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Commentary :: Environment : Technology
Problems with Nuclear Power highlighted by Gulf Disaster
23 Jun 2010
Nobody’s perfect, and so mistakes do happen. But just as we couldn't conceive of our ongoing oil disaster in The Gulf, perhaps we are equally unable to appreciate the potential for a nuclear power mishap. While optimism is important, it’s sometimes a trap – just ask BP.
Problems with Nuclear Power highlighted by Gulf Disaster
By Ritt Goldstein
Copyright June 2010

Nobody’s perfect, and so mistakes do happen. But while I doubt if any of us could conceive of the tragedy coming with a reported 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil daily entering The Gulf, are we any more capable of conceiving what might come with a nuclear disaster? While optimism is important, it’s sometimes a trap – just ask BP.

Before we are ‘sold’ into a wholehearted embrace of the ‘clean, safe, and reliable’ energy that gave us the Chernobyl Disaster, perhaps we might want to consider why so many of us are so sure ‘the unthinkable’ can never occur…at least until it does.

We humans are an interesting species, our achievements demonstrating that we are capable of virtually incalculable greatness. Unfortunately, our catastrophes - such as that ostensibly ‘one in a million’ chance oil debacle in The Gulf – demonstrate that we have our downsides too. Of course, sometimes even I happen to have that ever so rare occasion when, dare I say it, even I actually make an error; though, I reassure myself that this just means I'm only human. But that’s precisely it - 'human error' can be a problem.

I recently read an opinion piece titled "Recipes for Ruin, in the Gulf or on Wall Street". The author, an academic from the University of Chicago, indeed making a good point about our society’s capability for estimating the capacity we have for grave miscalculation, not to mention its consequences. Pointing to The Gulf Debacle and Wall Street’s financial crisis, he noted our track record for foreseeing disaster could be better.

The Professor seemed to feel that we have been, and yet remain, unduly optimistic. He also noted that "we do not live in an ideal world", and then (simultaneously offering that he felt compelled to utilize a genteel term) strongly observed that "stuff happens". And indeed it does.

Thanks to legislation dating from the Exxon Valdez disaster, we have some recourse to seek damages from those business entities that, for one reason or another, find themselves responsible for adding oil pollution to our already less than pristine environment. But just as our all too human capacity for making mistakes was responsible for 'Exxon Valdez', and certainly appears to have played a role in The Gulf, it also was found to have been a factor in America's best known nuclear accident, 'Three Mile Island'.

Unfortunately, while the cost of a ‘nuclear disaster’ would likely far outstrip the $20 billion BP has put aside, the Price-Anderson Act states that the nuclear industry is responsible for only the first $10 billion in damages, and the US taxpayer the rest. Of course, as pointed out to me recently by several activists, the cost of this ‘unfunded liability’ is never included when people discuss ‘cheap’ nuclear power.

Naturally, driving one’s car without insurance is cheap too, unless and until an accident occurs.
While we got lucky at Three Mile Island, managing to avoid a scenario that could have been far worse, the illusion of infallible nuclear safety systems was temporarily tarnished. Then came Chernobyl, and with it a reminder of our sad capacity for boundless technological optimism, plus the inherent dangers which we, as beings that are 'only human', bring to any equation.

It's estimated that it will be a couple centuries before the countryside in the vicinity of Chernobyl is safe again; though, it's thought that the immediate area of the meltdown will take an estimated 2,000 years before being habitable. The human costs were staggering as well, and though only about thirty died either immediately or not long thereafter, excess cancer cases, birth defects, and a host of radiation induced maladies are yet debated as to their eventual toll. According to a Greenpeace report, “The Chernobyl Catastrophe - Consequences on Human Health”, the number of additional cancer fatalities could approximate 100,000.

Notably, a new work by Eastern European researchers, “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment”, argues for a global death toll (through 2004) of 985,000, and climbing. Equally notable, the International Atomic Energy Agency argues a figure of 4,000 fatalities globally.

Even if we had legislation guaranteeing payment for ‘damages’ in case of nuclear mishap, realistically, how can one put a price tag on the catastrophic suffering, not to mention those parts of America that would be uninhabitable? Perhaps we have been ‘unduly optimistic’, but we’re only human.

I won't mention that our faith in those with the US Minerals Management Service, and their 'faith' in those they were meant to regulate, brought us that huge bowl of 'oil chowder' we had once called The Gulf of Mexico. If there's currently a better example of our all too natural capacity for error, then it escapes me.

I won't cite President Obama's March decision ending the moratorium on offshore drilling just weeks before BP's Gulf Debacle began, but it does show that even those who are smart and capable do make mistakes. However, what concerns me far more is the President's February decision to support the construction of two new nuclear power plants, the first since the 1970's.

While the ongoing Gulf Spill presents an ecological crisis of yet untold proportions, the effects of any substantive 'nuclear spill' would indeed be far worse. But hey, even the best of us 'make mistakes', and given that, maybe the President will realize his position on nuclear power could well prove a huge one.

Though reactor designs today may be far removed from those of Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, the ability for people to simply ‘make mistakes’ remains the same. If there wasn’t such risk yet inherent with nuclear power, then why can’t the Nuclear Industry do without the Price-Anderson Act and simply insure themselves against losses as other energy producers do?

It would be a sad joke upon us indeed if we suffered not only a nuclear catastrophe, but one which we then needed to pay for. Paying for the mistakes of others is certainly a bitter thing, but especially so when the costs of a ‘nuclear mistake’ appear truly beyond measure.

With The Gulf leaving the consequences of human error so fresh in our minds, perhaps now is the time for phasing out nuclear power, not increasing it.

Of course, President Obama has also called for a vast increase in renewable energy, and that does seem a better idea. I sincerely believe the President to be a decent and capable man, it's just that no ones perfect, and so perhaps we must indeed try and avoid our all too human potential for mistakes, especially those that are 'nuclear'.

The damaging effects of radiation can last a lot longer than those of oil. Though some of us certainly claim that today’s nuclear power is ‘clean, safe, and reliable’, of course, wasn’t the same said of today’s deepwater oil exploration?

Ritt Goldstein is an American investigative political journalist living in Sweden. His work has appeared with America’s Christian Science Monitor, Spain’s El Mundo, Sweden’s Aftonbladet, Austria’s Wiener Zeitung, and a number of other media outlets. He is one of few contemporary journalists to have had one of their works read in its entirety upon the floor of Congress.

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