How I brought down the Nuclear Industry in my Country – and how you can do it in yours …
The nineteen-seventies were the hey-day of nuclear power. Almost every country, big or small, super-power or developing country, thought they should build as many atomic reactors as possible. And then, all of a sudden, or so it seems, most of these ambitious projects came to a screeching halt. Was it the Three Mile Island accident that caused it? Were people more opposed to nuclear energy than before? Not really.
Apart from France most civilised nations largely abandoned or at least severely curtailed their nuclear programs after 1977, still two years before the Harrisburg core meltdown disaster and over eight years before the Chernobyl wake-up call.
So how come one of the most aggressive and ruthless industries and one more in favour with their governments than most gave up billions of dollars in investment almost overnight and seemingly without a fight?
A tale of two powers
It was a battle between nuclear power and the power of reason. The two are incompatible, as we’ll see in a minute. Nuclear power, to justify itself, had to make its technology look safe in comparison to other natural or man-made risks. So they embarked on one of the longest-standing crusades to besmirch scientific reasoning by “measuring” various sources of risk and “calculating” how each affected human life and health. So, while one reactor like in Fukushima (where not one but six went “bang”) or Harrisburg or Indian Point (or anywhere also in the world for that matter) could, if all its radioactive material were evenly dispersed, e.g. by a cruise missile, instantly kill hundreds of thousands and even in the first generation kill millions altogether, they e.g. would assume that certain safeguards would mitigate these risks to such an extent, that such a catastrophe would only come about in, say, once in a million years.
Now, as long as it doesn’t happen, you can hardly disprove this. But equally could you tell all your friends that it was absolutely impossible to ever win the sweepstakes and dare them to prove you wrong. Chances are, none of them will ever succeed in their lifetime.
That’s the trick the nuclear industry uses. They can’t prove they’re right, but their experts with their Ph.D.s in the same faculties as those who couldn’t see the financial crisis coming, always seem to sound more convincing than the layman. And if you don’t work in the nuclear industry – well then, no matter what your credentials, you’re not an expert, period.
Now, all you have to do is call their bluff.
You see, in my country back in 1975 we had a good dozen atomic power stations of any size. In 1975 the government said “well let’s see at what rate electricity consumption grows”. They figured it would be at a rate of 7% per year, effectively doubling the electricity needed every ten years. When you asked them “well, can’t you see, this eventually has to stop, or otherwise by around the year 2100 every household needs a Three Mile Island in their front yard” they would just stonewall you. They couldn’t say when the curve would flatten nor could they dispute it wasn’t sustainable, they just acted as if things would stay that way in the foreseeable future.
Now, in a market economy that wouldn’t be a problem – whoever builds too much supply suffers from cratering prices and is eventually driven out of business. In order to avoid this, he will plan carefully and likely not make totally unrealistic assumptions. But with government subsidies and nudges, it’s a different matter. Cheap electricity was declared a national priority and that was that.
Now, that country then decided they needed not only the dozen atomic power stations they already had (and a few being currently built at the time), but they figured they should have 150 (one-hundred-and fifty!) big, big reactors of 1,300 MegaWatt each by the year 2000.
So they started scouring the country for places near rivers and lakes (for the cooling water) for building sites and started planning procedures and buying up ground or exploring sites by the dozens in the mid-seventies.
Then came 1977 and the public hearing for what was then deemed “the most modern” nuclear power station in the whole world. Mark these words, they’ll be of interest later.
During that public hearing we asked essentially but two (complexes of) questions:
- How great is the risk of the above scenario with millions of long-term casualties? The obvious answer always is: negligible. Then what is negligible? Ok, one accident occurring in more than one million years! Ok, so, does that mean it could only happen in a million years from now? Oh no, that is a statistical figure arrived at by calculation. Of course it could occur much sooner and then not occur for another million years. So, we said: if its probability is not exactly zero and it will happen at some point in time, could it not actually happen just as we speak? Well, that always gets your pro-nuclear proponent a little aggravated, but, under subpoena in a public hearing he will admit, “yes, it could actually happen right now ‘as we speak'”. All you then have to ask is: well, if it did indeed happen right now and our country would be uninhabitable for thousands of years and hundreds of thousands would be killed within days and weeks and possibly millions in a generation, would you then still call this “cheap electricity”? Would you still –in hindsight!- call this the safest form of electricity generation? You need not say more.
- But then, for good measure and before they persuade your politicians and civil servants behind closed doors as to how unrealistic and unscientific such an approach would be, you ask a second question: how reliable is your calculation of the “one in a million years” risk? Now, before it gets complicated, let’s jump to the solution: all these calculations are based on estimated frequencies of failures of certain parts in a nuclear power station. So they say, for example “normal cooling fails once in x years”. But if that fails, emergency cooling sets in (like at Fukushima???) and the chances that this also fails is y. And so in order for both to fail during the same incident we arrive at a multiplication of x and y and that is, say, a million years (of course there’s more to that to justify some of the highest salaries in industry). But when you are adamant to see how they arrived at those figures that went into this seemingly “exact” calculation, then, you see, they can only estimate. Unlike the automotive industry which crashes hundreds of specimens of each new model, they never even crash-tested one nuclear power station in the whole world! It’s like if GM or Ford or Toyota would say “hey, we here have two models, one costs only half because we didn’t test the airbags but we made a damn good calculation of their risk of failure; and because we didn’t crash anything in the process, we saved a lot of money and you can have a cheaper car”. Well – which would you prefer to drive your daughter to school in? You see. Now, if you multiply two estimated figures, while the result looks exact beyond ten digits after the decimal it still is nothing but a guess! How good such guesses tend to be can be clearly seen when the air intakes of Fukushima’s Diesel generators were less then twenty feet above the ground, but the Tsunami came in at about forty-five! So, when you do guesswork, you have to allow for a margin of error. But how great is that margin of error? Well, while no one knows exactly, after all, it’s all anyone’s guess and only a rough estimation, we asked the subpoenaed experts in my country during that public hearing: wouldn’t you agree that this accident every million years (which could be now) will happen “once in a million years with a margin of error of plus or minus ten million years?”. Again, there’s no arguing about that – since they don’t have any figures but assumptions.
Now that killed the most advanced nuclear design at that point in time – if the then most advanced and “safe” reactor couldn’t be built because of safety concerns, shouldn’t all other, less “advanced” nuclear power stations be decommissioned immediately?
So let us sum this up:
What you have to do in your country, any country, to shut down your country’s nuclear power stations and hence the whole industry for good is this:
Ask if the most horrible scenario with hundreds of thousands of casualties could happen right now; and if so, if nuclear energy would be justifiable in hindsight if it did happen. It almost happened in Japan, mind you.
Then ask, even if that chance was allegedly remote, if the calculations this “remoteness” of this “negligible” risk was based on is actually based on solid measurements and calculations or if it isn’t rather based on calculations that have a far greater margin of error than the figures themselves.
Before Fukushima it was difficult to get a hearing – now, if you band together with others you’ll get your hearing, rest assured.
If anyone then still maintains that nuclear power is the panacea mankind has so long waited for they should be put in an institution together with the few Napoleons and Neros that are already there. And if space becomes scarce, release the self-professed Neros, but leave those nuclear “scientist” behind bars.
So let’s roll!!!