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Sputtering Spurious Pseudo-Science from Pandora’s Dying Embers

Last Gasps of the Nuclear Evangelists

by LINDA PENTZ GUNTER

Pandora’s Promise, the pro-nuclear propaganda film whose billionaire backers ensured a prolonged distribution campaign, is finally fading from view. Its ignominious dispatch was helped along by the recent pronouncement by World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim, that nuclear energy would have no part in the bank’s goal to bring electricity to all people by 2030. Not only did the bank reject nuclear energy due to its security risks, it also preferred renewables from an economic standpoint. “We will show investors that sustainable energy is an opportunity they cannot afford to miss,” Kim said.

This effectively silenced one of the Pandora promoters’ favorite sound bites: that the developing world needs electricity and that the best and only way to bring it to them is with nuclear energy.

Undaunted, however, one of the Pandora protagonists, Gwyneth Cravens, is still sputtering spurious pseudo-science from the dying embers of this box office flop.

It takes a fiction writer to write fiction about nuclear power, and that is exactly what Cravens, best known as the author of five novels, is doing on oped pages, most recently in the Richmond (VA) Times Dispatch.

Cravens is one of a tiny army of nuclear energy evangelists who deliberately turn a blind eye to the dreadful economics and even worse safety record of nuclear power. But she has penned one flaw-ridden book on nuclear energy, which apparently credentials her as some kind of expert.

We may never know whether Cravens just makes mistakes — albeit really big ones — or deliberately misleads and, if the latter, why?  (Her bank account may offer some clues).  For example, Cravens claims that radiation really isn’t bad for you (unless you’re eating bananas). It’s just like organic food; all “natural!”

The National Academy of Sciences disagrees and holds firm that there is no dose of radiation so low that it can be considered safe.

It is well understood in the medical community that long-term exposure to low doses of radiation causes cancers and other health effects. Medical studies in France and Germany conducted around commercial nuclear power plants and at the French La Hague nuclear reprocessing facility, found elevated cancer rates, most notably leukemia among young children.

Certain radioactive isotopes such as plutonium and cesium-137 are man-made in the fission process in a nuclear reactor and do not exist in nature.

But it is also important to understand the differences between these and cosmic radiation, and between external and internal radiation exposures, which Cravens deliberately confounds. So let’s get to the banana red herring:

The tiny radiation exposure due to eating a banana lasts only for a few hours after ingestion, the time it takes for the normal potassium content of the body to be regulated by the kidneys. The body’s level of potassium-40 doesn’t increase after eating a banana. The body just gets rid of some excess potassium-40.

This is of infinitely less significance than internal exposure to cesium-137 or strontium-90, for example, that lodge in muscle and bone respectively, and irradiate a person from within. The releases of cesium, strontium and plutonium from the stricken Fukushima reactors are a threat not only to the health of currently exposed populations, but potentially to their progeny, since internal radiation exposures can cause mutations in DNA, including in genes.

Cravens loves the “no one died at TMI” refrain even though she cannot possibly prove that the 1979 Three Mile Island reactor accident caused not a single death. It is far more probable that some of those exposed to the radiation releases during the accident did suffer fatal cancers they would otherwise not have contracted. The long latency period after exposure can last decades making precise estimates harder.

Nuclear workers, including those who died mining uranium, (in the U.S., mostly Native Americans,) are simply left out of Cravens’ calculations. The hundreds of thousands killed or harmed by the nuclear power fuel chain in other countries, as well as by the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters, do not merit a mention. Their numbers would muddy her whitewash.

Climate change cannot be addressed with nuclear energy for two fundamental reasons that the pro-nuclear propagandists studiously avoid mentioning: nuclear power plants take too long to build and they are too expensive.

As a study by scientists at MIT noted, a new reactor would have to be built somewhere in the world every two weeks for 30 years just to make a minimal reduction in carbon emissions.

Current per-unit construction estimates range from $12 billion to $20 billion. These numbers do not include the costs of operation, decommissioning or waste management.

Nuclear power is so financially risky that Wall Street, corporate boardrooms and the insurance industry won’t touch it.

Fortunately, alternatives like wind, geothermal and solar energy combined with energy efficiency are readily available; quick to bring on line; not subject to catastrophic accident; and, as Germany is demonstrating, can gradually replace nuclear and fossil fuels in time to help mitigate climate change. There is no such blueprint for nuclear energy which continues its global decline.

Cravens claims she embraced nuclear by opening her eyes to science. In reality, she ignored science and kept on doing what she does best: writing fiction.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear. She also serves as director of media and development.