Nuclear Armageddon is here. We’ve bought a lie about the alleged safety of nuclear energy. The lie was promoted on the basis of another lie, one we should’ve recognized immediately under the auspices of, “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” The latter lie is the promise of electricity too-cheap-to-meter.
The actual cost of nuclear power goes well beyond monetary. It includes billions of human lives.
We understate risks and plow ahead with dangerously complex and transient nuclear projects because in one century we have become addicted to electricity. Ironically, the first two million years of the human experience indicate that electricity is an unneeded luxury.
What do we need? Like all organisms on Earth, we need habitat for our species. Notably, such habitat includes clean air, clean water, healthy food, the ability to maintain body temperature at a safe level, and — for most of us — a decent, loving human community. These few elements allow us not simply to survive, but to thrive. Even the Hierarchy of Human Needs developed by celebrated 20th century psychologist Abraham Maslow reflects exactly the statement above.
Note the absence of electricity from this list of survival needs. I would go further and suggest that grid-tied electricity results directly from the patriarchy associated with men packing guns, but that would be off-topic for this essay.
The nuclear threat
Since I first learned about global peak oil and its economic consequences, nuclear catastrophe has been my constant nightmare. It’s easy to imagine the world’s nuclear power plants melting down catastrophically when the monetary system fails, and failure of the electrical grid follows. Assuming we can maintain economic growth forever on a finite planet has us headed straight for global-scale disaster.
Japan, as bad as it is suffering right now, is a harbinger of far worse events ahead. And ionizing radiation is only one of many adverse artifacts of industrial civilization.
Until recently, Japan had the second-largest industrial economy in the world. It’s a country so deeply terrified of nuclear disaster that it’s taken the strongest steps to insure against natural disasters of all kinds. Yet in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami of 11 March 2011 near Fukushima Daiichi, all 13 backup diesel generators failed in plant number one.
Why were there even 13 backup diesel generators? Because, contrary to myth, nuclear power plants require external power to keep them running. And they need to keep running because if they stop running, they begin to melt down. It’s a real-life hamster-wheel, except no one gets off without serious consequences.
Imagine the horrors when the diesel stops flowing to the world’s nuclear power plants, which number more than 400. Many of these plants are found in countries with infrastructure and safety records far worse than we find in Japan. This is truly the stuff of nightmares, and the only way out is to forgo sleep.
How bad is it?
I often hear we have nothing to worry about. Ionizing radiation isn’t that big a deal. After all, people are living in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, and some have proclaimed the area a haven for wildlife. Sure enough, the exclusion zone has abundant wildlife. However, no significant sampling effort has been undertaken to determine animal numbers, and a quarter century after Chernobyl melted down many species exhibit high levels of abnormalities, including potentially lethal mutations.
And just when some people thought it was safe to commission more nuclear power plants, Fukushima splashed across the headlines. The mainstream media, Japanese and American governments, and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) tell us not to worry. It’s all firmly under control. On the other hand, people with more incentive to tell the truth than these entities indicate otherwise.
Four months after nuclear disaster struck Fukushima, MSNBC tried to protect “those in power” by stifling news anchor Cenk Uygur. Nuclear engineer Arnie Gunderson pointed out in October 2013 that governments were withholding the truth about stillbirths, deformities, and health defects, and were suppressing studies on deformed animals.
The scientific evidence continues to grow, with abundant signs pointing in the wrong direction for survival of humans and other species. Dr. Timothy Mousseau, with his horrific overview of nuclear nightmares in March 2013, documents the destruction and demise of animals in the Chernobyl exclusion zone as severe as extirpation (i.e., local extinction). Mousseau had this to say on Fukushima in early September 2013: “Given the vast amounts of material that was released I think there will be measurable amounts of radioactive cesium hitting the West Coast, blanketing the West Coast for some time to come.” In an interview with RT from August 2013, nuclear fallout researcher Christina Consolo indicated that billions of people could die from release of ionizing radiation from Fukushima alone. The following month, Yale professor Charles Perrow concluded that events at Fukushima could lead to fission of fuel rods and, “all of humanity will be threatened, for thousands of years.” And in October 2013, Canadian scientist David Suzuki added his voice to the conversation, calling Fukushima, “the most terrifying situation I can imagine.”
The situation is already terrifying for the 71 sailors assigned to the USS Ronald Reagan who responded to the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan for four days. They’ve reported radiation sickness and will file a lawsuit against TEPCO. At least half the sailors have contracted some form of cancer.
In early January 2014 Gordon Edwards, nuclear expert and president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, concluded that four of the six reactors at Fukushima exploded, and three of the four melted down: “They found a pool of water beside the tank that was leaking, that pool of water — they measured the radiation levels — if a person stood beside that pool of water for 1 hour, they would die of radiation poisoning.” Days later, an overview of the situation at Fukushima Daichi concluded: “There is little reason to expect anything but worsening conditions, slowly or suddenly, for years and years to come. And there is even less reason to expect anyone in authority anywhere to be more than minimally and belatedly truthful about an industry they continue to protect, no matter how many people it damages or kills.”
Fukushima Daichi represents a single nuclear plant. More than 400 plants exist throughout the world. They require decades to decommission, and more are being commissioned each year.
Absence of leadership
In my dreams, world leaders would act to decommission nuclear power plants instead of commissioning more of them. I’ve lived long enough to expect otherwise.
If I were king of the world for a decade — or even a day — I would immediately order a rapid but methodical shutdown and then closure of all nuclear power plants. The alternative is emergency shutdowns in myriad ways, all of them hasty and unplanned, as the world’s industrial economy continues its ongoing demise while the effects of climate change wreak daily havoc hither and yon. The results of decline and disaster are completely predictable and unimaginably horrific, and they include numerous core meltdowns and huge releases of radiation.
Perhaps we will avoid causing our own extinction via ionizing radiation in the wake of worldwide nuclear catastrophe. But such a positive outcome will only result from careful planning and strong leadership. The nuclear industry is a microcosm of industrial civilization, favoring short-term monetary profit over life on Earth. At some point, the result is carved in stone. I suspect that point draws near.
The consequences of huge unplanned releases of radiation into Earth’s atmosphere include death to many land-dwelling species on the planet. Considering the interdependencies between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, the extinction of many aquatic species would follow on the heels of extinction of terrestrial species.
Radiation is impartial. Radiation doesn’t discriminate. In short, the near-term consequences of nuclear catastrophe likely to result from collapse of the world’s industrial economy are unthinkable.
So let’s put our hearts and minds together to think of something else. Something much better. Unless you’re really into peeling skin, deformed babies, and glowing in the dark.