Well, as was obvious almost immediately, the nuclear power lobby and their supporters went into overdrive to downplay and obfuscate the seriousness of the Fukushima crisis in Japan. No, this isn’t another Chernobyl. And World War Two wasn’t the same as World War One, that doesn’t mean World War Two was no big deal either. I’ve even read commentaries claiming Fukushima “proves” that nuclear power is safe. My jaw drops on that one, the Fukushima crisis isn’t over yet, so how the hell does this prove nuclear power is safe? Until the plant is safely brought back under control, and that may take up to a year, it’s a little premature to claim that this crisis is even over, let alone claim that Fukushima is no big deal.
The biggest lie I see about nuclear accidents is ones revolving around the death toll. By focusing entirely or almost entirely on how many people died, it’s easy to make nuclear power look safe compared to say coal power. There are two things horribly deceptive about this argument. For one thing it relies on the lowest possible estimates for deaths caused by nuclear accidents, often even limiting it to the people directly killed on site! It’s debatable how many people were killed by Chernobyl, maybe a few thousand, maybe many more, but focusing on this single statistic obscures the bigger picture. What about the people who got cancer but didn’t die? What about the hundred thousand people who were rendered homeless by Chernobyl? What about the area the size of Rhode Island (or Lancashire) that was rendered uninhabitable by Chernobyl? And what about the incredible cost of accidents like Fukushima or Chernobyl? Can a fire at a coal power plant bankrupt a nation?
And speaking of coal power plants, the claim is often made that we have a choice between coal power plants and nuclear power plants. To say this is oversimplification would be unfair, this is simply regurgitated energy industry propaganda. The energy industry has done a fabulous job convincing people that the only way to provide power in the modern world is giant power plants and their attendant giant electrical grids. Conservation, energy efficiency, distributed power generation, etc. are all simply dismissed as hippie nonsense. If this were really the case, the energy industry wouldn’t need tireless propaganda for their cause, and more importantly, it completely obscures the massive public subsidies that the energy industry has enjoyed for decades. From the Rural Electrification Act to the development of nuclear power itself the energy industry has enjoyed generous public subsidies. Not to mention that the health costs of both coal and nuclear power are simply dumped on the public. Anyone who says coal and nuclear plants and centralized power are the “only option” is missing a big part of the picture.
Then we come to the amazing amount of misinformation spread about radiation itself. Mostly through conflating various types of radiation, and by claiming that “radiation” is normal and that a little bit more won’t hurt. Yes, we live in a world where there is a lot of radiation, it’s unavoidable. What the “it’s all OK” people deliberately ignore or don’t mention is that fallout is not normal. Fallout is radioactive particles that get released into the environment. And yes, the radiation produced by fallout is trivial. What they don’t mention, is that if the fallout gets incorporated into bodily tissue, it is horrifically non-trivial. It’s like if someone was shooting at you with a BB gun, close your eyes and you would be safe. If however they could insert that BB gun inside our body at shoot at point blank range at various organs, the results would not be pretty. This is the difference been the radiation one receives on a plane flight and the radiation one receives by ingesting fallout, same “radiation,” wildly different consequences.
The other way that nuclear industry apologists deliberately understates the risk from fallout is that they make the claim that it’s so widely distributed in the environment that the dose anyone gets is small. While this is sort of true, it completely ignores the way fallout in the environment get concentrated in the food chain. Sure, there’s very little fallout on that grass. Then however the cows eat that grass, and a small amount of radioactive fallout gets concentrated and becomes dangerously radioactive milk or meat. In fact there are all sorts of ways radioactive fallout can get concentrated in the food chain, many of them no doubt as yet unknown. This especially goes with the release of fallout into the sea, this is simply a complete unknown at this point. Don’t worry though, the risk is so small that our government is going to protect us by not even bothering to test for it. Phew, see, no problem.
Which leads to another point. It’s so easy to hide the damage caused by this sort of event. Let’s think about this. Governments and the nuclear industry have incredible incentive to downplay the consequences of Fukushima. Combine this with the fact that the actual risks of this, increased cancer rates in decades to come, are going to be very easy to conceal and obfuscate and deny. Pretty sure any poli-sci freshman can give many reasons why governments lie through their teeth in situations like this. This is just how human institutions work, especially today when the mainstream media is owned lock, stock, and barrel by these very same interests that have reason to lie. Is this proof that they are lying or that the consequences of Fukushima are extremely serious? Of course not, but it’s definitely proof that people need to take government, industry, and media “expert’s” pronouncements of safety with an extremely large dose of salt.
Lastly, a related point that Fukushima illustrates. Nuclear waste. There are decades worth of nuclear waste “stored” at Fukushima, under circumstances that are hardly safe. This is the most toxic waste humans have ever produced, and it’s going to remain dangerous for thousands of years. The fact that the fawning corporate media never even mentions this issue anymore is proof that they are simply shills for big energy and big government. I mean, passing their negative costs onto society is standard procedure for big business, but in this case they are passing the costs on to countless future generations. This should be factored into arguments about how “safe” and “practical” nuclear power is, but instead it simply gets ignored. I’m sorry, but ignoring the nuclear waste issue in the discussion of nuclear power makes about as much sense as ignoring a lump in your breast or testicle in a discussion about your health.
In summary, am I saying that Fukushima is a mind numbing disaster that’s going to kill huge numbers of people and proves that nuclear power is insane? Not at all. I’m saying that Fukushima is a serous disaster of yet untold proportions, and it’s very much proof that the whole issue of nuclear power needs to be publicly debated. And I’m also saying that anyone, government or otherwise, who claims Fukushima is “no big deal” is at best premature in their pronouncement, and at worst simply lying. No one knows the future scope of the Fukushima disaster, especially since the reactors and nuclear waste storage pools won’t be brought under control for months at best. This could still get a lot worse before it gets better. Sadly, I’m betting on worse.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit and its use here in no way interferes with the copyright holder’s commercial use of the image. And yes, I’m kinda skirting the boundaries of copyright law here, but since I’m plugging their show, I hope that in the extremely unlikely event that a CBS corporate copyright attorney sees this blog, they can overlook this copyright violation. At worst, they can tell me to remove the image. Credit and Copyright: CBS. Anyhow, I digress. I chose this image for several reasons, the main one being that it illustrates that the comfortable post World War Two fantasy that most Americans have been living in is rapidly drawing to a close, and Fukushima and its attendant costs and disruptions to the world economy are one of the factors driving this sea change. Wealth can only be funnelled upwards while costs are passed onto the public for so long before the whole rotten edifice collapses of its own weight. And also because it as a really good TV series and I highly recommend it to my readers.)