We’re Rational, You’re Emotional 2

‘We’re Rational, You’re Emotional’,
And Other Common Myths of the Nuclearists. Part 2

Nukes are less dangerous than a CT-scan

One of the favourite nuclearist arguments is that even after nuclear meltdowns like at Chernobyl or Fukushima very few people will die at once and most people not directly at the plant will be receiving only very low doses of radiation that pose no significant health risks. Monbiot mentions that this is what convinced him of the charms of nuclear power during the Fukushima meltdown. These assertions are supposedly based on ‘scientific evidence’. In fact, they are based on very unscientific avoidances or manipulations of the science. This science can be usefully summarized as (a) the ‘no safe threshold’ hypothesis, (b) radioisotope incorporation, (c) bio-accumulation. Let’s first look at the first two.

That there is no threshold below which exposure to radiation is safe is the one element of scientific consensus that pro- and anti-nuclearists now share. The former have now been obliged to concede this. In the words of the US National Academy of Sciences 2006 BEIR Report VII Phase 2: “the committee concludes that the current scientific evidence is consistent with the hypothesis that there is a linear, no-threshold dose-response relationship between exposure to ionizing radiation and the development of cancer in humans.”

A common manipulation that the nuclear industry and governments often indulge in during meltdowns is the emphasis placed on exposure to direct, external gamma radiation (measured with Geiger counters and expressed in sieverts) and the downplaying of the internal radiation received through the incorporation of radioisotopes like iodine, caesium, strontium, plutonium (measured in becquerels) via food and drink. The focus on the former allows soothing comparisons to be made to gamma radiation received voluntarily in X-rays, CT-scans or long distance flights. In actual fact, this external focus is of great significance for the safety of the directly exposed workers but of smaller relevance for the populations of the region, country and beyond. For the latter, the main exposure to radioactive contamination will be via the food and drink they ingest. In contrast even to X-rays or CT scans, incorporated radioisotopes emit their radiation right beside or within the cells and thus cause the DNA damage that may lead to serious illnesses and defects down the track.

Finally, the issue of bio-accumulation.

Don’t Worry It Will All Disperse

The engineering mindset that rules the world and governmental ‘regulation’, loves dispersal theory. The theory is that all sorts of toxic waste products that industry emits from stacks and pipes will form plumes that will soon disperse in the atmosphere or water bodies. The reassuring verb ‘disperse’ is here intended to mean: break up into smaller and smaller particles until there is as good as nothing left and the problem is solved. All plumes, including radioactive ones, become the proverbial drops in oceans and the toxics or radioisotopes are magically ‘disappeared’. Abracadabra.

This is voodoo thinking, an unscientific lie. It is unscientific because it acts as if nature consisted only of physical media like air and water. It ignores living organisms and the elementary ecological fact of bio-accumulation. Obviously plants and animals feed on each other and as they do so up the food chains they, like living vacuum cleaners, increasingly concentrate the microscopic substances that have been incorporated by their food sources. Radioisotopes in grass accumulate in the cow’s meat and milk, those in plankton will concentrate in small fish and even more in bigger fish. The result is that a top-end predator ‒and that includes humans like babies at breasts ‒ will be incorporating thousands or millions of times more radioisotopes than were contained at the bottom of the food chain in plants or water. Nothing really ‘disperses’.

Coal Is Worse

Ah yes, the Green nuclearists wearily sigh, nobody is saying nuclear power is not without its problems, but look at climate change, coal is even worse. Unfortunately, this seems a rather emotional and illogical argument to be made by the valiant defenders of calm and pragmatic Reason against the anti-nuclear emotionalists. Need one point out that two wrongs do not make a right, or that jumping from the frying pan into the fire is not exactly the most rational of actions? To say that climate change will kill many more people than nuclear power ever will seems almost on a par with a statement like ‘Hitler killed less people than Stalin, let’s go with Hitler’. What we will have if nuclearists win out will be both the ecocide of runaway climate chaos and a nuclear wasteland to boot. Nuclearists seem incapable of even imagining a world run neither with fossil fuels nor nuclear energy but with renewables and living at much lower levels of production, consumption and waste.

Look Ma, No Carbon Dioxide (And Ignore the Nuclear Cycle)

Finally, the last number in the nuclearists’ little bag of rhetorical tricks: compartmentalisation. Let’s just look at that nuclear plant to the exclusion of everything else. See how it emits almost no carbon dioxide, isn’t that great? So it must be the solution to the climate change problem, right? Wrong.

Part of the anti-nuclear answer to that has already been dealt with above: two wrongs do not make a right, i.e. the ethically outrageous position of ‘let’s add radioactive emissions to coal’s CO2 and toxics for a real humdinger of a contaminated planet’. The multifarious disease effects of radioactivity emitted all through the whole nuclear cycle from uranium mining through fuel production and enrichment to the power plants themselves (even without catastrophic meltdowns) and eventual ‘disposal’ of both old plants and highly radioactive wastes over hundreds or thousands of years – all these are distracted from when nuclearists focus only on single power plants and their carbon emissions.

Even the latter are not totalled correctly. It is certain that the whole nuclear cycle is, like any large-scale, hi-tech project (including renewables), at every stage highly dependent on large inputs of fossil fuel energy and thus also responsible for considerable carbon emissions in absolute terms. It is important to remember that the planet only cares about absolute amounts emitted, nothing else. In socially relative terms, a single nuclear power plant of course compares extremely favourably to a coal- or gas-fired plant in terms of carbon emissions. However, no one has done a study of the total carbon emissions produced over the whole nuclear cycle including plant decommissioning and waste storage over hundreds of years. The amounts would again be immense. Nuclear power cannot avert climate chaos (for other reasons as well that we need not go into here).

In sum, nuclear power is an extremist technology. No other technology outside its parent nuclear weapons has such a capacity to wreak extreme devastation on people and planet. Monbiot has now joined the Green extremists Lovelock, Porrit, Brand, Flannery et al. I think it is fairly safe to predict that he will, like them, soon receive titles and honours from the powers that be. Arise, Sir George.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on April 7, 2011.

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