De-Nuclearization (May 9, 1986)

Mensa writings (1985-87), Uncategorized



“Besides injury and loss of life, we can expect a general demoralization about the future. There may be major dislocations to the Soviet economy which in turn could jeopardize international stability, international economic relations, cultural exchanges, the peace effort, and so forth. More likely, it will have the opposite effect, allowing us to cooperate and help one another rather than confronting each other as adversaries.”


Anti-nuclear activists now have some dramatic evidence to place before the court of public opinion. A fission nuclear power plant at Chernobyl near Kiev, The Ukraine, has apparently “melted down” and burned out, with catastrophic release of radioactivity over an area inhabited by millions of people. It is almost a “worst-case scenario” from the standpoint of theoreticians who have attempted to determine the potential hazards of the nuclear industry.

A few years ago, there was an article in Scientific American analyzing potential harm from such accidents. For that writer, the case of a nuclear warhead being exploded directly on a nuclear power reactor facility with on-site storage of spent fuel rods was determined to be the worst possible case of nuclear disaster. The spent fuel rods consist of highly radioactive plutonium, strontium, cesium, and other elements of great longevity, and their vaporization and dispersal over a wide area might result in millions of deaths and the total abandonment and quarantine of thousands of square miles of land — for decades or centuries to come.

Although the Soviet reactor accident is of lesser consequence, it is one of the worst possible disasters short of those involving nuclear weapons. Because it was a graphite, water-cooled design now known to be inherently unsafe, many advocates of nuclear power will want to claim that their own designs are safe, and that nuclear power is a viable energy strategy. This could be a fatal error. One never knows everything that could go wrong until it actually does go wrong. Only then can it be called “an accident” or “a catastrophe.”

It was the combustion of the reactor pile, releasing huge volumes (hundreds to thousands of tons) of highly radioactive fuel rods, coolant, and reactor assembly in the form of smoke and steam that made the Chernobyl disaster so great. This type of reactor utilizes huge masses of graphite to moderate the nuclear reaction (graphite absorbs neutrons, thus slowing the “chain reaction” of uranium fission). But graphite is combustible, and must be cooled — in this case, by ordinary (light) water. (So-called “heavy water” is used as a moderator, as well as a coolant). This may have been the fatal flaw, for when a coolant pipe broke, that part of the reactor overheated, made steam of the water, which reacted with the graphite in burning, and released explosive hydrogen as a by-product. It is thought that a hydrogen and/or steam explosion destroyed the building.

It was not, per se, a nuclear explosion, but the effect was to disperse huge quantities of highly-radioactive materials into the atmosphere. The smoke and steam from the combustion of the reactor provided a mechanism for a continuing release of large quantities of radioactive materials over many days. If there was a total melt-down, much of the heavier uranium metal would have liquefied, pooled, and burned its way into the ground. This material would burn down through any structure into the earth until sufficiently diluted to cool down. It is believed that the initial contact with ground water by this fissioning molten metal would cause a steam explosion, venting another huge dose of radiation into the atmosphere and contaminating the ground water for miles around, including a nearby lake and rivers at Chernobyl.

Besides injury and loss of life, we can expect a general demoralization about the future. There may be major dislocations to the Soviet economy which in turn could jeopardize international stability, international economic relations, cultural exchanges, the peace effort, and so forth. More likely, it will have the opposite effect, allowing us to cooperate and help one another rather than confronting each other as adversaries.

In the early years of the “nuclear age,” scientists, philosophers, statesmen, and other concerned citizens attempted to determine the value and feasibility of “harnessing the atom.” Although nuclear weapons were obviously bad, and a matter for international concern in order to limit or avoid their use, nuclear power and other “peaceful” uses of nuclear energy were welcomed as being “modern,” “futuristic” applications of “high technology.”

Thousands of scientists and engineers soon found employment in the nuclear industry. In Europe and the socialist countries, state enterprises embarked on nuclear power generation programs, often integrated with the production of nuclear weapons. Even in the United States today, it is the Energy Department which finances the construction of nuclear warheads, along with providing vast subsidies and “regulation” for the nuclear power industry. This is dominated by large corporations such as General Electric and Westinghouse, along with a number of engineering and construction firms, defense contractors, etc. Literally hundreds of billions of dollars of scarce public money has been spent on nuclear weapons and nuclear power generation since the 1950’s. It wouldn’t have happened if governments hadn’t favored it, and heavily subsidized those economic interests which stood to profit from it.

On purely economic grounds (where one usually finds nuclear power defended or advocated), there is very little to be said in favor of it. Present projections are that nuclear power is considerably more expensive than conservation or small-scale, renewable technologies. The rigorous studies by Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado advocate discontinuing nuclear power generation with all reasonable haste. When we consider the future costs of decommissioning reactors after 30-50 years, we find that the present generation is benefiting itself at the expense of its own children and grandchildren — who will have substantially more people and fewer resources to deal with the problem. Expensive as nuclear power plants are to build, the costs of tearing them down and safely disposing of the radioactive structure and spent fuel (which must be done, eventually) is likely to be even greater. Indeed, there is still no foolproof strategy or technology for safely disposing of the radioactive materials! No community in the country wants to serve as a nuclear waste repository, nor is there any acceptable marine disposal strategy. Whatever mechanisms are employed, they must be secure for hundreds of centuries, and are sure to be incredibly expensive.

The risk of a catastrophe like Chernobyl has been the least tangible objection to nuclear power generation up to now. The “experts” could always say: “Nothing’s going to happen, and if it does, it will be someone else’s fault — not ours!” This kind of thinking is not consistent with scientific understanding or the utilization of potentially catastrophic technologies. Accidents happen. They cannot be avoided. And if the consequences include the deaths or injury of millions of people, the tech­nology poses a threat which must be avoided and prohibited in every case.

The fact that nuclear energy is also uneconomical gives lie to the nuclear industry’s claims of “benefit” and “necessity.” Astronomical costs, soaring utility bills, and a very few hazardous jobs are the most obvious “products” of our nuclear industry. One suspects that the vast pro-nuclear lobby is relying on a superstitious awe in the minds of voters and politicians rather than a frank appraisal of costs and benefits. Our future survival may require an outright moratorium on nuclear weapons and power plants for 50-100 years. If “safe, reliable, economical” nuclear technologies are ever developed, our descendants can decide for themselves whether or not to use them. We have no right to make that choice for others, depriving future generations of all options including survival, itself.

-Paul Stephens


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