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Is nuclear power a solution to the climate crisis?

Originally published: Green Social Thought on August 24, 2018 (more by Green Social Thought)

Faith that environmental catastrophe can best be avoided by technological gadgetry rather than a change in social relationships received a big shot in the arm with the May 2018 publication of Energy: A Human History by prolific author Richard Rhodes. After completing 18 of his 20 chapters, Rhodes begins his exploration of nuclear power by comparing Rachel Carson, Ralph Nader, and Helen Caldicott to anti-humanists such as Thomas Malthus, Paul Ehrlich and followers of Adolf Hitler.

This bizarre connection is based on the writings of one obscure author who predated Carson with a foreboding of destruction caused by the over-reproduction of “undesirable people.” Rhodes claims that the environmental movement unknowingly brought anti-humanist ideology into its visions of a simpler world. By advocating a society less dependent on complex technology, environmentalists are supposedly condemning untold millions of impoverished humans to disease and starvation.

The author insists that only nuclear power can save humanity from energy poverty and, thus, rejection of nuclear power is anti-human. What about nuclear radiation poisoning, which is critical to nuclear dangers? Rhodes presents a case which may well become the next generation of pro-nuclear apologies. Reviewing theories of 1926, he accuses Herman Muller of committing the original sin of radiation theory after his discovery that low doses of radiation caused genetic mutation in fruit flies. Muller developed the critically important “linear no-threshold” (LNT) model which postulates a “linear” relationship between the quantity of radiation received and the likelihood of cell damage, or, that there is no dose of radiation so small that it is without negative effects.

Before looking into this frontal attack on LNT theory, let’s back up to the first 90% of Rhodes’ book. Much of it is a hodgepodge of personality sketches of those having a role in scientific discoveries. In his most extensive story, the author illustrates how greed can motivate discoveries that profoundly affect human life as he tells how Thomas Midgley researched removal of the “ping” or knocking sound of the first gasoline-powered cars.

Midgley devoted no fewer than six years of his life searching for a fuel additive that would have a “no-knock” effect. He found that corn alcohol would be too expensive. Benzene would also work, but it would be impossible to manufacture enough. Both oxygen and chlorine increased knock. Aniline, selenium oxychloride and tellerium worked, but produced an awful smell. Examining one element after another in a periodic table of the time, he finally found a gasoline additive: tetraethyl lead. Since poisonous effects of lead were well known, the product was labeled “ethyl gasoline.”

Multiple states banned sale of ethyl gasoline, prompting a retort from Midgley that car exhaust contained far too little lead to cause concern. A vice-president of a new gas company proclaimed that leaded motor fuel was a “gift of God” as Midgley told his partner that they could make 3¢ from each gallon of leaded gasoline in the 20% of the market they could corner. During the next few decades, leaded gasoline caused immeasurable damage to human organ systems as well as causing violent behavior from neurological impairment.

Though this description linking technological innovation to human suffering is the most dramatic story in Rhodes’ Energy, others portray interactions between technology and ecology. As more and more people appreciated the beautiful blue flame produced by burning oil extracted from the head chambers of sperm whales, whale hunting decreased their population. By the 1850s, whalers had to travel further for a kill, increasing the price of the oil and decreasing its usage.

His apparent understanding that innovations can go wrong makes Rhodes’ trashing of the above-mentioned LNT theory and its originator Herman Muller something to consider. But his attempts to discredit Muller have disturbing characteristics. First, he bases his arguments on character attacks against scientists and environmentalists. Next, he minimizes or ignores large bodies of data.

Third, his arguments lack internal consistency as he repeatedly contradicts information from different parts of the book. For example, on p. 324 he claims nuclear power is “carbon-free energy” but on p. 332 says nuclear power creates greenhouse gases during “construction, mining, fuel-processing, maintenance, and decommissioning.”

Rhodes borrows his denunciations of Muller from an article by Edward Calabrese, who claims to have unearthed evidence that Muller suppressed research in 1946. During his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Muller did not acknowledge that he had received a paper that Calabrese thinks contradicted the LNT theory. Calabrese’ charge, repeated by Rhodes, is absurd, both because it is ridiculous to think that a Nobel Prize speech would be changed due to one unreplicated finding and because Muller was later instrumental in ensuring the publication of that paper.

It is currently Calabrese, rather than Muller, who is discredited, largely due to his increasingly weird assertions that acceptance of the LNT theory was due to “falsifying and fabricating the research record.” Calabrese’s objectivity is also called into question by his funding from the nuclear industry and companies such as ExxonMobil, Dow Chemical, and General Electric.

Calabrese’s hostility could also be due to the near-universal rejection of his “hormesis” theory that small levels of radiation benefit human health. In 2006, Calabrese made arguments for hormesis to the international Committee on Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation which rejected them in favor of the LNT model. The LNT model is accepted by a long list of agencies and health organizations.

Many researchers have documented effects of low level radiation (LLR) from the various stages of nuclear power production, background radiation, X-rays and CT scans. Increases in leukemia appears in research on over 110,000 workers cleaning up after the Chernobyl disaster and 300,000 nuclear workers in the US, UK and France. Increases in leukemia among children living close to nuclear power plants shows up in studies in the UK, France, Switzerland and Germany. Children are particularly susceptible to radiation damage because their tissue is growing rapidly. Chronic exposure to radiation is also linked to multiple myeloma, lung cancer, thyroid cancer, skin cancer, and cancer of the breast and stomach.

Accepting the view that LLR causes no harm could lead to the elimination of regulations that many argue are already too weak. This brings up the “Precautionary Principle.” It says that if there is doubt about the safety of a substance, the burden of proof that it is safe lies with those who advocate it, rather than burdening those who question it with the responsibility to prove its harm. In other words, “Better safe than sorry.” The phrase “Precautionary Principle” is not even included in the index of Energy, much less discussed. Rhodes’ approach suggests a “Throw-caution-to-the-wind Principle.”

Rhodes glibly dismisses Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima as accidents that need not have happened had people been more careful. In other words, if humans did not behave as humans, there would be no nuclear disasters.

The author is either ignorant of the Price-Anderson Act of 1957 or deliberately chose to sidestep it. That legislation was passed to encourage private companies to build nuclear power plants by limiting total liability. Many currently worry that a plant near them might melt down, causing damage far into the billions, with the company not having to fully compensate its victims. If Rhodes truly believed his own claims regarding the safety of nuclear plants, he would advocate the repeal of Price-Anderson as unnecessary. “Price-Anderson” also does not appear the book’s index.

Rhodes belittles concerns regarding nuclear waste, proposing to bury it for 1000 years and let our descendants cope with it. Rational people do not want to encumber their grandchildren with the legacy of leukemia. Again, the author forgets what he wrote in a previous chapter, that the half life of U238 is 4.5 billion years.

Rhodes seems unaware that some types of radwaste can actually become more radioactive with the passage of time, due to the production of daughter atoms with short half lives. Radioactivity can initially increase for thousands of years before it declines – that dangerous interval can persist much longer than the lapse between the pyramids and today.

Nor does he seem aware that every nuclear plant must discharge enormous quantities of hot water into an adjacent river or ocean, whose aquatic life is seriously harmed. Nor does he seems aware that earth itself is unstable, subject to earthquakes, floods and other calamities, which is a problematic issue for St. Louis dumps that house original wastes from the Manhattan Project. That waste, and waste from a conventional dump which is now smoldering, are inching their way towards each other, which is a burning issue for those who live nearby.

Many, many people for many different reasons and living in different times (including the future) do and will take issue with the irresponsible claim that nuclear waste is not dangerous.

It never occurs to Rhodes to compare the potential horror from someone dropping a bomb on a nuclear power plant to bombing a solar panel or wind installation. Worse, he advocates global proliferation of nuclear power to states vastly less capable of guarding plants than are the current nuclear powers. Rhodes seems to forget what he wrote in earlier chapters directly linking the Atoms for Peace program of the Eisenhower era to the expansion of nuclear weapons. Nor does he remember his earlier discussion of the need to use a form of uranium fuel at that time which would “reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation.”

Rhodes profoundly misses the connection between technology and class relationships when he presents nuclear power as a socially neutral source of energy. He advocates massive build-up of nuclear power plants in Africa as if it were a purely technological issue with no ramifications for its domination by Western powers thirsty for the continent’s vast minerals. The largest increase of US military bases in Africa has occurred during the last 10 years and those troops could be justified as necessary to protect an expanded generation of nuclear plants.

Proponents of nuclear power may assert that the massive police force to guard those facilities are an unfortunate “side effect” of the technology, but that is gibberish. Far from being a “side effect,” armed security is a raison d’être of the technology. Nuclear weapons are ostensibly to use against a country’s enemies while nuclear plants create the need for a massive secret police force to guard radioactive material (and can be used against the populace as the opportunity arises).

The failure to grasp the central role of particular forms of production for subjugating people is a characteristic of what can be called “ecomodern technobabble.” “Technobabble” stems from the dogma that technology has nothing to do with relationships of power and can be used by anyone for good or bad purposes.

“Ecomodernism” is the creed that problems of technological complexity running amok can be solved by increasing technological complexity. Ecomoderns are fascinated by approaches that require huge projects by corporations and/or governments, such as geoengineering, carbon capture and storage, genetically modified organisms, and, of course, nuclear power. They are oblivious to the gruesome potentials of these undertakings and despise those who caution against their dangers.

Ecomodernism assumes that providing for human needs can only be accomplished by infinitely increasing the use of energy on a planet with finite resources. Their obsession with technogadgets means that ecomoderns miss solutions to energy problems which focus on producing less energy by changing what is manufactured.

As John Bellamy Foster observes, “The larger part of production is squandered on negative capitalist use values, in forms such as military spending; marketing expenditures; and the inefficiencies, including planned obsolescence, built into every product.” To this list could be added commodities designed to fall apart, urban planning which forces people to use individual cars, and a medical system driven by the insurance-pharmaceutical-hospital complex. In short, changing relationships between people and people as well as relationships between humanity and nature are the best way of approaching energy needs.

In Energy, Rhodes never pursues a dream such as this, and, instead, concludes his book by swallowing the “Happiness = More Stuff” model hook, line and sinker. Failing to explore the potential of conserving energy, Rhodes follows in the footsteps of those he criticizes. Like Thomas Midgley’s portrayal of “fanatical health cranks,” he describes icons of the environmental movement as “extremists.” Mimicking Calabrese’ characterization of consensus on the LNT radiation theory as “not real but faked,” he describes the “disingenuosness” of antinuclear activists. Rather than pointing to a solution for climate change, his radiation denial mirrors Donald Trump’s climate denial in its derogation of scientific research and its personality attacks.

The great environmental challenge of our time is to understand that the many sources of biodestruction are interconnected and must be confronted simultaneously, rather than disparaging one danger to focus on another. The extreme threat of climate change will not move closer to resolution by trivializing the menace of nuclear power. Rhodes’ book Energy does not chart a path that humanity should tread but instead plunges into the abyss of ecomodern technobabble.