by Dr. Spencer Weart, Physicist specializing in solar physics and geophysics
August 9, 2012 (TSR) – A disaster began when a tsunami struck the Fukushima nuclear reactors a little more than a year ago — but not the sort of disaster that most people think of. Attention has focused on the threat that Japanese citizens may have received doses of radiation that will increase their risk of cancer. But there are worse consequences for the health of the Japanese, and serious long-term impacts on all of us.
Japan has shut down almost all its reactors, and it’s unclear how many will ever restart. Germany has decided to phase out its nuclear power industry, and Italy and other nations are canceling ambitious plans for expansion. In the United States, prospects for additional reactors hang by a thread. Other nations, including India and China, continue to press ahead with their nuclear programs, but there can be little doubt that the Fukushima crisis has been a setback to prospects for a nuclear renaissance.
These blows to the world’s nuclear industry will have severe unintended consequences, most notably because they will inevitably lead to more burning of fossil fuels. Over the past half-century, wherever a nuclear reactor was not built, a coal-fired power plant usually was constructed to supply the necessary electricity. In future decades, the fewer nuclear reactors, the more coal, natural gas, and oil will be consumed. To be sure, there are promising alternatives like wind and solar, and increases in efficiency so that fewer power plants will be needed. Yet realistically these cannot meet the intense demand for rising economic prosperity, especially in China and other developing nations. And while nuclear reactors make me nervous, the consequences of fossil-fuel burning terrify me.
The harm done to human health and the environment by all the nuclear accidents and nuclear waste releases in history is minor compared with the harm caused by the mining and burning of coal, with other fossil fuels not far behind. And there is worse: global warming, caused largely by the emission of heat-trapping gases from fossil fuels. If emissions continue to increase in a “business as usual” fashion — let alone if they increase even faster as reactors are phased out — future generations will suffer as we destabilize the climate system that has supported human civilization for thousands of years. Rising sea levels, droughts in key agricultural regions, and ever-worsening heat waves will threaten people just as the world’s population is projected to expand from 7 billion today to 10 billion by 2100. We will see the impoverishment of some of the ecosystems on which our society depends. While nuclear power offers no magical solution, it could help us avoid the worst.
But wasn’t Fukushima a health disaster? Not in the way you’d expect. Thanks to the openness of Japanese society and prompt evacuation, nobody received the kind of radiation that struck Soviet citizens after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine.
So let’s look at Chernobyl as a baseline. The most visible harm there was due to ingestion of radioactive iodine, most commonly by children drinking milk from cows that had eaten radioactive grass in the contamination zone. Ingestion of radioactive iodine has caused nearly 5,000 children and young people to contract thyroid cancer in the ensuing 25 years, although most are doing well following surgery. The World Health Organization has projected that as many as 50,000 new cases of thyroid cancer could occur among young people affected by Chernobyl in the coming decades. But the Japanese were protected from this large-scale contamination, and few if any excess thyroid abnormalities are expected.
What about other health problems? Some scientists believe that radiation at the levels to which millions of people farther from Chernobyl were exposed — moderately above the level of normal background radiation that we all receive — brings an increase in the rate of cancer. However, the increase, if any, has been too minuscule to detect amid the enormous number of cancers that afflict people anyway. Other scientists cite a variety of reasons to argue that low levels of radiation are completely harmless. We just don’t know.
It’s the uncertainty itself that has had the greatest impact on most of the Chernobyl survivors. Feeling themselves contaminated by mysterious and uncanny forces, millions became anxious and depressed. Many hesitated to have children, fearing their babies would be deformed. Adding to this were the dislocations of forced evacuation; no wonder psychosomatic illnesses proliferated. Overall, mental health problems caused far more harm for most Chernobyl survivors than the radioactivity. Even more after the Three Mile Island accident, it was not radioactivity but anxiety that caused health problems. The same problems are now being detected among the evacuees from Fukushima.
Feelings of deep horror and dread have become the normal response to radioactivity. Of course it is natural to fear anything that might cause cancer and birth defects. But ordinary elements like arsenic also act in these ways, and many widely used chemicals are still more potent in causing all sorts of dangers, without evoking the same widespread fears. For example, a recent National Academy of Sciences study reported that the smoke emitted by coal-fired power plants causes 10,000 premature deaths among Americans every year — yet agitation against existing plants is slight. Nor has severe pollution of water supplies in some areas resulted in large-scale evacuations.
Radioactivity gets special treatment for historical reasons. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings created a picture of horrid devastation. Then opponents of nuclear weapons fastened on the radioactive fallout from bomb tests, spreading stories of an entire world contaminated, even in the absence of war. Wouldn’t we face radioactive horrors like the gigantic insects that filled popular movies in the 1950s? These mythical fears actually began well before Hiroshima: Mad scientists and their monstrous radiation creations already were featured in science-fiction movies and stories in the 1930s.
The mythology did not go away when the Cold War ended. If you play a popular computer game like Fallout you will battle shambling post-apocalyptic zombies. On top of this is a fear of terrorists with “dirty” bombs, who might use conventional explosives to disperse radioactive materials around a neighborhood, triggering panic, wholesale evacuation, and costly cleanup efforts.
Because this imagery has piled on top of the genuine risks of nuclear radiation, the nuclear power industry has been far more closely scrutinized and tightly regulated than other energy source. Oil spills, with their widespread contamination, and the daily contamination from coal and gas burning, have not inspired such visceral fears. Nor has climate change, although it poses the gravest threat of all.
Why doesn’t this prospect alarm the public more than the risk from nuclear reactors? One main reason is that there has been nothing like the same deployment of horrific imagery.
Television features pictures of ice falling from glaciers, or worried Pacific Islanders and Alaskan natives. But such images — and threats — seem remote in space and time. Indeed the most common icon of global warming is the threatened polar bear — and not everyone cares deeply about this far-away predator. Other common images come from hurricanes battering shorelines and drought-parched farms. But such pictures are nowhere near as dreadful as a looming mushroom cloud. To date, nothing in popular culture has presented a true, vivid picture of what global warming will likely bring, including the ruin of coral reefs and refugees fleeing low-lying coasts or drought-parched lands.
For the time being, economics is doing as much as public fears to prevent widespread deployment of nuclear reactors. Only if the true costs of fossil fuel burning are taken into account would reactors look cheap. Nevertheless some nations, notably China, are pushing ahead with nuclear reactor programs. The Chinese are literally choking on their smoke, and rightly worry that climate change can throw them back into abject poverty. Their reactors will not be prohibitively expensive. France, which gets most of its electricity from reactors, long since showed how to sustain an economically sound nuclear industry.
But what about nuclear wastes? Certainly we need to guard them carefully. But the tremendous fear of these wastes comes only from the dread of radioactivity, nourished by myths, that puts nuclear reactions somehow on a plane separate from chemical reactions. All the harm ever done by the wastes from the nuclear power industry is tiny compared with the harm done by the wastes from coal, which are vastly more widespread and more difficult to contain. Just in terms of radioactive elements, coal burning releases more into the environment than the world’s nuclear industry.
Sometime in the next couple of decades the reality of global warming will become too obvious to ignore. At that point, people will demand a massive deployment of renewable energy sources, huge gains in efficiency… and nuclear power as well. We won’t solve our energy problem by picking and choosing solutions; we will need “all of the above.”
But it takes decades to reconstruct an energy system. We do not want to rely in the future on the Chinese for reactors, especially given their record of indifference to safety. The United States and other developed nations need to immediately support the nuclear power industry at a reasonable level. Besides maintaining technical expertise, we can experiment with new types of reactors, which are inherently safer; today we know how to build reactors that are physically incapable of suffering the kind of accidents seen at Chernobyl and Fukushima. We must not let mythical exaggerations prevent us from staving off the all too real danger of a global climate disaster.
AUTHOR: Dr. Spencer Weart
After receiving a doctorate in physics and astrophysics, Dr. Spencer Weart worked on solar physics before he turned to the study of the history of science. Dr. Weart is a noted historian specializing in the history of modern physics and geophysics. Until his retirement in 2009 he was Director of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics (AIP) in College Park, Maryland, USA, and he continues to be affiliated with the Center. At AIP Center, Dr. Weart helped to lead major projects preserving the history of modern astronomy, high-energy physics, lasers, geophysics, and solid-state physics, among other fields. One major book stemming from this work is Out of the Crystal Maze: Chapters from the History of Solid-State Physics (written and edited with Lillian Hoddeson, Ernst Braun and Jürgen Teichmann). During the same years Dr. Weart produced numerous historical articles and three major books: Scientists in Power, a history of the initial development of nuclear science, weapons, and reactors in France; Nuclear Fear: A History of Images (1988), which has been widely praised and used in many contexts, updated and revised as The Rise of Nuclear Fear (2012); and Never at War: Why Democracies Will Not Fight One Another, a historical survey of international relations among democracies, oligarchies and autocracies. His best-known book is The Discovery of Global Warming (2003, revised edition, 2008, translations in five languages), which is a condensed version of his extensive and widely used scholarly website on the history of climate change research. Dr. Weart has also completed a variety of educational projects, including two science books for children, a film on the solar atmosphere, an audio-visual package dramatizing the nature of scientific discovery, and a widely distributed poster exhibit on Albert Einstein. Much of his recent effort goes into producing and editing the extensive historical exhibits on the AIP History Center’s award-winning website. He co-edits a series of history of science and technology books for Harvard University Press, has served the History of Science Society in a variety of offices including Member of Council and Treasurer, and has taught undergraduate and graduate courses on history of science at The Johns Hopkins University, the Eugene Lang College of the New School in New York City, and Princeton University. Meanwhile he has given many public talks before university, industrial, and other audiences, as well as appearing on radio and television science and news shows.