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The Perils of Technological Hubris

Nuclear Titanics

by KARL GROSSMAN

On the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, The Japan Times yesterday ran an editorial titled “The Titanic and the Nuclear Fiasco” which stated: “Presenting technology as completely safe, trustworthy or miraculous may seem to be a thing of the past, but the parallels between the Titanic and Japan’s nuclear power industry could not be clearer.”

“Japan’s nuclear power plants were, like the Titanic, advertised as marvels of modern science that were completely safe. Certain technologies, whether they promise to float a luxury liner or provide clean energy, can never be made entirely safe,” it said.

It quoted from a piece by Joseph Conrad written after the Titanic sank in which he noted the “chastening influence it should have on the self-confidence of mankind.”  The Japan Times urged: “That lesson should be applied to all ‘unsinkable’ undertakings that might profit a few by imperiling the majority of others.” http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/ed20120415a1.html

Yes, the same kind of baloney behind the claim that the Titanic was unsinkable is behind the puffery that nuclear power plants are safe. The nuclear power promoters are still saying that despite the sinking of atomic Titanics: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plants.

In fact, underneath the PR offensive are government documents admitting that nuclear power plants are deadly dangerous.

The first analysis of the consequences of a nuclear plant accident was done in 1957 by

Brookhaven National Laboratory, established a decade before by the since disbanded U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to develop civilian uses of nuclear technology. Its “WASH-740” report said a major nuclear plant accident could result in “3,400 killed and about 43,000 injured” and property damage “could be about 7 billion dollars.” However, this analysis was based on nuclear power plants a fifth to a tenth of the size of those being constructed in the 1960s.

So Brookhaven National Laboratory conducted a second study in the mid-60s, “WASH-740-update.” It stated repeatedly that for a major nuclear plant accident, “the possible size of such a disaster might be equal to that of the State of Pennsylvania.”  It increased the number of deaths to 45,000, injuries to 100,000 and property damage up to $280 billion.

Then, in 1982, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratories did a study they titled “Calculation of Reactor Accident Consequences” that analyzed the accident consequences for every nuclear plant in the U.S. It projected, for example, for a meltdown with a breach of containment at the Indian Point 2 plant just north of New York City: 50,000 “peak early fatalities; 167,000 “peak early injuries;” 14,000 “peak cancer deaths;” and $314 billion in “scaled costs” of property damage in, it noted, “1980 dollars.”

As to likelihood, in 1985 there was a formal written exchange between U.S. Congressman Edward Markey’s House Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations and the NRC in which the panel asked: “What does the commission and NRC staff believe the likelihood of a severe core melt accident to be in the next twenty years for those reactors now operating and those expected to operate during that time?”

The NRC response: “In a population of 100 reactors operating over a period of 20 years, the crude cumulative probability of such an accident would be 45%.” But then it went on that this might be off by “a factor of about 10 above and below.” Thus, the chances of a meltdown during a 20-year period among 100 U.S. nuclear plant plants (there are 104 today) would be about 50-50.

These are not good odds for disaster.

Steven Starr, a board member of Physicians for Social Responsibility, speaks further of the “fatal and deadly flaw” of nuclear power “that cannot be remedied by any technological fix or redesign. Nuclear power plants manufacture poisons thousands and millions of times more deadly to life than any other industrial process, and some of these poisons last for hundreds of millennia, and thus have great potential to become ubiquitous in the global environment.” And the “clear evidence” is that it is “beyond the means of the nuclear industry to keep these poisons contained during even the average lifespan of a nuclear reactor. It is beyond belief that anyone can promise that we can contain them for tens or hundreds of thousands of years.”

The current issue of Popular Mechanics features an article “Why Titanic Still Matters” by Jim Meigs, the magazine’s editor and chief, which states: “In one respect, little has changed. As the recent loss of the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia demonstrates, bad decision making can overcome even robust engineering. Virtually all man-made disasters—including the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, the space shuttle Challenger explosion, and the BP oil spill—can  be traced to the same human failings that doomed Titanic. After 100 years, we must still remember—and, too often, relearn—the grim lessons of that night.”

Indeed, human error is a big part of what can go wrong at a nuclear power plant. However, even without human error, nuclear power is fraught with the potential for immense catastrophe. A mechanical malfunction simple or complex, an earthquake, a tornado, a tsunami, a hurricane, a flood, a terrorist attack, these and other threats can result in catastrophe. Nuclear power plants and the process of atomic fission in them are inherently dangerous—at a scale of technological disaster that is unparalleled.

Some 1,500 souls were lost with the Titanic. For a nuclear plant accident, it is anticipated that tens of thousands could die—and the most recent estimates by independent scientists is that a million have died as a result of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. It is expected that even more will perish as a result of the six-nuclear plant Fukushima catastrophe.

And it’s not a ship sinking to the bottom of the sea but a part of the Earth rendered uninhabitable for millennia—as a huge area around Chernobyl has been, and now a large area around Fukushima will be. They become “sacrifice zones.”

And what for? In 1912 there was no other way to cross an ocean than on a ship—there were no airplanes flying passengers from continent to continent. But now there are numerous and truly safe, clean energy technologies available that render nuclear power totally unnecessary. Thus, we can avoid sinking with the atomic Titanics which the nuclear power promoters insist we board.

Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College of New York, is the author of the book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space’s Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet (Common Courage Press) and wrote and presented the TV program Nukes In Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens (www.envirovideo.com). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press.