and someday safely generate electricity in lieu of burning fossil fuels. Continuing research may uncover better methods to harness nuclear power, but this nation needs to find the necessary regulatory mojo to isolate nuclear power from profiteering (the U.S. Navy has not experienced an accident involving 210 nuclear ships over seven decades). Plants need to be run by engineers and scientists — not accountants, former politicians and ex-regulators. Then we might expect nuclear power to not lead towards catastrophe.