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WHAT ABOUT REVIVING NUCLEAR POWER?

by John W. Gofman, M.D., PhD., October, 1988




The first accident was a radiation leak.  The
second one was a bit more serious

          Several reporters have been asking me about a revival for nuclear power because of the greenhouse effect. Reporters can use only one or two remarks in the final "story", so some responses are given here more fully.
  1. Given the greenhouse effect, would you still oppose nuclear power if they could design an inherently safe reactor, which they say they can do?
  2. So you think it's OK to take a chance on the greenhouse effect?
  3. If you're sour on both fossil fuels an nuclear power, but industrial society and human prosperity depend on using a lot of energy per capita, aren't you in favor of less affluence and ``back to the caves'' for humanity?
  4. Then what do you propose?
  5. A no-dumping principle sounds to me like an unrealistic, academic idea. How could it possibly work?
  6. You're advocating solar energy, but wouldn't that lower everyone's standard of living because it is so expensive?
  7. Let me understand your main reasons for opposing nuclear power even if they design an inherently safe reactor.
  8. So you don't believe there is an inherently safe new reactor coming along?
  9. What's the result if you include all the plants in the world?
  10. So you're saying the poisons are going to get out, even if we prevent spectacular accidents?
  11. So your opposition to reviving nuclear power is based on distrust of the industry?
  12. So it would be fair for me to report that you differ with a number of environmentalists who are saying perhaps we ought to give nuclear power another chance, because of the greenhouse effect?
  13. Do you have an explanation for what you think is their bad behavior?
  14. Does that make you a pessimist?
  15. But if some environmental leaders waffle on that issue, where are you seeing the hope?
 

1    *   "Given the greenhouse effect, would you still oppose nuclear power if they could design an inherently safe reactor, which they say they can do?"

          Yes, I would still oppose nuclear power for all the good reasons which I will summarize . . .

 

2    *   "Let's come back to those reasons later. So you think it's OK to take a chance on the greenhouse effect?"

          No. I'm not qualified to judge whether the greenhouse menace from carbon-dioxide is even real or not. The point is that there are additional pollutants from fossil fuels which are definitely unacceptable, including smog and acid rain. Also, every time we burn fossil fuels, we directly add heat to the biosphere, heat which otherwise would never be there because it would remain underground locked in oil, gas and coal.

          Nuclear power also adds heat to the earth's surface, by liberating energy which otherwise remains in unfissioned uranium and plutonium nuclei. It's even possible that nuclear power will make a new addition to the greenhouse effect from carbon dioxide, to the extent that large quantities of fossil fuels are burned in order to mine and refine the necessary uranium, to construct the nuclear power plants, to clean up their multi-billion-dollar messes, and later to decommission them and put their deadly wastes somewhere. Given the poor performance of our nuclear plants so far, it is an open question whether they will end up producing any more net energy here than the fossil fuels consumed by them.

 

3    *   "If you're sour on both fossil fuels an nuclear power, but industrial society and human prosperity depend on using a lot of energy per capita, aren't you in favor of less affluence and ``back to the caves'' for humanity?"

          Definitely not. Not for anyone, anywhere.

 

4    *   "Then what do you propose?"

          Energy-efficiency and solar energy, of course, plus a real shake-up in the environmental movement!

          Let's go back to the first "Earth Day" in 1970. If environmental leaders had pressed for the "no-dumping principle" from the beginning, the world would already be well along in achieving both energy-efficiency and solar-energy technologies by now. By solar energy, I include not only solar cells, solar heating, power towers, but also wind, waves, thermal differences in ponds and oceans, biomass, and non-polluting hydrogen-fuels produced by solar electricity.

          The reason I say the no-dumping principle would mean energy-efficiency and solar energy is this: They are inherently so much cleaner than either fossil fuels or nuclear power. Geothermal energy, which would be cleaner too, has the drawback of adding heat to the biosphere. By and large, that's avoided by using solar energy.

 

5    *   "A no-dumping principle sounds to me like an unrealistic, academic idea. How could it possibly work?"

          The no-dumping principle simply means no one has any right to dump anything into the world's common supply of air and water. Wastes have to be detoxified, recycled, contained, or not produced at all.

          You may have read how the Dow Chemical Company has been learning not to produce waste! It's realistic and encouraging. By producing its products with more efficiency, since 1986 Dow has managed to reduce its air-waste by 30%, water-waste by 20%, and solid-waste by 15% before such substances ever reach its pollution-control devices. And Dow intends to reduce by another 10-15% next year. In producing vinyl chloride, Dow eliminated 10.5 million pounds of air-waste at one plant, and the value of the unreacted raw materials, which would have become waste, is almost $1,000,000 per year. It's front-page news in the Wall Street Journal, Sept. 20, 1988.

          Recycling techniques could save California companies an estimated $225 million per year not spent on buying (and disposing of) the chemicals they presently waste, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 24, 1988. By recycling, Hewlett Packard in San Jose aims to cut the solvent waste it generates every year by 70% and its arsenic waste by 90%.

          The point is that the no-dumping principle and highly industrial societies can become compatible, if the will exists to do it. Of course, it cannot happen overnight, which is all the more reason to adopt the principle immediately. Then you apply it gradually. It's both practical and fair to be gradual in the transition to new rules, because current operations began in good faith under old rules.

          But there is all the difference in the world between adopting a good principle gradually, versus denying the principle, which is what we do now. Today people are claiming polluters have a right to kill some people, at random, for the economic benefit of some others. Only the exact number is debated. It's called the "benefit-risk" doctrine. I call it premeditated random murder.

 

6    *   "You're advocating solar energy, but wouldn't that lower everyone's standard of living because it is so expensive?"

          No one can say for sure that solar energy is any more expensive than, say, fossil fuels because the health and property ruined by fossil fuels are never counted in its costs. But let's say solar would be more expensive. That does not mean a lower standard of living.

          What it means is that we would start using energy efficiently. Right now, our factories, buildings, vehicles, appliances, and lights could do the same job with lots less energy. Cost is not the only reason to use solar energy efficiently. When you tap into any eco-system, your tapping has repercussions. Nothing is isolated in a system, by definition.

          If we had gotten serious about energy-efficiency and solar energy in 1970, by now we probably would be having handsome export earnings from selling both solar-energy technologies and energy-efficient equipment of all types on the world market. Instead, the Third World countries are going to depend on inefficient equipment and fossil fuels and nuclear power as they industrialize. If you think we have a pollution problem now from energy sources, just wait.

          In addition to the damage we've already done, the entire planet will be affected by "benefit-risk" standards set in Mexico, Zaire, India and all places in between. Humanity everywhere will pay a high price in misery from our failure to establish the no-dumping example, and from our failure to develop solar energy and energy-efficient equipment.

 

7    *   "Before returning to your crack about needing a big shake-up in the environmental movement, let me understand your main reasons for opposing nuclear power even if they design an inherently safe reactor."

          Haven't they been claiming the present designs are safe too? But the truth was stated very well by Dr. Nunzio Palladino, who was Dean of Penn State College of Engineering before he became chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In sworn testimony August 21, 1970 before the Pennsylvania State Senate, Palladino said: "Though we can generally tell when we have a very unsafe {nuclear} reactor, it's always hard to know how safe you are with one you believe to be safe."

          A recent example in a long series of nuclear-engineering "surprises" occurred at the La Salle nuclear plant near Chicago. The New York Times reported July 10, 1988: "A huge oscillation in the speed of a nuclear reaction at an atomic power plant in Illinois has prompted an inquiry into whether a whole class of nuclear plants are vulnerable to a dangerous condition that engineers had predicted was impossible to occur. . . ."

          The problem is not just surprises. The nuclear record reeks from cover-ups of recognized safety-problems. And beneath it all, you've got engineers thinking their designs incorporate an "acceptable" margin of safety based partly on severe underestimates of the cancer-hazard if their designs fail. And on top of that, you've got reactors which grow more radioactive, less approachable by humans, and more like brittle glass-jars as they operate.

          The ultimate hypocrisy of safety claims is revealed when representatives of the nuclear community try to con the public into believing that containment structures will prevent catastrophic accidents here, when they clearly do not believe it themselves. They keep proving they believe radiation catastrophes can happen by pressing for liability limits on the radiation disasters which they claim are impossible! In August 1988, Congress renewed limited liability for the nuclear industry, the third "temporary" renewal since 1957.

          Given the record of broken promises, surprises, cover-ups, deceptions, and hypocrisy, I think a person would have to be very, very naive to rely on any current claims about break-through in safety.

 

8    *   "So you don't believe there is an inherently safe new reactor coming along?"

          Recall the warning from Dr. Palladino. And most of all, realize that radiation disasters can happen in the absence of spectacular accidents. Consider some very simple arithmetic:

          The radioactive cesium-137 produced each year by a 1000-megawatt (electrical) nuclear power plant amounts to nearly 4 million curies. Since its radioactive half-life is 30.2 years, very little of it decays during a year.

          The Chernobyl reactor contained a 2-year cesium-inventory of about 8 million curies, according to Soviet estimates. Recent estimates are that the Chernobyl reactor released about 2.5 million curies of cesium-137, which is equivalent to (2.5 / 4.0) or 62.5% of a one-year inventory.

          Now let us consider 100 large nuclear plants each operating in the USA for a lifespan of about 25 years each. Call "A" the yearly cesium-137 production by 1 plant.

Then 100A = the yearly production by 100 plants.
Lifetime production = 25 yrs x 100A / yr = 2,500A.
99.9% containment = loss of 1 part per 1000.
With 99.9% perfect containment, loss = 2.5A.
But Chernobyl lost 0.625A.
The ratio of 2.5A and 0.625A = 4.0.
          This ratio, 4, has an enormous meaning. It means that achieving 99.9% perfect containment of the cesium-137 produced by 100 plants during 25 years of operation, through all steps of the cesium's handling up through final burial, would still result in cesium-137 contamination equivalent in curies to 4 Chernobyl accidents. And, this assault on human health could occur without blowing the roof off any single plant.
 

9    *   "What's the result if you include all the plants in the world?"

          Worldwide, there are about 400 plants underway, so the same scenario (99.9% success in containing cesium) would mean cesium-loss equivalent to 16 Chernobyl accidents per 25 years of operation.

          And radio-cesium is far from their only poison. Civilian plants produce the same variety of poisons as do atom bombs. During each year of operation, each plant produces radioactive poisons equivalent to about 1,000 Hiroshima A-bombs. If we encourage the world to expand to 1,000 plants, they will produce fission-products equivalent to the fallout from a million Hiroshima bombs each and every year. Nearly perfect containment is essential.

          And in addition to fission-products, there's the radon. Extra radon poison is necessarily released by the process of mining the uranium fuel. Radon comes from the decay of thorium-230 left in the "tailings".

          The radioactive half-life of thorium-230 is 80,000 years, and the average life is therefore 115,400 years. In my 1981 book, I have shown that fueling 1,000 plants would release enough radon to cause 450,000 fatal lung cancers for each year that those 1,000 plants operate. Those deaths would not be imposed on ourselves. They would occur over many thousands of years among our descendants. Nice legacy.

 

10    *   "So you're saying the poisons are going to get out, even if we prevent spectacular accidents?"

          You bet I am. Not just radon. Fission-products get out in the endless series of small leaks, burps, and spills which we hear about. Nuclear pollution requires nothing spectacular. Just the commonplace: Leaky pipes, mistakenly open valves, faulty O-rings, cracked cement, stuck needles in a dial, human carlessness, and even people literally asleep at the switch. Anything exciting happen at the nuclear power plant today?

          Fission products are also getting out by intention: The so called "permissible" releases.

          Today, even scientists in the very heart of the radiation community are finally warning that ionizing radiation is about 11 times more carcinogenic than they previously admitted (and my independent analysis shows the hazard is worse than that). Nonetheless, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission proposes to designate certain low-level waste "below regulatory concern," and to let it go straight into your local dump. And accumulate there. N.R.C. admits some of it may get into people via air and water, but claims the cancer-hazard won't exceed "permissible" rates like 1 case per million people. Such proposals, like all other "permissible" radioactive releases to the environment, are based on denying the true toxicity, and using dubious data on transport in the environment, and promoting the doctrine that it's morally "acceptable" to cut our own expenses by contaminating the planet for future generations.

          With that kind of moral code, I see no barrier against steps toward the following scenario: You have a nuclear facility with vents and pipes for the "permissible emission-levels" to the environment. Each exit is monitored by a meter whose threshold for detection can be set at various levels. If you design enough vents and set the detection-threshold high enough, you could release up to 100% of your radioactive poisons -- the "whole ball of wax" -- and still produce a monitoring record which says you released zero. When would people find out?

          If the nuclear community claims that releases from nuclear power plants cause an average dose below a millirem per year, or that radioactive poisons will be contained to 1 part per million or whatever, deep skepticism is the appropriate response. It's been earned.

 

11    *   "So your opposition to reviving nuclear power is based on distrust of the industry?"

          The very nature of nuclear power makes it unacceptable, even under a better moral code. I oppose it because it creates astronomical quantities of radioactive poisons which will remain toxic for hundreds and sometimes thousands of years. These poisons cannot be reduced, they cannot be detoxified, they cannot be recycled, and they are not biodegradable. They decay at their own immutable rates. Even when they are contained, they cannot be "disposed of" at all -- they can only be moved from one location to another. Preferably by robots, since the powerful gamma rays from such wastes penetrate right through their containers.

          Ionizing radiation, which is the hazard from these poisons, is definitely one cause of heritable genetic mutations and chromosome injuries. And when exposures occur after conception, in utero, one of the proven hazards is mental retardation.

          Furthermore, ionizing radiation is not just one entry on a long list of suspected causes of human cancer -- it is one of the few proven cancers. In fact, it may be the only one where proof now exists that there is no harmless threshold dose or dose-rate. Every bit of exposure adds to the rate of real human misery for sure.

          So I have to regard nuclear power as a loony, demented choice, and a real crime against all our descendants too. I've said enough.

 

12    *   "So it would be fair for me to report that you differ with a number of environmentalists who are saying perhaps we ought to give nuclear power another chance, because of the greenhouse effect?"

          The suggestion amounts to replacing one outrage by another: The menace of fossil fuels by the menace of nuclear power. It's ethically bankrupt. That's why I said at the beginning that changes are needed somewhere in the environmental movement if we want to achieve acceptable energy sources.

          Weak people pose a hazard which extends far beyond the energy-issue. Instead of fighting to establish the no-dumping principle, they deny it. By supporting the doctrine of "permissible dumping," they have reduced their fellow citizens to living dose-meters ("excess cancer is occurring here") and to pitiable beggars pleading to be less dumped upon, as they face squads of attorneys and scientists lavishly funded by the polluters and their friends in government. The doctrine of "permissible dumping" means "the fix is in" . . . in favor of poisoning the planet.

 

13    *   "Do you have an explanation for what you think is their bad behavior?"

          Back in 1957, my own position on dumping was shallow and shameful too. Everyone can improve! But in some circles, it's considered "bad behavior" to talk about ethics. Preachy, shrill, and arrogant.

          I'm amazed how people are manipulated by the myth that goodwill and humility require everyone to say, "Your principles are just as good as mine, of course. It's merely a matter of opinion." That's too much humility. It's humility which is equivalent to thinking that maybe Nazi, Stalinist, and Khmer Rouge principles are as good as any others, that there is no higher law, no way to judge right and wrong, no inalienable human rights.

          People who are too willing to compromise a good principle are definitely not showing goodwill to others, in my opinion. Just the contrary. But as they quietly sell-out your rights, they will praise themselves for being "reasonable."

          I participated in the first Earth Day, 1970, and proposed some strategies for stopping the nuclear power juggernaut. There were 1,000 nuclear plants planned then for the U.S. alone! I proposed a 5-year moratorium on any new licenses, so that independent people could evaluate the dangers. For several years, many environmental groups said the proposal was too extreme. Imagine. It was so mild.

          Time after time in strategy meetings among environmental groups -- for instance, when the issues were whether to oppose the limited liability on which all nuclear power here depends, and whether to support the 5-year moratorium on licensing additional plants -- environmental leaders would say, "But we don't want to look anti-nuclear! We want to look reasonable!" They were far too eager, I thought, to get personal approval from their own adversaries . . . from people whose standard of "reasonableness" included not only 1,000 plants producing poisons at the rate of a million Hiroshima-bombs per year in the U.S., but also the direct use of nuclear bombs to excavate harbors and to fracture the Rocky Mountains to liberate natural gas, which also would have been radioactive. That was "Operation Plowshare."

          Grassroot activists used to attend national conferences and complain openly about sell-outs by their alleged leaders. Activists accused them of sacrificing principle out of fear that someone might call them "extreme." There were some really bitter fights over "pre-emptive surrender" by the "reasonable" crowd. I'm told such fights occur now too.

          Winston Churchill is credited with saying, "Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all others." In the absence of that virtue, you can bet that all principles will be sacrificed for the sake of personal comfort.

No sweat, folks, just a little problem here in the core
 

14    *   "Does that make you a pessimist?"

          Not at all. To describe the absence of courage in one place does not mean it's absent in others. I'm a realist, but not a pessimist. In the battle over pollution, it's realistic to say the odds favor the polluters right now. But it's also realistic to observe that long-shots sometimes do win! In fact, when World War Two began, the odds certainly favored the Thousand Year Reich under Hitler . . . but the long-shots won.

          The key to stopping every type of pollution, in my opinion -- from medical waste on our beaches to smog in our cities -- begins with convincing people to agree on a really simple principle of human rights, whose fairness is self-evident. It can be stated in one sentence:

          All peaceable people (that excludes criminals) are entitled to hold themselves and their property free from coercion, intrusion, and fraud, provided they secure the identical right for each other.

          This definition of human rights clearly prohibits people who own property from letting it intrude on anyone else's body or property, which includes the common air and water.

          We've all known the headache of owning some pieces of unwanted property, say a derelict car or an old mattress. But we clearly have no right to dump them in someone else's driveway or in the public forest, although neither item is even toxic.

          Unwanted medical, chemical, and radioactive wastes also belong to someone. They are the property of whoever owns their source, until title has been transferred to some willing recipient. So the owners of waste are obliged to do whatever it takes, regardless of cost, to keep their property from intruding into either common or private property.

          It's not the obligation of other humans to prove that the dumping would be lethal, or even a hazard at all. There is just no right to let your property intrude on others, and you'd better consider that before you make it or buy it.

 

15    *   "But if some environmental leaders waffle on that issue, where are you seeing the hope?"

          The world is full of surprises, many of them pleasant. Wafflers are only part of the show. For instance, while they waffle away about another look at nuclear power, the real action might occur somewhere else. There are a number of nations determined to develop exports which other countries want to buy. And the Third World desperately needs to avoid our fiascos with fossil fuels and nuclear power. Perhaps the Japanese, Soviets, or Israelis will decide to become world-leaders in developing practical solar-energy systems and energy-efficient factories for all mankind . . .

          Someone must do it. We owe more than lip-service to the rights of future generations.

The End






Additional Comments in 1996 :

             *   Future nuclear-power reactors (like current reactors) would necessarily produce radioactive trans-uranic elements, including plutonium, and highly radioactive fission-products. If the plutonium were used as a nuclear fuel -- instead of remaining in the used fuel-rods with the useless fission-products -- the highly mutagenic fission-products would still need to be kept out of the biosphere with 99.9999% perfection. For the long-lived fission-products, like cesium-137 and strontium-90, this requires containment for several centuries.

             *   The evidence has become overwhelming that there is no safe dose (no threshold dose) of ionizing radiation with respect to causing genetic mutations and human cancer. Much of the raw data and step-by-step analysis are on the Internet at http://www.ratical.org/radiation/CNR/ and CNR also provides a 4-page summary by mail. Beware of the word "risk." Because exposure to extra radiation causes an elevated cancer-risk for an individual, it causes an elevated cancer-risk for a group or a nation. With respect to irradiated groups, cancer "risk" does not mean "maybe" -- it means an elevated rate of cancer.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR, John W. Gofman, M.D., Ph.D.:   Professor Emeritus, Molecular & Cell Biology, U.C. Berkeley. Assocaite Director, Livermore National Laboratory, 1963-1968. Co-discoverer of uranium-233 and its fissionability, 1941. Pioneering work in plutonium chemistry, 1941-1943. Author of 5 books on health effects of ionizing radiation (1981, 1985, 1990, 1994, 1996) and 2 books on the nuclear power enterprise (1971, 1979):




The cartoons by Tony Auth, Phil Frank, and Wayne Stayskal have been used with permission.

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