Nuclear energy has been back in the headlines in recent weeks, which means opponents are already appearing with stories of impending apocalypse.
The renewed interest in nuclear power – exemplified by Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s belated efforts to secure federal funding to keep the Palisades nuclear plant open – comes as fears of global warming collide with the inability wind and solar power to provide reliable and affordable electricity. Like the politically popular so-called green energies, nuclear energy does not emit carbon dioxide. Unlike these, it produces a large amount of reliable power, accounting for more than a quarter of Michigan’s power consumption in 2018.
But you wouldn’t know that by listening to policy makers.
Candidates for public office demand outright bans, while the media frightens readers with vague threats of nuclear catastrophe. They speak of “ominous radiation, a whiff of the apocalypse, and a tendency to explode” because they mistakenly confuse the dangers associated with nuclear weapons with nuclear power plants. In one example, a recent Detroit News article continues the tradition of scary headlines, promising to answer “Why Coastal Nuclear Power Plants Are Problems for the Great Lakes.”
These scare tactics are not without precedent. Medieval cartographers once bordered the borders of their maps with the warnings, ‘hic sunt dracones’ or ‘hic sunt leones’ – ‘here are dragons’ and ‘here are lions’. While these warnings may have been effective in the past, we should now recognize that they represented a simplistic fear of the unknown.
For humans, it has always been much easier to curl up by the fire, safe from imaginary lions and dragons, than to honestly respond to those fears and embrace some potentially scary new idea or technology. But getting away from the fire is exactly how we progress as a species. Moreover, in the case of nuclear energy, this step is quite small because we already have a good command of this source of energy and know, from experience, how safe it is.
This same easy regression to fear of the unknown characterizes many environmental and energy problems. A popular idea called the “precautionary principle” is that if an activity has the potential to harm human health or the environment, society should take precautionary action to stop or limit that action. These theories push for restricted action “even if certain causal relationships are not scientifically established”. Stopping the action, regardless of its known benefits, is considered preferable to unknown or unmeasured harm.
Experts interviewed for the Detroit News article seem to embrace this precautionary worldview. “If contamination were to occur, the consequences could be catastrophic and would persist for many generations,” says Gayle Wood, co-chair of the Great Lakes Water Quality Board, referring to nuclear reactors and storage containers from spent fuel located around the Great Lakes. .
On a similar theme, if a meteor were to strike the planet, the consequences would be catastrophic and would persist for many generations. If we walk away from the fire in the dark, we risk being devoured by a lion. Yet we continue our lives and activities despite these pervasive threats.
Proponents of the precautionary principle might counter that a meteor is a natural event, whereas nuclear energy is man-made, and that we can easily avoid an accident by simply shutting down potentially offending reactors.
But that brings us to the strongest argument for nuclear energy: the benefits of using nuclear energy are myriad and clear, while the safety record of our nuclear resources is unparalleled.
In a 2015 article, Alex Epstein, president of the Center for Industrial Progress, responded to claims by a Swiss official that the partial collapse of the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant “showed [that] the risk of nuclear energy is too high. But the death toll resulting from the failure of cooling systems at the Fukushima plant – following a 40ft tsunami and a 9.0 earthquake which both hit the facility – was no.
“Thanks to the fundamental integrity of the nuclear vessel and containment building, none of the plant’s neighbors died, and none were apparently exposed to harmful levels of radiation,” Epstein wrote, noting that if a similar situation had occurred at a large hydroelectric dam, the rupture and flooding could have killed thousands of people.
In a previous interview, Epstein made similar comments about the Three Mile Island crash. Quoting the late electrical engineer, author and nuclear energy advocate Petr Beckmann, Epstein explained that Three Mile Island was “the only major disaster in history with zero deaths, zero injuries and zero illnesses”.
“But Chernobyl!!” comes the inevitable answer. And the opening sentence of a 1986 Science magazine article explains why this is, at best, a terrible line. “A botched experiment and a series of deliberate safety violations, and an inherently difficult to operate and control reactor have combined to cause the world’s worst nuclear accident.” Blaming the nuclear industry and the nuclear power plants currently in operation for this accident is like blaming the auto industry for a fire caused by a speeding, drunk driver who removed the brake pads from his Ford Pinto from 1971 just before getting in the car.
And to stay on the topic of Soviet-built nuclear power plants operating in Ukraine, the Huffington Post recently reported that the Russian military bombed and then captured the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Enerhodar, Ukraine in March. Although she experienced what must be described as the absolute worst-case scenario – Russian bombs literally falling on the facility – “the International Atomic Energy Agency said it had spoken with Ukrainian officials, who said there was no change in radiation levels at the site.”
In a comprehensive review of the safety of the nuclear industry, the World Nuclear Association reports that, “Outside of Chernobyl, no nuclear worker or member of the public has ever died from radiation exposure due to a commercial nuclear reactor incident. ”
Despite the concerns expressed by the Detroit News article, reactors and spent fuel stored in dry drums near the Great Lakes are extremely safe. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission reports that “since the first drums were loaded in 1986, dry storage has not emitted any radiation that has affected the public or contaminated the environment”. This level of safety exists because the dry storage drums are so well designed that they can survive a plane hitting them.
In one example, a company that builds dry storage drums actually tested the integrity of its product by launching a missile at it. “Moving at more than 600 miles per hour, the missile met Swiss regulators’ requirements to simulate an aircraft impact but failed to pierce the container,” according to a report on NuclearStreet.com.
Michigan’s four existing nuclear power plants have operated for 34 to 50 years without incident. The former Big Rock plant near Charlevoix closed in 1997 and only the spent fuel stores were on site. None of the five locations had any radiation releases. Considering Michigan residents depend on reliable power in all areas of their lives, it’s no exaggeration to say that the Palisades plant shutdown (as is expected to happen at the end of this month) poses more risk to the public than keeping it open. .
Pressed by questions and concerns about the invention and release of nuclear weapons, CS Lewis explained in his 1948 book “Present Concerns: Essays by CS Lewis” that endless fears of impending doom should not be allowed to stop human progress:
“How are we going to live in the atomic age? I am tempted to answer: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague struck London almost every year… or as you already live in a time of cancer, a time of syphilis, a time of paralysis, an era of aerial bombings, an era of rail accidents, an era of automobile accidents.
Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all your loved ones have already been sentenced to death before the invention of the atomic bomb. … If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, may that bomb find us doing sensible and humane things – praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting with our friends…not huddled together like frightened sheep thinking about bombs. They can break our bodies (a microbe can) but they don’t need to dominate our minds.
Given human history, it’s no surprise that some focus on concerns about obscure and misunderstood threats. Despite the continual refrain “hic sunt leones,” nuclear power has, for decades, provided American consumers with a reliable, affordable, clean, and extremely safe supply of electricity. It would be a short-sighted failure to allow mistaken fears to deprive us of one of our most secure and reliable essential sources of energy.
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