When researching the nuclear age one often comes across articles written decades ago that are sobering and humbling reminders that those who went before us understood everything about the dilemmas of nuclear technology and the non-existence of solutions for the problems it poses. These voices of the past remind us that we are merely fighting old battles and defending the rare victories of the past from new attacks. For example, American President Eisenhower’s 1953 “Atoms for Peace” speech at the UN is a famous landmark in the launch of nuclear energy, but amid the fanfare and accolades that followed there was the criticism of the Atomic Energy Commission’s only nuclear physicist, Henry Smyth, who said Atoms for Peace was a “thoroughly dishonest proposal” that ignored the risks of proliferation and exaggerated the potential of nuclear energy. [1] He was not the only one to disagree in the US or in other nations. This battle is still being fought today as the nuclear industry tries to convince global opinion that it can manage proliferation concerns and offer a solution to climate change.

Another fine example of someone from previous generations who thoroughly grasped the problems of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons is the prolific Indian journalist Praful Bidwai, who passed away in June 2015. Princeton University Professor MV Ramana wrote in his tribute the next month in Economic and Political Weekly:

For about four decades, the late Praful Bidwai, who was 66 when he died suddenly last month in Amsterdam, was no stranger to the readers of this journal. He wrote prodigiously on various aspects of nuclear weapons and energy. Even for someone as widely published as Praful, the sheer volume of his output is noteworthy. One could classify his writings into four categories: critiques of nuclear energy, dangers associated with nuclear weapons, nuclear diplomacy (pertaining both to weapons and energy), and chronicles of people’s resistance movements. These are not watertight compartments and many articles might be classified in more than one category; others may not quite fit in any. [2]

This week (late August 2016) Professor Ramana was honouring Mr. Bidwai’s life again in a lecture dedicated to him entitled Nuclear Weapons in South Asia: programmes, plans and dangers. [3] However, the article reprinted below is a blast from the past, an example of Praful Bidwai’s ability to comprehend all the implications of the Chernobyl catastrophe and connect it to fundamental problems in the entire nuclear fuel cycle (in which both “peaceful” and military uses of the atom are rooted) and to the way our society has established an energy paradigm that favours the accumulation of capital rather than one that could benefit the poor and preserve the ecosystem.

800px-Praful_Bidwai

Chernobyl One Year On: Nuclear Power Further Discredited

by Praful Bidwai

Originally published in The Times of India on APRIL 27, 1987

Exactly one year ago, the world learnt to its horror the first crude details of what soon came to be recognized as the worst nuclear accident anywhere. Today, the horror still persists. Indeed, Chernobyl continues to haunt the world. The enormous quantities of radioactive poison released from the Ukrainian power station, which quickly found their way into the air, water and soil of the globe, still remain in them and in all the life-forms that survive on them. Radioactivity cannot be killed, neutralized or reduced. It has to spend itself out, over scores, at times hundreds, of years.

The Chernobyl fallout is today a live issue in Nepal where the government is still fighting a big scare over contaminated milk. In Bangladesh, 4,000 km from Ukraine, the authorities have threatened to send back to Poland 3,000 tonnes of milk powder which Bangladeshi scientists say is contaminated. Country after third world country, from the Philippines to Malaysia to Egypt and Brazil, has already returned milk powder shipments. (India is among the few large importers of European milk powder not to have sent shipments back.)

Europeans Hit

Even worse affected than third world people are Europe’s citizens. The lives of millions of them remain disrupted because the products they grew are too radioactive to be sold because they cannot fish in contaminated lakes or grow grapes, grain and vegetables or raise cattle and game on polluted soil. No single industrial event has produced dislocation on such a massive scale as has Chernobyl.

The fallout is not confined to the biosphere, either. Chernobyl has brought in its wake damaging evidence about the unsafe nature of nuclear power stations, irrespective of the design they use. A German magazine has just published a report quoting documents of the International Atomic Energy Agency which show that there have been no fewer than 250 serious accidents in nuclear power stations all over the world, which the agency has suppressed. The story presents a “horrifying picture” of the malfunctioning of several nuclear power plants… “which could have led to a terrible disaster of a magnitude even worse than Chernobyl’s.” It also says that “often it was only thanks to coincidence or luck that a reactor did not get completely out of control.” Chernobyl, estimated to cause anywhere between 100,000 and a million additional cancers, had already left people horrified. More recent disclosures—and there are literally hundreds of them—about leaks, accidents and contamination in other atomic plants from all over the world have only added to popular fears. It is no coincidence that hundreds of citizens’ groups have sprouted all over which monitor radiation levels and protest against nuclear facilities, or that an anti-nuclear movement should be growing even in Poland and East Germany. Nuclear power has everywhere acquired a stigma which it is impossible to remove.

Concerns about safety are not concerned to nuclear power stations alone. They extend to each step in the so-called nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium mining and processing, to fuel fabrication and transportation, the burning of fuel in reactors, to storage and reprocessing of spent fuel, the use of plutonium thus extracted in fast breeder reactors and ultimately, to waste disposal. Each such step is fraught with the relocation, manipulation or concentration of radioactivity as well as a high energy release and therefore the likelihood of accidental leaks. As recent disclosures about Indian Rare Earths by Kerala-based researchers show, even the apparently innocuous processing of monazite sands poses health hazards. Evidence from Australia to Zimbabwe underlines the grave dangers and hazards that are associated with nuclear technology at each step.

The problem of nuclear waste disposal illustrates in a particularly lucid manner the impossibility of eliminating these dangers. For there is no reliable method of storing radioactive wastes, hundreds of tonnes of which are generated in power plants each year. There are no known naturally occurring or artificially engineered materials or formations that are guaranteed to remain stable, integral or whole for the hundreds of thousands of years over which waste products continue to seethe with heat and radiation. Sooner or later, some radioactivity is bound to leak from wastes stored in water pools, concrete casks, vitrified lumps or salt formations in high mountains. Sooner or later, the high-level wastes will get leached into the biosphere and the food chain. Dumping them at sea is not a solution; it only creates other problems.

Blind Alley

If all research efforts into nuclear waste disposal, even storage, have ended up in a blind alley, that is no accident. The simple explanation is that nuclear technology involves violent processes releasing such enormous amounts of radioactivity and energy as well as chemical reactions that nothing can hold or contain them for any length of time. Only those with boundless faith in science and technology as pure miracles can believe that the products of the “artificial” manipulation of nuclear materials at the most fundamental, sub-atomic level will be successfully contained in a reliable or safe fashion by “natural” material for thousands of years.

There is a basic theoretical problem involved here, but it has momentous practical applications. Sweden, for instance, has actually decided in a referendum to phase out nuclear power entirely by 2010 AD, unless safe methods of waste disposal are found. It is equally relevant that a non-nuclear club of nine countries is now being formed for similar reasons.

What holds for nuclear waste is mutatis mutandis* true of the other steps in the nuclear fuel cycle as well. It is just not possible to eliminate nuclear hazards, and it is not feasible to control or limit them to “reasonable” levels. What makes nuclear energy uniquely hazardous is both the principle involved—struggling to control, in a limited space and with fallible materials, the chain reaction in what is potentially an atomic bomb—and the nature of the hazard. The latter deserves no comment other than that the consequences of even a minor malfunction in a nuclear plant necessarily tend to be great, that radioactive clouds know no national boundaries, and that radiation is an invisible but long-acting poison.

Considerations of safety have everywhere played a major role in discrediting nuclear power. However, there are other issues as well that will determine the final fate of that technology. Broadly speaking, they are part of the larger view that people take of the future of their society, indeed of the kind of society they want to build. For nuclear power is not just another technology. It concentrates itself in a whole paradigm of development—the model of a modern, technology-based or obsessed, totally industrialised, fully urbanised, extremely energy-intensive, tightly organised, highly centralised which in its pursuit of capital accumulation promotes techniques that are invasive of nature, and which places a premium on individual acquisitiveness and limitless consumption.

It was not by accident that nuclear power was first promoted in the West as energy that would be “too cheap to meter.” The underlying and critical assumption of the desirability of “electrification of society” as a symbol of its maturity is as important here as the emphasis on the over-abundance of energy (in its costliest form) which is wholly compatible with its profligate use.

The irrelevance of this model for third world countries should never have been in doubt, although their elites, equally expectedly, embraced it enthusiastically in the fifties and sixties. After all, the real energy problems of the third world people lie elsewhere—in the rural and urban cooking fuel crisis, in the shortage of energy for transportation, lighting and lifting water. And in any case, electricity accounts for less than a fourth or a third of their total energy consumption, and within that limited sub-sector nuclear power can at best make a miniscule contribution, in the form of high-risk, expensive, high technology-based, centralized generation—when what is appropriate is precisely the opposite, i.e., locally available decentralized energy systems that are safe, easily manageable, amenable to local control and environmentally benign. In such a model, nuclear energy can have no place.

New Awareness

However, what is inappropriate for the third world is now being increasingly seen as inappropriate for the first world too. The development of alternative, soft-energy paths that are safe, the success of energy conservation drives over the past decade, the higher costs of nuclear power, a new awareness of the need to limit waste, as well as environmental and safety considerations and a growing dislike for invasive high-intensity technologies that in a Faustian bargain create more problems than they can solve have all served to discredit nuclear power in the West. All in all, nuclear energy simply does not have much of a future after Chernobyl.

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*Latin lesson for modern readers: Mutatis mutandis is a phrase meaning “the necessary changes having been made” or “once the necessary changes have been made.” It is used in English and other European languages to acknowledge that a comparison being made requires certain obvious alterations, which are left unstated.

Notes

[1] Shane J. Maddock, Nuclear Apartheid: The Quest for American Atomic Supremacy from WWII to the Present (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 91, quoted in Peter Kuznick and Oliver Stone, The Untold History of the United States (London: Ebury Press, 2013), ch. 6.

[2] M.V. Ramana, “A Principled and Knowledgeable Critic,” Economic and Political Weekly 50, no. 32 (August 8, 2015). See the freely accessible version at the website of The Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace. For a shorter obituary see “Veteran Journalist Praful Bidwai Is No More,” The Wire, June 24, 2015.

[3] Richa Khare, “Indo-Pak nuclear race is four-way, says Ramana,” The Hindu, August 28, 2016.