Atoms for Peace

I hadn’t intended to post more than one or two entries per month here, but stuff keeps coming over the transom. Bear with me. This is a first look at the embrace of nuclear by environmentalists and climate scientists.

Back in November I sent my wife Andrea Carney yet another TED Talk. By chance I would catch parts of these talks on public radio during my drive home from meetings. If something interested me I’d pull up the talk on YouTube. Michael Shellenberger’s topic, “Why I changed my mind about nuclear power,” struck me because I’d recently tracked down a hazily-remembered segment regarding nuclear power from years ago on Democracy Now! that featured columnist and environmentalist (and near-vegan) George Monbiot (I kept spelling his name wrong).1 And I’d forgotten it was a debate—with anti-nuclear (weapons and power) champion Helen Caldicott, who was considered a 20th century hero.

In his March 30, 2011 debate with Caldicott, Monbiot expressed sympathy for the people of Fukushima, who had experienced an earthquake-caused tsunami as well as the ensuing nuclear power plant failure. But he hoped the disaster wouldn’t cause a global retreat from nuclear and a return to coal.

In China alone, last year, 2,300 people were killed in industrial accidents to do with coal mining; purely by coal mining accidents, 2,300 killed. That’s six people a day. That means that in one week, the official death toll from coal in China is greater than the official death toll from Chernobyl in 25 years.

So I pricked up my ears when I heard self-described “atomic humanist” Michael Shellenberger, in his TED Talk, echoing Monbiot’s line. Happily having been raised by Mennonite hippies, Shellenberger explains the evolution of his thinking.

Last November when I sent the talk to Andrea, she and I had a brief discussion about the proposition that nuclear power—written off as too expensive by U.S. naysayers—could be a better buffer in climate mitigation. Andrea wasn’t buying it. I’m more open, but I was bugged by Monbiot’s complete sidestepping of Caldicott’s question about nuclear waste. Shellenberger discusses it by saying that nuclear waste is the only energy byproduct that is “safely contained.” And I remember talking with a “cousin” at a surname organization gathering who told me about how nuclear material had the capacity to be more efficiently harnessed; a comment on the Shellenberger talk transcript calls it “recycling.”

While cleaning up my ever-replenished mound of personal recyclables last week I came across an MIT News item from March 8 this year that Andrea had printed for me, obviously remembering our conversation from four months before. “Chernobyl: How bad was it?” looks at a new book, Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future, by Kate Brown, a historian at the same school. According to the article, Brown looked at Soviet documents that demonstrate a typical minimization of disasterdly outcomes. (Recall Christine Todd Whitman telling New Yorkers the air was safe to breathe after 9/11.)

Brown points to “hundreds of thousands” of deaths from Chernobyl, according to the book’s review by—you guessed it—Michael Shellenberger. It’s a bit of a fudge, however, because in the MIT piece Brown doesn’t even reach 200,000; her statistic of of 150,000 (from “some scientists”) is for Ukraine, having obtained no numbers for Belarus or western Russia. Whatever the stat, Shellenberger savages it and much more in his review. But he’s not writing this in, say, Mother Jones; he regularly writes for Forbes. And he has a business to promote as well—Environmental Progress—which in turn promotes nuclear. After that review of Brown’s book, this month Shellenberger spilled his spleen again on Chernobyl—the miniseries. It’s almost comical the comebacks he has to the HBO serial’s sensationalization of a subject that was simply too dull—a nurse’s hand turning red after touching a first responder being the most absurd example.

Two days before his review of Brown’s book (perhaps to have something handy to point to) Shellenberger posted “It Sounds Crazy, But Fukushima, Chernobyl, And Three Mile Island Show Why Nuclear Is Inherently Safe.” The title speaks for itself.

I ❤️ Bomb

In my very limited look at this I ran into the pro-nuclear power/anti-nuclear weapons dichotomy. But one can’t necessarily apply that to Shellenberger.

World Information Service on Energy (WISE), an anti-nuclear power enterprise formed in 1978 and based in Amsterdam, tars Shellenberger with the power/bomb connection; see, e.g., “Nuclear lobbyist Michael Shellenberger learns to love the bomb, goes down a rabbit hole.” A search on the WISE website for Shellenberger returns results that include phrases like “misinformation,” “almost Trumpian in its incoherence,” “totally outdated,” and “shilling.”

But it’s no secret. Via “It Sounds Crazy…” Shellenberger drops a bomb about the survivability of a World War II-era bomb drop.

Even relatively high doses of radiation cause far less harm than most people think. Careful, large, and long-term studies of survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki offer compelling demonstration. [reference in original]

Cancer rates were just 10 percent higher among atomic blast survivors, most of whom never got cancer.

And another, from his critique of HBO’s Chernobyl:

As for our exaggerated fears of nuclear weapons, the last 74 years have been the most peaceful of the last 700. As the bomb has spread, deaths from wars and battles have declined by 95%.

Shellenberger is talking about deterrence, but the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff have chimed in with the cheery conviction that use of nuclear weapons “could create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability,” according to a June 11 document The Guardian points to, which Andrea printed for me today.2 The price tag for our safety: $9.3 trillion, in present-day dollars, between 1940 and 1996 in the U.S. alone.3

Nuclear Weapons pie chart image
Estimated Minimum Incurred Costs of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Programs, 1940–1996. This pie chart from the Brookings Instutution’s 1998 report is comprehensive, assigning a $2.1 billion cost to Victims of the Bomb in 1996 dollars.

Quibbling re Quietus

Aside from the implications discussed above, what I find disturbing as I read all of this is the casual casualty talk. It reminds me of when the Los Angeles light rail was being constructed in the Highland Park neighborhood. As I recall, the initial decision about whether or not to install crossing gates was based on balancing the cost of the gate and its maintenance against the cost of any deaths.

Disturbed or not, I asked Andrea if she could find documentation of nuclear power disaster deaths that contradicted Shellenberger’s own. In what Andrea gave me, only two articles stand out, both from Newsweek.

The recent article this month, regarding the effects of Chernobyl, closes with estimates of 4,000 to 9,000 eventual but speculative deaths (Chernobyl Forum) to an eventual 27,000 (Union of Concerned Scientists) to 200,000+ dead already (Greenpeace). (Of course, both Greenpeace and Shellenberger’s firm are advocacy enterprises, and so maximizing and minimizing, respectively, are in their interests.)

No actual statistics appear in last month’s article, which revisits Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s 1997 Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (originally titled Chernobyl Prayer). But in the same breath as Belarus’s “soaring mortality rates” the article mentions “depopulation.”

“We didn’t just lose a town, we lost our whole lives,” Nikolai Kalugin told Alexievich, who describes fleeing his home on the third day after the explosion.

Depopulation is a concern of Shellenberger’s, voiced in his “It Sounds Crazy…” where he declares that the evacuation of Fukushima was unnecessary and “witnessing the ridiculous and expensive bull-dozing of the region’s fertile topsoil into green plastic bags” caused him to lose his cool. But cool he is when discussing Japanese survivors of two of the signal depopulations of the 20th century.

Splitting Atoms, Splitting Hairs

As I admitted above this is a limited look at a contentious topic. And for us in the United States it’s essentially a moot one as well. In the fall of 2013, four prominent climate scientists, including James Hansen, issued a statement in support of nuclear power. The letter was posted at the New York Times by Andrew Revkin, and it received a reply by scientist and policy analyst Vaclav Smil, who points out that nuclear power essentially is dead in much of world—exceptions being China, Russia, India, Iran, and North Korea. Iran’s nuclear program had its genesis in 1957 after the 1953 coup; it was a component of the U.S. Atoms for Peace program.4

Header image: incomplete
cooling tower by Ken Fager

(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

  1. Monbiot among others debunked the “desert into meadow” notion contained in the TED Talk I wrote of in my last post.
  2. The document, Nuclear Operations, was posted on the Pentagon website only to be quickly removed; it was downloaded by Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists.
  3. The present-day figure of $9.3 trillion is extrapolated from the $5,821.0 billion figure published by the Brookings Institution in its Atomic Audit report of August 1998.
  4. See “Sixty Years of ‘Atoms for Peace’ and Iran’s Nuclear Program,” again at the Brookings Institution.

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