The world is gripped by the multiple disasters that hit Japan this week. Japan is the most prepared country in the world to cope with earthquakes, thankfully, but the 8.9 magnitude quake generated a massive tsunami that literally flattened and flooded much of the northeast coast. Making things dramatically worse, five reactors at two nuclear power plants have malfunctioned, including a crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in which a building exploded, radiation leaked, and there have been fears of a meltdown and the most recent reports say a meltdown has occurred (H/T cheeriogirl). The world is collectively holding its breath as the crisis continues. Against this background, I want to tell a personal story.
As I mentioned in a comment Friday, a little-known fact about me is that I was one of the 1414 members of the Clamshell Alliance arrested for criminal trespass in 1977 when we occupied the Seabrook, New Hampshire nuclear power plant site. NH Governor Meldrim Thomson jailed us for 14 days at five New Hampshire National Guard armories. His heavy-handed action resulted in worldwide news coverage for the protest and, more importantly, extensive publicity for the anti-nuclear movement and the problems with nuclear power.
photo by Eric Roth
Jailing us was also a huge mistake because it gave us the opportunity to do intensive organizing, building the Alliance’s successful “affinity groups” and strengthening ties with organizations with experience in non-violent resistance. In a way, it was nirvana for the organizers. The two weeks of enforced togetherness allowed us to develop a strategy to strengthen our movement. Eventually, I, along with some other protesters, went on a hunger strike, which helped leverage the release of all the protesters after two weeks, with all charges dropped. For the next several years, the Clamshell Alliance met at least weekly in marathon Wednesday night sessions at the American Friends Service Committee office in Cambridge, developing effective committees and planning further events. I worked on educational programs. I also took part in several other protests at Seabrook in the next few years, as well as massive anti-nuclear protests in Washington in 1979 and New York City in 1982, and an action where we blocked the New York Stock Exchange to publicize the investment side of the nuclear power industry. At the same time, other alliances, like the Abalone Alliance in California and the Shad Alliance in New York, sprang up. The major accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and at Chernobyl in 1986 galvanized public opinion in the U.S. against nuclear power, and the 100 new reactors that were in various stages of planning in the U.S. were cancelled. The second Seabrook reactor was never built; its partially completed structure remains an iconic symbol of the anti-nuclear movement’s impact.
I admit that life moved on and I had kind of forgotten about this era of my own personal history. Although I continue to support several organizations that work on this issue, my own professional work is in a different field, and “life happened.” But this experience suddenly seems so relevant to the events of recent weeks. Of course, the horrific situation in Japan brings worldwide focus, once again, to the inherent risks of nuclear power. But I also find many parallels between the Clamshell Alliance’s work and the protests in Wisconsin and elsewhere, and will perhaps write a post on that on another day (as well as my own opinion of the tactics and other factors that eventually weakened the anti-nuke movement).
But today, I want to focus on WHY I was willing to spend weeks in jail and go on a hunger strike due to my opposition to nuclear power. (I don’t usually do this kind of thing!)
Unfortunately, the biggest reason is all too apparent in Japan today, and my heart goes out to the Japanese people, who have already endured the world’s greatest nuclear tragedy, and now must endure the threat of another.
I am also very aware that the nuclear industry is trying to get back on track in the United States, and this is too important for me to remain quietly on the sidelines. After the success of the anti-nuke movement in shutting down nuclear power expansion in the United States for the past three decades, it has re-emerged. A series of articles (a PR campaign?) over the past several years have set forth the argument that nuclear power should be a big part of our energy future, because, they claim, it is safe and does not produce carbon emissions and is thus preferable to fossil fuels. Even some former opponents now speak glowingly of nuclear power as the solution to our energy needs. President Obama and leading Democrats have expressed some support for the notion of expanding nuclear power. Most importantly, the federal government has provided limits on liability and loan guarantees to stimulate new construction of nuclear reactors. This is necessary because neither the industry nor Wall Street is willing to accept the financial risks of nuclear power; the risks are so high that the industry is not viable without taxpayer subsidies. So, to spur investment, several laws “socialize the risk” of nuclear power and externalize its costs, while maintaining profits in private hands. (There are good articles on this issue here and here.)
What’s not to like about nuclear power? In a nutshell, here are the main reasons why I was then, and am now, opposed to nuclear power. Each one of these subjects would warrant its own post, but for now, I will include some relevant links. This Wikipedia piece gives an overview of the safety issues.
1) The health and environmental risks of exposure to radioactivity are severe and endanger both current and future generations. Radioactive substances are carcinogenic (cancer-causing), mutagenic (cause genetic mutations) and teratogenic (affect fetal development). The risks are not only to humans, but also to the environment, where some radioactivity can persist far beyond any timeframe that is subject to human management. Uranium-235 (enriched, weapons grade) has a half-life of 700 million years. Plutonium (Pu-239, half-life 24,800 years) is not only radioactive but also highly toxic and fissile, making its handling fraught with both health, security and environmental perils.
2) Uranium mining and enrichment have serious human, environmental and economic costs that are not adequately accounted for in evaluating the benefits of nuclear power. Worker exposure has been a serious issue, notably for Native Americans and miners in other countries, such as Niger. Due to the energy used in mining, enrichment, transport, etc., industry claims that nuclear power does not emit carbon are overstated. (However, it is true that CO2 emissions are a fraction of what they are for coal plants). The water use and water pollution range from significant to staggering. Many mining sites have been left unremediated after they stopped operations.
3) The security and transport of radioactive materials is susceptible to failures and unacceptable risks. Access to weapons grade uranium, for example, is one of the key points of tension with Iran, and the false claim about Saddam Hussein’s efforts to buy yellowcake uranium were at the heart of the rationale for war against Iraq. In recent years, the spectre of the “dirty bomb” has heightened concern about the security of (or lack thereof) radioactive materials. CNN reported on lax security for enough material to make two dirty bombs. Wikileaks highlighted the lack of security for radioactive materials in Yemen.
4) Even with improved designs and capable engineering, construction and management, reactor safety cannot be 100% assured, and the risks of failure can be catastrophic. This article from the BBC looks at the current situation in Japan, and has some interesting observations about reactor safety, including concerns about the detection of Cesium outside the reactor vessel. (I dispute his claim that no nuclear accident has claimed more than the 1000 lives currently known lost from the earthquake and tsunami; Chernobyl is estimated to have caused at least 4000 deaths.) On this subject, also, I want to comment on the long history of false information and safety problems at many nuclear plants. While engineers may think they are infallible, in truth they are not, nor are operators. They are all fallible, but unfortunately, the implications of their fallibility in the case of a nuclear disaster are too great. Here is an article from The Guardian on Japan nuclear ministers ignoring safety issues. Unfortunately, to err is human.
Here is an article on reactor technology that explains some of the different technologies and improvements that have occurred. And, for balance, here is an article on the Generation IV reactor designs being developed to minimize the risks of nuclear reactors. There are still in the theoretical stage and are not expected to be operational until at least 2030 (if ever).
5) The storage (often on-site) and disposal of nuclear waste continue to be a major problem due to the high level of radioactivity of some waste materials from reactor cores and the long half-life of some of the wastes. Rules that limited the amount of nuclear waste that could be stored on-site were changed because a long-term solution to the problem of nuclear waste disposal has proven elusive. According to the reports I have read, there is a risk of even more severe catastrophe at the Japan reactor due to the inability to keep the spent fuel that is stored on-site properly cooled.
6) There are safer alternatives to meet our energy needs. The first is to save energy through conservation and efficiency. I personally feel that this, along with using solar, wind and other safe sources on a decentralized basis, is the pathway to not only solve our emissions problem, but would be lead to far more security and a more peaceful and prosperous world. I had the privilege of working with Amory Lovins in the mid-1970s (before he was well-known) as he was proposing a “soft path” for our energy future; his vision has withstood the tests of time. Here is a recent article proposing a different energy path; more here.
The nuclear industry would not be viable economically without taxpayer subsidies, such as the Price-Anderson Act, which has shifted liability to the taxpayer instead of the industry. Imagine if those subsidies were spent instead on conservation, solar, wind and other benign sources of energy. In my view, we would have a healthier population, environment and economy, and it would lay the foundation of a lasting peace.