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Plutonium Pie in the Sky: the Dangerous Delusion of New Nukes

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Fallout as Blowback

As the 5-year anniversary has rolled around it’s clear to all who care to notice that the Fukushima triple meltdown nuclear disaster is still not ‘under control’ – as Prime Minister Abe claimed to the Olympic Committee in his successful bid to host the coming 2020 Games  – but is still on-going, and will be far into the future.

That is to say, radioactive pollution will continue to pour from Dai-ichi into the oceanic, hemispheric and planetary environment with predictably negative, but unknown, effects on the health and DNA of all life forms in the biosphere.

There’s karmic irony here.  The U.S. dropped the first devastating atomic bombs on Japan, then used its political influence and propaganda prowess to sell the country nuclear power.  Its corporations supplied the faulty reactors that melted down at Fukushima.  Now, the U.S. West Coast is on the front line of receiving the radioactive fallout in the form of ongoing oceanic and atmospheric pollution carried eastward by winds and currents.

Faith-Based Nuclear Policy

According to a recent Cornell University study, there have been nuclear reactor 174 accidents worldwide since 1946.  The researchers rate the accidents in 2013 dollars and define an accident as “an unintentional incident or event at a nuclear energy facility that led to either one death (or more) or at least $50,000 in property damage.”

Based on their extensive data, they predict

*a 50% chance that a Fukushima event (or larger) will occur in the next 50 years

*a Chernobyl event (or larger) will occur in the next 27 years

*a TMI event (or larger) will occur in the next 10 years.

According to a Guardian study, a major nuclear accident has happened on average every 5 years since 1952.

Recently, alarmed at the failure of their repeated attempts to go through ‘proper channels,’ seven engineers at America’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) – which then Senator Obama dubbed in 2007 ‘a moribund agency’ – filed a petition as private citizens.

They stated that they have identified a long-undiscovered electrical design flaw common to virtually all U.S. nuclear plants that could prevent cooling and allow meltdowns to occur.  Their petition asks that the NRC mandate that plant operators either fix the problem or shut down the reactors.

Not to mention that twenty-three U.S. reactors share the same design flaws as those that melted down at Fukushima.

The obvious take-home lesson: because of the dependence of their cooling systems on off-site power supplies, every nuclear facility, wherever its geographic location, is vulnerable to grid blackouts from cyber attacks and extreme weather events, and constitutes both a potential terrorist weapon-in-place and danger to the entire planet, and should be treated as such by the ‘international community.’  Yet, a New Nuclear Weapons race and a New Nuclear Power race are both currently in progress.

Joined at the Hip

Nuclear weapons and energy have been joined at the hip from the birth of the Atomic Age.  They both rely on the same essential core technology.  That’s what the ‘Iran Nuclear Deal’ is all about.  That’s why Japan’s current militaristic Abe government being in possession of an estimated 47.8  tons of stock-piled plutonium, with which it could produce 6,000 nuclear weapons, is worrying neighboring countries like China & Japan.

Barak Obama began his presidency with the celebrated April 5, 2009 Prague Speech in which he stated “…clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons….”  In practice Obama has not only re-invigorated nuclear weapons development, but embraced an ‘all of the above’ energy policy including heavy investments in new nuclear reactor construction and design development.

The recipient of an apparently aspirational Nobel Peace Prize, Obama has also committed a projected $1 trillion dollars over the coming decades to upgrading America’s nuclear weapons arsenal.

The program is aimed at smaller (and therefore potentially more usable) weapons, and includes new nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, a new manned bomber for nuclear weapons delivery, and a fleet of new nuclear missile-launching submarines.  Termed – with no apparent sense of irony –‘the life-extension program,’ the plans clearly violate U.S. obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

According to respected U.S. officials like former Defense Secretary William Perry, ex-Secretary of State George Schultz and even Henry Kissinger, this is triggering a new nuclear arms race.  All four are now advocating nuclear weapons abolition.  Perry puts it bluntly, “Today, the danger of a nuclear catastrophe is actually higher than it was during the cold war.”

In the domain of nuclear weaponry’s Siamese twin nuclear energy, there are those opinion-maker neo-nuclear luminaries like James Hansen, James Lovelock, Stewart Brand, Bill Gates and George Monbiot who advocate for nuclear energy as a ‘carbon-free solution to climate change.’  Never mind that – as Stanford scientist Mark Jacobson and his associates, as well as others, have conclusively shown – the entire nuclear fuel chain from mine to waste dump is more carbon intensive than wind and solar put together. Their work shows a transition to renewables is totally possible…without nuclear energy.

Brand and Jacobson debate the issue here.

The Atomic Church of the Last Gasp

New Nuclearists avoid coming to terms with the risks and failures of the existing world fleet of aging, ill-designed reactors.   Some even advocate re-licensing  embrittled reactors from the 1960s to extend their operation decades beyond their 40-year design life.)

NeoNuclearists believe – without operational proof-of-concept – in a pie-in-the-sky, perpetually not-yet-but-soon-to-be-born generation of ‘new, small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs).’  They will consume and eliminate existing nuclear waste and be so ‘inherently safe’ you can bury them in your back yard.  Any day now.

The Obama Administration agrees.  According to Forbes, at last November’s White House Nuclear Summit, the Administration announced actions to help sustain and finance nuclear energy, including:

– $900 million in the Department of Energy’s 2016 budget to support commercial nuclear energy

– Supplement DOE’s existing $12.5 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear energy projects

– Launch the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN), coordinated by the Idaho National Laboratory, to provide outside researchers access to nuclear energy-related capabilities and expertise within the DOE complex. This is needed to bring advanced nuclear reactor designs to commercialization, at the same time ensuring the continued safe, reliable, and economic operation of the existing nuclear fleet

– Make $2 million available in the form of vouchers to small businesses entrepreneur-led start-ups for assistance in obtaining nuclear know-how from our National Lab system

– Provide support to small modular reactor licensing, simulation and control room development for light-water reactors

 

The blind faith with which latter-day nuclear advocates approach the issues of human, ecological and economic risk associated with nuclear technologies, reminds one of the  Melanesian millenarian movement  called ‘cargo cults,’ in which indigenous tribes, following charismatic figures, built wooden aircraft replicas on mountain tops in the vain hopes – despite repeated failures – to lure down the western cargo planes loaded with commodities they saw flying overhead as portrayed in the 1962 film Mondo Cane.

Or, if the definition of ‘insanity’ is: ‘persisting in behavior which consistently fails,’ neo-nuclearism is clearly a form of collective insanity – atomic psychosis.

Recovering from Nuclear Delusion

The facts of the failure of the nuclear dream are there, for any who are not blinded by ideology or self-interest to see: in addition to its history of totalitarianism, incompetence and global disasters, nuclear energy deployment is plagued by public opposition, investor disinterest, consistently mounting cost and schedule over-runs and dependence on contiminating dwindling water supplies.  Energy consultant Amory Lovins sees nuclear energy “dying a slow death from an overdose of market forces.”  Futurist Jeremy Rifkin agrees, “From a business perspective, its dead.”  Expert witness and nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen puts it succinctly,  “nuclear energy is just too expensive and too slow to have an impact on climate change.”

Then there’s the energy-weapons-waste connection, the real ‘nuclear triad.’  Not only are nuclear energy and weapons production joined at the hip from birth, but they share a dysfunctional excretory system.

Waste Storage From Here to Eternity

According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, by the middle of 2015, 30 countries worldwide were operating 438 nuclear reactors for electricity generation and 67 new nuclear plants were under construction in 15 countries.

An Australian study estimates there are 390,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste in the world, and nearly 10 million cubic meters of intermediate-level waste — all of it produced from nuclear power generation.  That amount is growing by approximately 10,000 tons annually.

Tons of waste are produced at every stage of the nuclear fuel chain, from uranium mining and enrichment, to reactor operation and the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel.

Despite over seven decades of trying, no proven location or method of keeping the waste isolated from the environment has yet been found.

In addition to thousands of tons of lethal irradiated fuel rods, the inevitable decommissioning of the aging world reactor sites will mean trying to dispose of huge amounts of radioactive metal pipes, concrete and buildings.  Thus intense radioactive waste made in production of electricity for 70 years will require monitoring and protection wherever and however it is eventually stored, for hundreds of thousands of years – longer than civilization has yet existed.

The 20th century ‘nuclear dream’ of global full-spectrum dominance and energy too cheap to meter has become a 21st century nightmare.  It is time to wake up.  As retired top U.S. energy administrator S. David Freeman puts it, “We have to kill nuclear power before it kills us.”

NeoNuclearists are entitled to their own opinions…but not to their own facts.

More articles by:

James Heddle is a filmmaker and writer who co-directs EON – the Ecological Options Network with Mary Beth Brangan.  Their forthcoming documentary SHUTDOWN: The California-Fukushima Connection Pt. ! – The Case of San Onofre is now in post-production.  He can be reached at jamesmheddle@gmail.com

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