1950s Vanity Tech
In our book published by Palgrave Macmillan, my co-author Martin Cohen (author of Mind Games and Philosophy for Dummies) and myself line up the reasons why we say The Doomsday Machine of nuclear power has grown ever more dangerous.
We explain why and how it spiraled out from early military origins to become an over-rated, dangerous and expensive source of electricity, mostly in the developed countries.
And, now, in its last format it has morphed into a threat to global security, starting with the world’s financial and economic security, and the risks of nuclear proliferation, but also including the biggest, most vast Dirty Bombs imaginable, stationed close to dozens of the world’s major cities.
This bad story has to end one day. It may be soon, it may be later, but as we explain the selling of the atom is big business, relentlessly exploiting all kinds and types of weaknesses in the human psyche. The sales show has to go on, but when the end does come, it can and will be a bad ending.
Nuclear power grew and grew, like the cancers its radiation causes. It leaves behind a terrifying sting in its tail. For more than 60 years, it has been promoted as something for nothing which would deliver electricity so cheap, clean and safe that all other and previous forms of electricity production would be abandoned — possibly with the exception of hydropower, and more recently wind power and solar power. The risks, hazards and real costs of nuclear power were, and still are carefully hidden, talked around, or simply ignored. Ignorance is bliss, but try asking the hundred thousand victims of Fukushima how they feel. Try asking the hundred thousand victims of the Chernobyl catastrophe. Each of these disasters have caused, or will cause $200 or $300 billion of economic damage.
Nuclear power promoters sell the Friendly Atom as man’s best friend — and in some future fantasy version, as our only and last friend when the fossil fuels disappear. Building reactors everywhere is our stepping stone to an all-new energy future, our defense against oil depletion, a key move in countering unreliable foreign suppliers of energy, holding us to ransom with their high-priced oil, gas and coal.
Never mind if these claims have always been exaggerated. Don’t expect truth from promoters of the Friendly Atom. When nuclear power suffers its all-too-regular disasters; when they happen and are so big they can’t be yanked out of the business-friendly media after 48 hours, nuclear promoters go into quiet mode. Not long after, however, the promoters will bounce back touting the same snakeoil, expounding the same patter, the same story — like politicians saying this time things are really going to change for the better. You have to believe. If you are stupid enough.
Swords to Ploughshares and Back Again
WWII made it look or seem that mankind — at least the US, then the Soviets, British, French and Chinese — had mastered the atom. They made terrifyingly powerful bombs, but this also looked like a way to get so much energy from so little fuel that Dwight Eisenhower’s ‘Atoms for Peace’ would mega-shift mankind into a totally new world of almost free energy. What happened was different: the enduring nuclear partnership between industry and big government started shifting huge hidden subsidies from the governments of the then-rich and growing consumer democracie; and the USSR, into building wildly expensive Rube Goldberg (for Brits: Heath Robinson) generators far away on the skyline.
Nicely remote, pumping out electricity that only seems cheap when the figures are distorted the right way, the subsidies are hidden — and frighteningly expensive reactor decommissioning “never happens” because it is so far in the future. In 1955 it seemed that 2012 was centuries ahead.
To be sure, nuclear power’s massively dangerous wastes piled up. These wastes provide all and any nation with nuclear power, and engineering capabilities equal to those of US industry in the early 1940s, when cars were still produced using wood, hand-beaten metal, catgut, and animal varnish, to produce atomic weapons equivalent to the 1940’s Manhattan Project. Just ask the Israelis, Indians, Pakistanis and North Koreans. But much more simply, today’s terror organizations can simply take out and destroy the Dirty Bomb reactors located in enemy nations — anyway and anywhere they want.
In the 1950s and 1960s things seemed different. At the time nuclear power supplied 0% of world energy. It was set to grow and grow for the benefit of all. Today it supplies about 3% of world energy or 14% of world electricity. Is it worth it?
Technological advances have made nuclear plants certainly more expensive and possibly a little less dangerous, but that isn’t the same thing as safe. A worst-case nuclear reactor accident isn’t comparable to anything else — even the devastating Bhopal and Seveso pesticide factory explosions. But it is comparable to a military nuclear strike, because after it thousands of square miles are contaminated for decades with cancer-causing radiation. Everybody knows this. The nuclear industry, its apologists, and its friends in government and the media deny this.
When It Goes Right, It Goes Wrong
When reactors behave right, disposing their nuclear waste remains an insoluble problem. Everybody can check up the long, bad-joke story of the US Yucca Mountains “final repository”, which never happened. It was too expensive. It was abandoned by the Obama administration after decades of playacting and ever rising costs. For nuclear waste there is in fact no solution, so massive amounts of poisonous radioactive debris are piling up, and will go on piling up around us. Technology optimists, to be sure, have a huge wishlist of pet projects to supposedly solve the problem. These always-expensive, never-built “solutions” are used by nuclear promoters to pretend all problems will be solved or controlled. You have to believe.
More unsettling, the financial industry’s most nimble-brained liars — the same who gave us the subprime and sovereign debt crises — have taken up hard-selling the atom. Poor nations with a high risk of civil war and rather unimpressive government oversight (including Nigeria, Indonesia, Bangladesh, the two Sudans, Algeria, Egypt, even Libya of the Gaddafi era) claimed or go on claiming they are jumping on the nuclear bandwagon just as soon as possible. The financing is secure, their Western financial advisers say. It is the only way forward, you know.
Sadly, the global warming and CO2 issue served as a litmus test for the environmental movement, winnowing out a loud and self-important faction saying nuclear power is the only practical way to reduce carbon emissions. Following the Fukushima disaster some have gone quiet, even recanted and denied their love affair with the friendly atom, and shifted back to talking solar energy and wind power. But these alternatives to the atom spin the dials on the finance industry’s cash registers almost as fast as atomic energy snakeoil: offshore windfarms and square miles of solar power plants are the new big ticket, high-priced Energy Vanity Tech of the post-2000 era.
In turn, never missed by nuclear fundamentalists as they tiptoe back in the media to sell their poison, solar and windpower remain hopelessly unable to entirely and efficiently replace our current fossil-based energy sources and systems. Hydroelectric dams often flood valuable land and damage the environment; biofuels convert food crops to diesel fuel and gasoline substitutes, raising food prices and gulping huge quantities of water; nuclear fusion power is pie-in-the-sky.
We are told we must get used to nuclear power because it is the only real alternative to declining and depleting oil supplies, and polluting coal energy whose supplies aren’t so massive as plenty pretend. Even the shale gas boom will only stretch gas supplies a certain time, but this is a new-old story.
Listening to it, we could be anywhere in time, whether the 1956 UK Winscale disaster, the 1979 US Three Mile Island disaster, the 1986 Russian Chernobyl disaster. Nuclear power certainly travels down the ages, and each time a disaster happens we will get those comfort studies on nuclear risks: the famous US Rasmussen report of the 1970s told us the chance of a nuclear accident, like Three Mile Island which happened a few years later, is once every 30,000 reactor years.
When It Goes Wrong — It Goes Badly Wrong
Nuclear power is a permanent disaster. Producing its uranium fuel is an environmental disaster — now tucked and folded over the horizon in mostly-poor countries where miners are paid $5 a day and unprotected against radiation. Building reactors is a financial disaster, always shifted to government subsidies. Waste disposal is both an environmental and economic disaster. When the fateful time comes to decommission the Doomsday Machines, after the easy 10-year life extensions run out, this is another economic disaster. But when a reactor becomes what it really is — the most massive Dirty Bomb you or Bin Laden (radhi Allah anhu) can imagine — the nuclear disaster will be hard to yank out of the media, quicktime, and carry on like nothing ever happened.
It will mark the turning point. As we know, president Sarkozy of France — the most nuclear-intensive country in the world and officially proud of it — was a prime mover in the 2011 regime change war against Muammar Gaddafi. In December 2007 at the Elysees Palace with Gaddafi’s Bedouin tent and Mercedes bulletproof limos outside the palace for the duration, the same president Sarkozy was trying, real hard, to sell Muammar Gaddafi nuclear technology. One Areva power plant, maybe two of them. Unbelievable but true. To be sure we could take some magic mushrooms and dream, along with the nuclear apologists and their financial partners that war is finished. It doesn’t exist anymore. Even civil wars, in Libya and Syria for example, are waged by persons who never, ever would think about targeting their enemy’s nuclear power plants. Although they know that each full-size reactor contains as much radiation as 150 Hiroshima-size bombs, they simply wouldn’t do that. You have to believe.
Outside war (which we know doesn’t exist anymore), the war on our living standards, incomes and buying power will soon go into high gear in the Nuclear Nations, nearly all of them OECD, mature post-industrial democracies trying to get a grip on their sovereign debt disasters. Large-scale decommissioning will have to start soon. In the 12-year period to 2025 several dozen will go into decomm and Safestor and the price will be high — so electricity prices will fly. At the very same time, by a strange process of mass schizophrenia, we are also told we have to make an almost instant Energy Transition away from oil, coal and natural gas, to always-more-expensive renewables, to save us all from Climate Crisis. Along with expensive renewable energy, we can have nuclear power, in the furthest out and most expensive Low Carbon transition plans. All we know is the costs will be out of sight. Truly out of sight.
As our book tries to point out without going viral, the credibility of these energy fear plans and fantasies is so low that we have to ask why anybody takes them seriously, or pretends they take it seriously. What we can be sure of is this: nuclear power is going to be a mover in the needed process of rediscovering and understanding that reality is….real. We can hope the nuclear wake-up call will not be a pure and simple disaster, like the experience for nearly 100,000 Japanese thrown out of their homes, farms, factories and schools, probably forever and at least for decades by the 4-reactor meltdown at Fukushima.
We can sincerely hope it will only be an economic and financial disaster — just one more, to add to the rest, and probably manageable. We can hope.
We can hope, but the clock ticks on. The world’s reactors are aging. The uranium runs out. The wastes pile up. The risks, already high, go on growing. The Doomsday Machine.
Andrew McKillop is an energy markets analyst. He has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has extensive experience in energy policy, project administration, including the development and financing of alternate energy. His book The Doomsday Machine: The High Price of Nuclear Energy, the World’s Most Dangerous Fuel is available for pre-order at Amazon.com, and as a Kindle e-book.
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