Risky Business

Nuclear Roulette: The Truth about the Most Dangerous Energy Source on Earth
By Gar Smith,
Chelsea Green, 2012, 320 pages

The 1970s was an era of political ferment, especially as a new radical ecological consciousness spread, bringing with it a refusal to believe the “experts” appointed by corporations and the US government. The anti-nuclear movement was a central part of that ferment, a quintessential example of self-education – an appropriation of technical knowledge and debate from behind the closed doors of corporations and the government bureaucrats who served their interests. The 1970s was also the new dawn of wind and solar entrepreneurialism, which has since ebbed and flowed along with the tax breaks and subsidies with which federal and state energy policy whipsaw economic development.

Years passed. book cover thumbnail, showing a reactor cooling tower collapsing in flameThe Reagan period came and went and so did the Cold War. The vision of a nuclear Armageddon that so inflamed people’s imaginations in the early 1980s slowly pushed the campaign against nuclear power to the backburner. Oil wars, climate change, massive desertification, pollution of rivers, coastlines, and aquifers, and the ever-expanding litany of ecological disasters somehow got twisted into a justification for a “nuclear renaissance.” With a big push from privately-owned utilities, the US government and other nuclear powers in the world embarked on a program to subsidize new, supposedly cleaner, safer nuclear power plants. For those of us who lived through the painstaking efforts to alter public opinion during the 1970s and 80s, it was as though someone had waved a wand and all the hard work had been washed away.

Along comes Earth Island Journal founding-editor Gar Smith’s comprehensive and indispensable Nuclear Roulette. If you weren’t around back in the seventies – or if you need a refresher on how nuclear power is perhaps the dumbest technology ever created – this book is a perfect place to start. Despite persistent claims by industry and government flacks to the contrary, nuclear power is demonstrably dangerous, costly, and unreliable. Smith lays down all the facts in this convenient primer that lists 14 key arguments against nuclear power. He also makes an effort to compare the claims of industry propagandists to the reality of what renewable sources and energy conservation can do, economically, ecologically, and socially.

The book is peppered with nuggets of information that will surprise most readers. You probably didn’t know, for instance, that more people have died in accidents at nuclear power plants since 1982 than have died in commercial airline crashes; or that dozens of rusting, corroding, 40-year-old nuclear facilities are being granted 20-year license extensions; or that the Obama administration’s 2011 budget allocated $912 million to nuclear power – more than all the subsidies for geothermal, solar, wind, biomass, and hydrogen energy production combined.

After the Fukushima disaster, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a new “Calculation of Reactor Accident Consequences” and a “State-of-the-Art Reactor Consequences Analysis” in which it declared that the “risks of any public health consequences from a nuclear accident” were likely to be “very small.” Smith points out that the commission also downgraded the long-term risk of anyone dying from cancer due to a nuclear accident to less than one in a billion. This flies in the face of every previous assessment. And it turns out to be another way the Obama Administration is following in the footsteps of George W. Bush. In one his last acts as president, Bush dramatically increased the permissible airborne radiation exposure for Americans. Some new standards, Smith writes, were “seven million times more lax than those in the Safe Drinking Water Act.”

Here’s another nugget: The Bush administration gave utilities the right to sue the government for failing to find a long-term solution for radioactive waste. The utilities piling up spent fuel all over the country are now not only not liable for this waste, they can actually get paid by taxpayers for not dealing with it. Meanwhile, the spent fuel pools in many places are holding up to five times as many rods as they were designed to hold in their deep-water tanks. If any of these were to lose their cooling water supply, the rods could spark fires that could permanently ruin areas much larger than that contaminated by the Fukushima disaster.

There is much more in this compelling book. It is thoroughly documented, clearly written, and sober. While Smith highlights the severity of the situation, he mostly avoids hyperbole and catastrophist rhetoric. Get the book, get informed, and get active. Citizen action stopped this madness years ago, and I’m afraid it’s time to do it again.

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