Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Atomic Energy: Unsafe in the Real World

Nuclear power requires “perfection” and “no acts of God,” we were warned years ago. This has been brought home by the ongoing disaster caused by the earthquake and tsunami that struck the Fukushimi Daiichi nuclear plant complex, the flooding along the Missouri River in Nebraska now threatening two nuclear plants, and the wildfire laying siege to Los Alamos National Laboratory, the birthplace of atomic energy.

Earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, fire—these and other disasters will inevitably occur. Add nuclear power with its potential to release massive amounts of deadly radioactive poisons when impacted by such a disaster, and it is clear that atomic energy is incompatible with the real world.

There’s no perfection in human beings or in technology. Accidents will happen. And there will always be natural disasters—we can’t eliminate them. But we can—and must—eliminate atomic energy.

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Dr. Hannes Alfven explained in 1972 in declaring his strong opposition to nuclear power: “Fission energy is safe only if a number of critical devices work as they should, if a number of people in key positions follow all their instructions, if there is no sabotage, no hijacking of the transports, if no reactor processing plant or reprocessing plant or repository anywhere in the world is situated in a region of riots or guerilla activity, and no revolution or war—even a ‘conventional one’—takes place in those regions. The enormous quantities of extremely dangerous material must not get into the hands of ignorant people or desperados. No acts of God can be permitted.” Dr. Alfven was writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

“Nuclear power is an unforgiving technology. It allows no room for error,” wrote Carl J. Hocevar of the Union of Concerned Scientists in 1975. Hocevar had earlier been an engineer working on reactor safety at Idaho National Engineering Laboratory. “Perfection must be achieved if accidents that affect the general public are to be prevented,” he wrote in his foreword to the book We Almost Lost Detroit. The book is about the partial meltdown at the Fermi 1 nuclear power plant in 1966 that threatened nearby Detroit, one of numerous near-misses and many other accidents involving nuclear power in addition to the disasters at Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986 and now Fukushima.

In We Almost Lost Detroit, Hocevar described the blind faith of scientists in atomic energy and their wrong assumptions. “The scientists involved were most confident that they had covered all possible problem areas. They had built safeguards on top of safeguards. Yet in spite of the precautions in the design and construction of the Fermi reactor, and in spite of the reassurances by the scientists that a serious accident could not happen, one did occur. The results far exceeded the expectations of anyone involved with the project. Fortunately, at the time of the accident, the reactor was operating at a very low power level or the consequences could have been much worse.”

“The Fermi accident and others described in this book demonstrate the fact that no matter how much diligence is exercised in the design, construction, and operation of a nuclear reactor, things can and do go wrong,” Hocevar related. “Design errors occur, the unexpected happens, human error is a very real possibility.”

Still, “for many years, the [nuclear] industry vigorously defended the nuclear power
program as being essentially risk-free. Nuclear power was claimed to be perfectly safe. It was said that no serious accidents would ever happen,” he noted. “Such a position was of course necessary to promote the acceptance of nuclear power by the general public. It has not been until just recently that the proponents of nuclear energy have admitted that accidents can and will happen, and the public should prepare itself for such eventualities.”

Wei Zhaofeng, an energy official in China, which is now reconsidering its plans for nuclear power because of the Fukushima catastrophe, said recently: “We have to ensure 100 percent safety of these nuclear power plants.”

That cannot be. Nuclear power can never be 100 percent safe. And it must be. That is why it should not be. And, instead, we must get rid of it and fully implement the clean, renewable technologies such as solar, wind and others now available which can provide, as major studies in the last several years have shown, all the energy we need—and are safe.

As physicist Amory Lovins, chairman and chief scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute, recently wrote: “Nuclear power is uniquely unforgiving.” It’s “the only energy source where mishap or malice can kill so many people so far away.”

That’s been made evident by the Fukushima disaster, the crisis along the Missouri River in Nebraska and the wildfire at the gates of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

To err is human, it’s realized. Technology fails, it’s comprehended. And we must also understand that atomic energy is unsafe in the real world. It can never be safe. It must be eliminated in favor of energy we can live with.

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