Michael Shellenberger, the director of Environmental Progress, recently gave a talk at Cal Poly titled How Fear of Nuclear Ends. As usual, Michael did a terrific job of presenting the talk and provides excellent graphics in support of his primary discussion points.
There is, not surprisingly, more to the story he told. After all, he was trying to condense 50 years of history into a 22 minute talk. That is an incredible challenge; his success in achieving it should be applauded.
Though Michael’s suggestions for driving forces that might end nuclear fear are going to be contributors, there might be other ways to encourage the kind of paradigm-changing consideration that many decision makers, a phrase that should include all voters in a democratic republic like the U.S., will have to undertake.
It’s my contention that some people might be persuaded when they discover that there never was any reason to be afraid of the kind of radiation doses that they might receive from nuclear energy use, even in the case of a severe accident at large scale power plants or in the case of being far enough away from a “dirty bomb” that they don’t get injured by the blast itself.
Because of the unavoidable physical characteristics that radioactive material is finite and its decay cannot be accelerated, material dispersion inevitably reduces the potential dose rate if that material is released to the environment. Sound engineering principles like “defense in depth” and multi-layer boundaries do an excellent job of limiting the amount of radioactive material that could ever be released for dispersal in the first place.
Even when “the worst realistic case” assumptions are made, the vast majority of people who are outside of the immediate area of a nuclear power plant cannot be exposed to a dangerous dose.
For reasons that have been discussed in great detail in posts in the categories of “health effects” and “LNT” a small, identifiable group of financially motivated scientists and promoters decided that they would teach the world that every dose of radiation, down to a single gamma ray, had the potential for initiating genetic mutations and thus could cause cancer. That is akin to saying that every glass of water could end up in human lungs and causing a drowning fatality or that breathing in an oxygen laden atmosphere might lead to a mutation caused by reactive oxygen species.
The people who invented that myth were very clever propagandists. They described scary effects that were hard to disprove. Genetic mutations and cancer induction are silent, undetectable defects that do not manifest for many years or even several generations. The propaganda tool used was scientific uncertainty; that allowed the kind of people who like to sit around and discuss wild theories to invent convoluted propositions based on purely hypothetical damage using accepted mathematics.
When science is uncertain, it is possible to hire almost any opinion wanted from people with a long list of impressive sounding degrees or other credentials. This technique of emphasizing uncertainty with regard to radiation health effects is similar to the technique of emphasizing geologic uncertainty in earthquake predictions.
Aside: There is another similarity in financial motives. The Rockefeller Foundation funded geneticists created doubts and uncertainty about health effects while using money from people interested in selling hydrocarbon fuel. A substantial segment of the geology profession and the activities of the Department of the Interior, the home of the Geological Survey, are directly involved with the ongoing search for hydrocarbon deposits and ways to profitably extract those natural resources. There are plenty of geology experts with financial motives for discouraging competition from uranium that would reduce demand for their services. End Aside.
During his talk Micheal pointed out how California had been the birthplace of the antinuclear movement. He described how groups like the Sierra Club and individuals like David Pesonen and David Brower had decided to fight nuclear energy with all of the tools they could find, including dirty tricks like linking nuclear power plants to bombs, spreading fear of contamination linked to the fallout issue from weapons testing and portraying the normal planning and political ground work process that precedes major projects that involve huge investment decisions as “corruption”.
Micheal didn’t mention that funding for the activists was often provided by individuals who had major financial interests in stopping nuclear energy from competing with their fossil fuels.
For example, Friends of the Earth, the group that Brower founded in 1969 after his decision to resign from the Sierra Club over its acceptance of Diablo Canyon, received its seed funding of $200,000 from Robert Anderson, the CEO of Atlantic Richfield, a major California-based petroleum company. That group’s initial campaigns were specifically aimed at spreading fear of nuclear energy and shutting down selected nuclear power plant projects.
To Michael’s list of influences that might end nuclear fear, I recommend adding the righteous anger that people will feel once they figure out that they’ve been sold a bill of goods about the potential dangers of nuclear energy and its associated — well contained and monitored — radioactive materials.
Extra viewing pleasure – David Pesonen reflects on the Battle of Bodega Bay.