The Dangers of Nuclear Energy


Dietrich Fischer – TRANSCEND Media Service

The Japanese people have shown admirable discipline, cooperation and even heroism in the face of the terrible earthquake and tsunami of 11 March 2011. The greatest danger, not only for Japan but also neighboring countries, may yet come in the form of cancer and birth defects caused by radiation if one or more of the nuclear power plants in Fukushima cannot be cooled sufficiently to prevent a meltdown, which would release huge amounts of radioactivity. Hopefully, this can still be avoided.

Some advocates of nuclear power have long argued that a major accident is about as likely as being hit by a meteorite. In 1975, the nuclear industry commissioned Professor Norman Rasmussen to produce a report that would reassure the public about the safety of nuclear energy. The report concluded that the probability of a complete core meltdown is about 1 in 20,000 per reactor per year.

This turned out to be a gross underestimation. The three best known serious nuclear power accidents so far are those of Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl 1986, and now Fukushima. But there have been many more accidents and partial core meltdowns releasing radioactivity, at least 56 documented in the USA alone.

A study commissioned by Greenpeace concluded that the Chernobyl accident may have resulted in an estimated 200,000 additional deaths in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine alone between 1990 and 2004. The nuclear power plants in Fukushima have about thirty times as much radioactive material as the reactor that exploded in Chernobyl, and Japan is much more densely populated.

Even if there were no accidents, no solution has yet been found in over 50 years for the safe storage of the radioactive waste produced by nuclear power plants. One of the by-products, plutonium 239, has a half-life of 24,100 years. That means, after 24,100 years, the intensity of radiation has declined by only 50 percent. It will take 241,000 years until the radiation has declined by a factor of 1000, which is considered an acceptable level. How can we guarantee that our descendants will not be exposed to those wastes for the next 10,000 generations?

The “precautionary principle” urges us to act so as to prevent the worst possible outcome. This implies that we should eliminate all nuclear power plants. Of course, we must also get rid of all nuclear weapons, because they may one day be used, by a rogue government or terrorists. According to the laws of probability, whatever CAN happen, will, if we wait long enough.

Are there any alternatives to nuclear energy? Indeed there are safe ways to produce renewable energy with wind and solar power, wave and ocean-thermal energy, which do not contribute to the greenhouse effect, unlike the burning of fossil fuels.

The Desertec project plans to use solar and wind energy in deserts to generate electricity and transmit it to consumption centers. The first region where this concept is to be implemented is in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Europe. Solar power systems and wind parks spread over 17,000 km2 (0.2 percent of the Sahara desert) would provide a considerable part of the electricity demand of the MENA countries and supply continental Europe with 15 percent of its electricity needs.

Why do we have nuclear power despite all of its dangers for current and future generations? There is a simple reason. Nuclear power plants are highly profitable for a few, at the expense of other people’s safety. Electricity from a nuclear power station can be cut off if people do not pay their bills, but energy from the sun collected on house roofs cannot be cut off. It makes people independent. The nuclear lobby does not like that.

True democracy would require that decisions are made by the people who are affected, and that they be fully and truthfully informed. People have been lied to about the safety of nuclear energy, and have in most cases not been allowed to participate in decisions whether or not to build a nuclear power plant. That must change.

It is noteworthy that all insurance companies have so far refused to insure against nuclear accidents, because they argue that they do not want to risk their money based on some professor’s calculations claiming the risk is low. What if he is wrong? Insurance companies insist to base their risk calculations on real experience.

Because insurance companies have refused to cover the risks of nuclear accidents, the Price‑Anderson Act of 1957 commits the US federal government to cover such risks. Other countries have similar legislation. This represents an enormous subsidy by the taxpayers to the nuclear industry. If the nuclear power industry were required by law to pay for insurance against accidents, and pay for the safe disposal of its waste, we would have no nuclear power plants.

Solar energy is currently more expensive than electricity from nuclear plants. But this is only because of the huge indirect subsidy for nuclear power, and also due to the shortage of research into alternative sources of energy. If a fraction of the research funds spent for nuclear power had been devoted to safe sources like wind and solar, we would most likely have cheap alternatives today.

If insurance companies, the experts in estimating risks, refuse to risk their money, why should people be forced to risk their lives?


Dietrich Fischer, Academic Director of the World Peace Academy in Basel and Director of the TRANSCEND University Press, is author of “Nonmilitary Aspects of Security” and “Preventing War in the Nuclear Age.”


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 21 Mar 2011.

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