The following article is a pre-publication version. The
Published version can be found at Nikkei Asian Review: ‘Pandora’s Promise’: hope springs infernal
Last week I attended a presentation at the Japan Atomic Industry Forum given by Fuminori Tamba of Fukushima University. Professor Tamba showed the above photograph of a road near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant which was lined with about 130 signs in Russian. There were names on them and some had flowers in memoriam, not for people who had died from that disaster, but for towns which no longer exist as a consequence of emergency evacuations.
Two weeks previously, I attended a private showing at the British Embassy in Tokyo of “Pandora’s Promise”, Robert Stone’s documentary film focusing on the nuclear power debate. Its central argument is that nuclear power is a relatively safe and clean energy source which can mitigate the serious problems of global warming.
The film’s title alludes to the Greek myth of Pandora. Pandora, the first woman, was given as a bride by Zeus to Epimetheus, whose brother, Prometheus, had stolen fire from the gods for the benefit of mankind. Zeus, enraged by the fire theft, had a jar, or box, given to Pandora as a wedding present. He cautioned Pandora never to open the box.
Pandora, in spite of the caution, did indeed open the box and release the demons of evil into the world. Horrified, she shut the box too late: all evil had escaped. Only one thing remained at the bottom of the box, and that was “hope”.
This, then, is Robert Stone’s hope and Pandora’s promise: Having lifted the lid on the box of nuclear energy, and unleashed its demons on Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Bikini Atoll, Three Mile, Chernobyl, and now Fukushima Daiichi, can we now hope to utilize nuclear power generation to combat climate change.
Stone’s film mainly focuses on individuals who were once anti-nuclear power activists and now have had a change of mind. They believed that radiation emissions happen regularly from nuclear power stations; they believed that immediate deaths or fatal exposures from Three Mile, Chernobyl, and Fukushima Daiichi were very high; they believed the use of nuclear power ran contrary to concerns about the environment.
They believed uncritically, without examining the complexity of the situation or questioning their assumptions. They were, in the words of Eric Hoffer, true believers.
When climate change came to the fore of the environmental movement, they considered the CO2 emissions of electricity generated by fossil fuel; they considered the relative ineffectualness of current renewable energy sources to deliver enough electricity to the modern world. And when they finally examined their prior misconceptions about the dangers of radiation, they abandoned the exaggerated fake science of nuclear disasters and embraced nuclear power.
They are still true believers, although what they now believe in has changed. They are still sucking on the tasty teat of confirmation bias.
The real story is not why true opponents of nuclear power converted to true belief in the benefits of nuclear power to combat climate change; the real story is that although there were no immediate radiation fatalities from Fukushima, and probably no measurable ones in the future, is the release of radiation the only way to measure a nuclear disaster?
My answer is clearly “no”. Consequences of a nuclear accident need to be measured more comprehensively and include the intangibles.
My colleague Patrick Momal from IRSN has done a sophisticated study of the economic costs of French nuclear accidents. He writes that the classical consequence approach to nuclear accident costs only consider off-site radiological costs, emergency countermeasures, health (radiological), and food contamination losses. His model considers much more, including psychological, decommissioning, and on-site decontamination costs.
Momal estimates that a Fukushima type accident in France would cost $560 billion, including more than $220 billion in losses from food production, tourism, exports and other national image factors; and $124 billion related to power production. This represents more than 20% of the French GDP and more than 10 years of economic growth.
He further points out that such a blow would “stun the country”, history would remember the catastrophe for decades, and the entirety of Western Europe would be affected. He concludes with an understatement: the low likelihood of such an event may not balance its catastrophic potential. But just adding more parameters to which dollar amounts are assigned in a nuclear accident doesn’t go far enough in assessing its consequences.
Let’s go back to Professor Tamba and his presentation at JAIF about the villages near Fukushima Daiichi.
“There is no community to revitalize,” said Professor Tamba. As a result of the nuclear accident, more than 100,000 people have been evacuated, families have been scattered, and the physical and social infrastructure destroyed. This disaster not only deprived people of their lives and homes. It deprived people of their personal pride and dignity.
Professor Tamaba’s concerns were also stated by a politician from Fukushima at the British Embassy screening. He pointed out that you can’t justify nuclear power by saying “only” a handful of people have ever died from an accident. How about the thousands more displaced from their homes or dying alone in temporary housing units? What of the emotional, economic toll on the villages that hosted the plant for decades? These things are also costs of nuclear power.
The environmentalist concern over the loss of natural habitats because of global warming, but their tacit acceptance of the loss of human communities from a nuclear accident, is disturbing to say the least.
Of course global warming is a real and present danger. And at the moment, we have few energy alternatives with small carbon footprints other than nuclear power to deliver the amount of electricity which the developed countries want and the emerging countries need.
Would it be possible for the nations of the world to unite and start a global project, perhaps modeled after the ITER project (but with a much wider scope of inquiry), to find true, safer, low carbon methods for producing electricity? Could we act to really bring the best and the brightest scientists and engineers together to solve a problem such as global warming? Do we, our governments, and especially private corporations feel the urgency and necessity of doing so? Do we have the will and the vigor? I am afraid not.
Perhaps the vigor I find lacking is the direct result of pressure on both governments and corporations to keep things just as they are for the sake of quarterly earnings or political alliances, thus taking the path of least cost, which may later be paid for with the loss of entire communities.
As Pandora’s Promise points out, the US government’s cancellation of the Integrated Fast Reactor project, potentially a much safer method of nuclear power generation, is one example. Nuclear technology supplier Babcock & Wilcox, pressured by investors and low LNG prices, instituted massive funding cuts for its small modular reactor (SMR), which had been hailed as the next step forward for the nuclear power industry, is another.
So here we are. All technologies have their risks and we have hard questions to answer. What do you care about? How do you want to live? What risks are you willing to accept to live the way you want to live? Do you like the lights of New York, Paris, Shanghai, and Tokyo? Will you give up dependence on coal and oil? Do you want to enjoy the simple pleasures of the countryside? How important is it to insure a sense of community, pride and dignity for those affected by technical disasters?
We are caught in a Faustian bargain: What kind of a deal are you willing to make with technology to have the life you care about?
We must acknowledge how hard it is for us to figure this whole thing out, let alone how we personally feel, because of the complexity of the problem. All of us must be in this together, in a continual conversation, trying to do the right thing.
Dan Epstein contributed to this article