American Peace Activist Jonathan Schell: ‘Our Most Dangerous Illusion Is that We Can Control Nuclear Energy’
In a SPIEGEL interview, peace activist and author Jonathan Schell discusses the lessons of the Fukushima disaster, mankind’s false impression that it can somehow safely produce electricity from the atom, and why he thinks the partial meltdown in Japan could mark a turning point for the world.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Schell, what unsettled you the most about the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe?
Schell: Clearly this whole accident just went completely off the charts of what had been prepared for. If you look at the manuals for dealing with nuclear safety accidents, you’re not going to find a section that says muster your military helicopters, dip buckets into the sea and then try as best you can to splash water onto the reactor and see if you can hit a spent fuel pool. There’s going to be no instruction saying, go and get your riot control trucks to spray the reactor, only to find that you’re driven back by radiation. The potential for total disaster was clearly demonstrated.
SPIEGEL: But supporters of nuclear energy are already preparing a different narrative. They say that an old, outdated nuclear power plant was hit by a monster tsunami and an earthquake at the same time — and, yet, so far only a handful of people have been exposed to radioactive energy. Not a single person has died.
Schell: Clearly it’s better than if you had had a massive Chernobyl-type release of energy. But I think that any reasonable analysis will show that this was not a power plant that was under control. The operators were thrown back on wild improvisation. The worst sort of disaster was a desperate mistake or two away. Through a bunch of workarounds and frantic fixes, technicians at Fukushima headed that off, but that was no sure thing. No one will be able honestly to portray this event as a model of nuclear safety. It would be like saying that the Cuban missile crisis showed the safety of nuclear arsenals.
SPIEGEL: It is not just in Germany, but also in the United States and China that people are stockpiling supplies of iodine tablets. And shipments from Japan are supposed to be tested for radioactivity. Where does this profound fear of nuclear energy come from?
Schell: In the public mind, nuclear power is associated with nuclear weapons. In both, a nuclear chain reaction is, in fact, the source of power. It’s true that you can’t have an atomic explosion in a nuclear power plant, but people are quite right to make that association. For example there is also the proliferation connection. In other words, the problem with the association of nuclear power with nuclear weapons goes beyond the escape of radiation and Chernobyl-type accidents. The third big challenge is, of course, the waste problem. You have to keep that waste underground for maybe a half-million years. So we’re acting in a kind of cosmic way in the terrestrial setting, even though we just don’t have the wisdom and staying power to do so.
SPIEGEL: You say that dealing with nuclear energy is like gambling with “Mother Nature’s power.” Why is it so totally different from other sources of energy?
Schell: Because it’s so colossally more powerful. Comparable energy can be found, at best, in the center of stars. It’s basically not found on earth naturally, and it’s only through our own scientific brilliance that we’ve been able to introduce it into the terrestrial setting. But, unfortunately, we’re not as advanced morally, practically and politically as we are scientifically, so we are not prepared to control this force properly. The most dangerous illusion we have concerning nuclear energy is that we can control it.
SPIEGEL: Despite all these concerns, we have seen an emerging renaissance in nuclear energy in recent years.
Schell: I don’t think there really was a nuclear renaissance. There was the phrase “nuclear renaissance,” but already in many parts of the world the financial aspects of nuclear power were not working out. The bankers were not stepping forward to finance new power plants. Insurance companies were reluctant to cover the risk.
SPIEGEL: Many environmentalists are now even calling for an expansion of nuclear power — because they see it as the only way to limit climate change.
Schell: I find their arguments weak. In the first place, there are about 450 nuclear power plants around the world. To make a serious dent in carbon emissions, you would have to double or triple that –and not only in countries as technically sophisticated as Japan. More importantly, I fear the attempted solution would be self-defeating in its own terms. Think how the high the cost will be if we pour our scarce resources into this faulty one and then there is a truly catastrophic accident down the road, and we were forced by this to liquidate the investment. This would be not only a disaster in its own right, but a disaster for the overall effort to head off global warming.
SPIEGEL: German Chancellor Angela Merkel had always been a supporter of nuclear energy. Now she is talking about expediting Germany’s planned phase-out of nuclear power. Will Germany be able to succeed in eschewing nuclear power entirely?
Schell: The anti-nuclear movement certainly has been stronger in Germany than in practically any other country, even before the Fukushima incident. I’d say it looks quite possible that Germany will go back to the phase-out policy, and that its nuclear power plants will be taken offline quickly. And I’d be surprised if Japan did not go in the same direction.
SPIEGEL: Why don’t we see similar anti-nuclear protests in the United States?
Schell: The whole nuclear industry has had a low profile in the United States, perhaps, in part, because we haven’t seen the construction of new power plants since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.
SPIEGEL: But President Barack Obama has now announced the construction of new nuclear power plants.
Schell: … and people in the US don’t seem to be bothered by it so far. That’s been true, until now. New polls show that support for nuclear power has dropped sharply. Honestly, I don’t think Americans have been thinking about this issue very much. Now the Fukushima accident will concentrate people’s minds.
SPIEGEL: Will Obama abandon his pro-nuclear energy policies?
Schell: There’s a real chance that, in practice, he will back off — also for budgetary reasons. If you try to add in all kinds of new safety features, then you raise the price. The cost of building a nuclear power plant today already costs tens of billions of dollars.
SPIEGEL: The greatest enthusiasm to be found anywhere once permeated the US shortly after the discovery of nuclear energy. During the 1950s, the Eisenhower administration enthusiastically promoted its “Atoms for Peace” program.
Schell: That story is interesting because with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, we see the close connection at every stage of nuclear power with nuclear weapons. Eisenhower increased the US arsenal from around 1,400 to 20,000 nuclear weapons. But he also wanted an element of peace in his policy. This is where the “Atoms for Peace” program came in, whereby countries would be given technology to produce nuclear power, the “friendly atom,” in exchange for constraints on proliferation of nuclear weapons — the “destructive atom.” That rationale is still embodied today in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
SPIEGEL: Obama has outlined his vision of a world without nuclear weapons. But the reaction to it has been lukewarm, even within his own team.
Schell: Within the Obama administration, it seems to be the president himself — and possibly even the president alone — who really believes in this vision. But he has the public on his side. If you ask people if they would like to live in a world without nuclear weapons, a very high majority answer in the affirmative. On the other hand, there is a powerful bureaucratic infrastructure left in the Pentagon, in the State Department, in the Energy Department that is not ready to translate Obama’s vision into action and works to thwart it. He needs more supporters among his own officials.
World Destruction Is Less Likely Today, But ‘Technically’ Possible
SPIEGEL: Is a world without nuclear weapons even a realistic vision? With the technology already out there, wasn’t the genie permanently released from the bottle with Hiroshima in 1945?
Schell: There will never be a world that is not nuclear capable. Once that knowledge was acquired, it could never be lost. So the art of living without nuclear weapons is an art of living without them, but with the knowledge of how to make them. The classic argument against a nuclear weapons-free world is that somebody will make use of that residual knowledge, build a nuclear weapon and start giving orders to a defenseless world. But what I point out is that other countries would also have that knowledge and they could, in very short order, be able to return to nuclear armament. Therefore, the imbalance is much more temporary than it first seems.
SPIEGEL: Is the outlawing of nuclear weapons possible without also abolishing nuclear energy as well?
Schell: A nuclear weapons-free world should be one in which nuclear technology is under the strictest possible control. But strict control of all nuclear technology is, of course, far more difficult as long as you continue to have nuclear energy production, as long as uranium continues to be enriched and as long plutonium is still being made somewhere.
SPIEGEL: How serious do you think the current threat is of nuclear technology falling into the wrong hands?
Schell: It is extremely real. The two most active hot spots for nuclear proliferation right now are Iran and North Korea. But you also have many other countries that are suddenly showing a renewed interest in nuclear power. The transfer of the technology in the Middle East, especially, is becoming a real danger. We may have fewer nuclear weapons, but we have more fingers on the button.
SPIEGEL: Does that make the world today more dangerous than it was during the Cold War?
Schell: No. I have too lively a memory of the Cuban missile crisis in the middle of the Cold War, which really looked like the potential end of the world. Regardless, it is true to say that the nature of the danger has changed.
SPIEGEL: So the elimination of humanity through nuclear weapons is still a concrete possibility?
Schell: Technically, the option is still there. What’s harder, though, is to frame scenarios in which all of the weapons would be fired simultaneously. Clearly, this is not as likely as it was during the Cold War. There are other colossal risks associated with lesser uses of nuclear weapons, though, ones that we are just becoming aware of. For instance, we have learned that the ecological perils of nuclear warfare can be triggered by much smaller numbers of weapons. There’s a new study showing that the use of just 100 or 150 nuclear weapons in a conflict between Pakistan and India would cause a nuclear winter through the burning of cities and the lofting of soot into the atmosphere. That would produce global famine.
SPIEGEL: How great a threat do you think there is of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists?
Schell: Over the long term, it’s clear that this danger is rising. It’s just in the nature of scientific knowledge and technology to become more and more available as time passes. The moment must come when it passes beyond the control of states alone and into the hands of lesser groupings.
SPIEGEL: To what extent are nuclear power plants protected against terrorist attacks?
Schell: So far, few adequate security precautions have been taken to mitigate the potential consequences. The nuclear energy industry has succeeded with its argument that such measures would simply be too costly.
SPIEGEL: Does the example of the events in Japan show that human beings are incapable of learning from history? After all, the country is one that has experienced the horror of nuclear bombs first hand and nevertheless decided to rely on atomic energy.
Schell: Kenzaburo Oe, the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, said that going ahead with nuclear power in Japan is a betrayal of the victims of Hiroshima. But perhaps Fukushima will be a turning point — not just for Japan, but for the rest of the world as well.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Schell, we thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Philip Bethge and Gregor Peter Schmitz
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