The Technological World and the Risk of Nuclear Power

by |March 14, 2016

This past week, the New York Times’ Jonathan Soble reminded us that the cleanup of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster that took place five years ago will still take decades to complete. It was a stark reminder of the limits and dangers of modern technology. As Soble reports:

“…a full cleanup of the site — including the extraction of melted uranium fuel from the damaged reactor cores — is expected to take at least 40 years according to the government’s timetable and a century by other estimates. In the meantime, officials acknowledge, Fukushima remains vulnerable.”

Although less dangerous than it once was, the site remains radioactive and another major storm could once again spread contamination from the area around the plant to other parts of Japan. But the dangers posed by nuclear power are not limited to Japan. Closer to my home, here in New York, the Indian Point nuclear power plant is “past its expiration date” as Paul Gallay and Michael Shank of Hudson Riverkeeper recently observed in the New York Times.  Gallay and Shank report that:

“In the last year alone, Indian Point has suffered seven major malfunctions — pump and power failures, a transformer explosion, radiation leaks, a fire and an oil spill.”

Many of my colleagues focused on climate change see nuclear power as an inevitable part of the solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps it will be, but it certainly shouldn’t be. It would be wise to avoid using current nuclear technology and it would be foolish to rely on the current system regulating the use of atomic power. In theory, nuclear power can be a low risk technology; in reality it is not. The problem is that humans manage nuclear energy facilities and are responsible for the operation and maintenance of complex and aging power plants. Some may argue that nuclear technology is nearly free of errors, but everyone knows that people make mistakes. And the price of a nuclear mistake is too high to risk.

While only technology will save us from the impact of our technology, nuclear power is the wrong technology to save us from global warming. It’s tempting. The scale is large, the power is immense, and it’s something we know how to build. But the toxicity of nuclear fuel and waste is simply too great to permit. The probability of failure may be low, but the catastrophic impact of failure is too great to tolerate. That is the lesson of Fukushima. The lesson of a failure at Indian Point would be even more profound. Imagine radioactive debris floating down the Hudson River. Imagine the panic in the New York metropolitan region.

In the United States we seem to have trouble regulating safe drinking water; why should anyone think we could safely manage the far more toxic technology of nuclear power? Reductionist science focuses us on solving one problem at a time, but environmental issues are nearly always interconnected. Climate change is not our only environmental challenge. The first of Barry Commoner’s classic laws of ecology is that “everything is connected to everything else.” The second law from his path-breaking book, The Closing Circle is that “everything must go somewhere.” When something as toxic as nuclear material is used anywhere on the planet, its toxicity must be contained for over 100,000 years. If it is not contained, it inevitably “goes somewhere.” It is beyond arrogant and long past hubris to believe that we can keep those poisons from contaminating the planet at some point in the future. Solving climate change by exponentially increasing the presence of highly toxic nuclear fuel and waste on the planet is a short-sighted act of desperation.

This is far from the first time I’ve argued against nuclear power. I am not anti-technology or unaware of the difficulty of addressing climate change without nuclear energy. But any student of politics, regulation and organizational management knows that human systems fail and when they do, failure can appear in unpredictable forms. As we develop new technologies we need to consider the toxicity of those technologies to people and other elements of the living world. We also need to consider the irreversibility of the impacts of these technologies.

If we look closely at the evolution of the modern organization we see greater specialization and networks of organizations replacing vertically integrated and hierarchical organizations. Energy still remains an exception to that trend, and the modern electric utility is typical of the highly centralized bureaucratic structures that dominated the 20th century. But low priced communication and information technologies make it possible for decentralized supply chains to replace massive, centralized hierarchies.

The effort by some state governments and their utility regulators to separate power generation from distribution is in part an effort to break up these centralized energy dinosaurs. Distributed generation of energy linked by microgrids and smart grid computerized controls reduces the vulnerability of the energy system and makes it possible to reduce the need for capital intensive, centralized energy generation facilities. They are the future of our energy system and in my view nuclear power represents the past. So without a strong push by government, nuclear power will fade because it requires massive, centralized, capital-intensive facilities whose financial risk must be added to their environmental risk. Taken together, it leads to a search for other forms of carbon-free energy.

While this year’s U.S. presidential election proves how difficult it is to predict politics, the politics of nuclear power and waste makes plant siting very difficult. Even Japan, which must import nearly all of its fossil fuels, is finding it impossible to reopen the nuclear facilities that closed after Fukushima. Jonathan Soble notes that Fukushima’s political impact is far from over and reports that:

“A smooth [Fukushima] cleanup is a top priority for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who wants to rebuild Japan’s tattered nuclear power industry. He has had little success so far. This week, a court ordered one of only two atomic power stations operating in the country to shut down, saying new safety measures it put in place after the Fukushima disaster were inadequate. More than 40 reactors are sitting idle.”

In the United States, the contentious politics of facility siting makes it difficult to build large developments in populated areas. A new development need not be dangerous for it to be opposed. Inconvenience will do. The “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) syndrome prevents Walmarts, homeless shelters, and even schools from being built. New nuclear power plants would be a far tougher sell.

People instinctively resist new development because they suspect that the people proposing the new project will be gone when the negative impacts start to hit. And because the American political system is partially based on geography and represents places as well as people, local political forces can stop risky technologies in the form of facilities. But new technologies that are not associated with places or particular facilities are much more difficult to delay.

The modern economy and our way of life depend on new and advancing technology. It especially depends on energy technology. I do not expect or even want that to change. Like most people who have access to modern conveniences, I like them and want to maintain them. I also like the new stuff too. I enjoy and use streaming video, e-books and blue tooth devices in my car. But we need to adopt an attitude toward the development and governance of technology that permits a greater appreciation of potential risk and allows careful consideration of costs and benefits before new technology is used.

Fukushima is a painful lesson in the price we pay for ignoring the potential negative impacts of technology. Hopefully, New York’s Indian Point power plant does not provide yet another painful lesson in the need to effectively regulate potentially toxic technologies. I realize that the benefits of modern life come with risks. I simply want us to do a better job of understanding and managing those risks.


One thought on “The Technological World and the Risk of Nuclear Power

  1. Richard J. Bono says:

    I wish Mr. Cohen would provide the name of a single person who was killed at Fukushima from radiation exposure. Just one name please. There were more than 1,000 vulnerable people killed by panic and unnecessary evacuation. As for long term radiation risks, Mr. Cohen has failed to do his homework. I’ll listen to the WHO before I listen to a mindless recitation of nuclear scare myths.

    http://www.who.int/ionizing_radiation/a_e/fukushima/faqs-fukushima/en/

    And yes, we badly need nuclear power as part of the “full toolbox” of clean energy options, now that the Mark Jacobson 100% WWS has been roundly debunked, by all but one (his own), of the studies vetted in the PNAS.

    http://www.pnas.org/content/114/26/6722.full

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