Mad Science: The Nuclear Power Experiment
OR Books 2012
reviewed by Elaine Graham-Leigh
Counterfire, May 3, 2013
The thesis of Mangano’s book is that the era of nuclear power, in the US at least, is nearly over. The US nuclear power programme, he argues, ‘has been a failure, and will fade into obscurity with time … Building a single new reactor will either take years to complete or never occur’ (pp.280-1). For Mangano, this is a victory for the anti-nuclear campaigners like him who have fought for decades against official denials that nuclear power plants were dangerous or could cause health problems. It is, he says, ‘a triumph for truth over non-truth’.
This might be the expected position from any environmentalist – on the side of campaigners against government and big business – but recently this has changed. For some prominent environmentalists now, an end to nuclear power would be a catastrophe. Both Mark Lynas and George Monbiot, for example, argue that the only attainable way to phase out fossil fuels is to replace them with a combination of renewable and nuclear power. Mangano does not address what sort of power generation would take nuclear power’s place, and this is an omission, considering how the question is implicit in any consideration of this most controversial way of generating power. Nonetheless, Mad Science adds important research and argument to the case against nuclear power.
Mangano’s conclusion about nuclear power’s continued viability seems applicable not just to the US but around the world. While the UK government has recently granted EDF permission to build two new reactors at Hinkley Point, in Somerset, according to the World Nuclear Report 2012, major nuclear projects were abandoned in six countries last year, while four (Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and Taiwan) announced that they would phase out nuclear power altogether. This does not include Japan, where after more than a year in which no nuclear power stations were running following the meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear plant, the Ohi reactor was restarted, but the future of Japanese nuclear power is surely doubtful.
The most obvious cause of this grim picture for nuclear power enthusiasts is of course the reminder provided by Fukushima of the potential for nuclear accidents. Mangano does not address the legacy of Fukushima specifically but, in the US context, argues that economic factors are more important in the decline of nuclear power than is often allowed. The US nuclear industry is supposed to have been damaged because the public panicked about safety issues following the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979. Mangano points out however that the last nuclear reactor which actually managed to open was approved six years before Three Mile Island, in 1973. A major nuclear disaster is unlikely ever to endear the industry to the public, but the problems in US industry were evident long before.
Nuclear power stations were supposed to produce electricity which was ‘too cheap to meter’, as Lewis Strauss, chair of the Atomic Energy Commission pronounced in 1954, as part of a vision of a futuristic ‘age of peace’, in which people would also ‘travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and with great speeds’ (p.15). The reality however did not live up to the science fiction: building and operating nuclear reactors turned out to take much longer, cost much more, and be more risky than had originally been anticipated.
This was a problem because in the US, power generation was a matter for the private sector. In 1954, this also applied to nuclear, as the Atomic Energy Act allowed private companies access to technical information about nuclear power generation and enabled them to get licences from the government to start nuclear reactors. The first hurdle these companies faced was insuring themselves against the financial consequences of a nuclear accident, which a 1957 estimate put at potentially $7 billion. No insurance company would take this on, so the government was compelled to pass the Price-Anderson Act, limiting the liability of nuclear plant owners to $60m. Other countries followed suit, so for example energy companies in the UK now have maximum liability of £140 million if they allow their reactor to meltdown. This may seem like a significant sum and it would make a dent in any company’s balance sheet, but for comparison, the cost of Fukushima on the latest estimate could be as high as $70 billion.
Even with this limitation of liability, nuclear power generation turned out to be a difficult activity to make profitable. Reactor construction tended to take a long time; sometimes as long as fifteen years between permission to start building and actually generating electricity. Problems once up and running meant that the plants ran at lower capacities than would have been estimated. By the late 1980s, US nuclear power plants were still running at an average of only 57% of capacity and some experimental reactor types never got off the ground. It is often claimed than modern nuclear reactors are much less problematic than the early designs: defenders of nuclear power argue that the reactors at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima were old technology and more risky than newer types. This may be so, but nuclear power generation is still seen as a dangerously unprofitable enterprise. In 2012, ratings agencies downgraded seven energy companies and approved RWE and E.ON pulling out of UK nuclear reactor plans because this meant that they could ‘focus on investment in less risky projects’ (World Nuclear Report 2012).
As with any privatised industry, the fortunes of nuclear power in the US have depended on its short-term profitability for the private companies concerned. The government assumed the lion’s share of the risk, but as Mangano shows, was prevented from making nuclear power happen in the way it wanted by that fact that the industry was run according to the needs of the market. It is a useful demonstration of how privatisation promotes profits at the expense of everything else, regardless of whether we celebrate or deplore the end of nuclear power.
Whether a world free from nuclear power would be a good or a bad thing is of course the fundamental question, setting the safety of nuclear power generation against the idea that it is a green option. Mangano describes how the attempt to resurrect nuclear power from the late 1990s used the argument that nuclear power was green power, since the nuclear reaction does not emit any greenhouse gases. He points out that for the nuclear industry this was more a useful ploy than an argument emerging from a deeply-held belief in the necessity of combating climate change, and that the green credentials of nuclear power can be overstated. The reaction itself may be carbon-free, but every other step in generating nuclear power, from making the concrete to build the plants, to mining the uranium, to disposing of the waste, is not.
For defenders of nuclear power however, the point is that whatever the greenhouse gas emissions associated with nuclear power, they are less than those made from using fossil fuels. Lynas, for example, cites the calculation that Chinese nuclear power generation would displace six million tonnes of CO2 per year per plant. In this view, nuclear is the only realistic replacement for fossil fuel power generation: our choices are not between renewables (solar, wind, wave power etc.) and nuclear or fossil fuels, but between nuclear and renewables or fossil fuels and renewables. To argue this however, green nuclear power enthusiasts have not only to convince us that nuclear power is green, but also that it can be safe. The most fervent environmental argument about nuclear power is not about its carbon footprint, but how many people it has killed.
The sixty-year history of nuclear power generation is littered with major accidents: Windscale in 1957, Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011. The nuclear industry in the West and its supporters cannot pretend that these did not happen, although the USSR was able to keep what appears to have been a serious accident at their nuclear plant at Chelyabinsk in 1957 secret until the late 1980s. Nuclear accidents differ from other industrial accidents in that potential casualties may not fall ill until much later, so the final death toll is not immediately apparent. This opens the door for the argument that they are not as serious as a scaremongering media and panicking public might think.
Thus there are extreme differences between the maximum and minimum numbers said to have been killed as a result of Chernobyl. The International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that about fifty people who worked at the plant or in the emergency services responding to the accident died shortly afterwards and about 4,000 other ‘excess deaths’ are expected. On the other hand, in 2009, three Russian scientists published ‘The Difficult Truth about Chernobyl’, in which they presented evidence for 985,000 excess deaths between 1986 and 2004 and a collapse in childhood health in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia (p.228). Nuclear supporters dismiss this as paranoid: a familiar argument about nuclear accidents, deployed about both Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, is that depression caused by the fear of nuclear exposure is worse for those who were living near the plants than the risk of cancer as a result of the accident. No doubt people are also now saying this about Fukushima. Mark Lynas argued in 2011 that no one had died as a result of Fukushima, although it was surely then, and still is now, too early to tell.
The pro-nuclear position that Fukushima can be regarded as nothing more than a moderate industrial accident requires exposure to even large doses of radiation to be safe. It may be difficult to trace beyond doubt the effects of Chernobyl on the large populations exposed to it, and too soon to be definitive about the effect of Fukushima, but as Mangano makes clear, this does not mean that we have no evidence about the advisability or otherwise of exposing people to radiation leaks. The normal operation of nuclear power plants in the US has given us ample evidence of how likely the major accidents are to have caused harm.
This is Mangano’s particular area of interest, as he is director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, and one of the strengths of the book is its detailed examination of the evidence for the health risks of the normal operation of nuclear plants. It is first of all noteworthy that normal operation can include a number of accidents: Three Mile Island is the well-known US nuclear accident, but there are others, including a meltdown at an experimental reactor at Santa Susana, California in 1959, which may have released more radioactivity than Three Mile Island, and a less serious incident at Browns Ferry, Alabama in 1975. The operation of any nuclear plant also involved some routine releases of radiation outside of major incidents.
As a result of popular pressure the federal government was forced to fund a report into the effect of nuclear plants on the populations living around them. Issued in 1990, the report was greeted as a clean bill of health for the nuclear industry, as it proclaimed that there was ‘no evidence that an excess occurrence of cancer has resulted from living near nuclear facilities’ (p.161). However, this was more a whitewash than the final word on nuclear safety. Mangano points out a number of serious flaws in the study which undermine its optimistic conclusions.
The study was based on a comparison of cancer rates in counties near to nuclear facilities with counties having similar demographics elsewhere. The selection of areas for study was rather arbitrary from the start, as it excluded all nuclear plants which were not operating by 1981 and some others, like the Santa Susana reactor. This meant that some of the control counties were themselves close to nuclear plants not included in the study, so they were hardly providing a baseline of cancer rates which could not possibly be affected by nuclear power generation. The analysis of death rates by county also ignored wind direction: it would not be particularly surprising if areas upwind (according to prevailing wind direction) of a nuclear plant did not show a marked increase in cancer deaths, but this could not be taken, as the study did, as evidence that there is no risk to health in living downwind from one. Finally, the study only looked at cancer deaths, rather than at cancer cases, so ignored cases of cancers like thyroid cancer which is often curable. Of course, the study was also limiting itself by only looking at cancer rather than other potential health effects like infant mortality.
As Mangano shows, even with this selective use of data, the federal study did provide some indications of health problems caused by nuclear power plants, at odds with its executive summary. The analysis of counties near Three Mile Island, for example, showed that incidence of ten types of cancer had increased since the plant was started up, and childhood cancer deaths rose by 10%. In addition, studies carried out by his Radiation and Public Health Project have suggested that there is a clear effect on the health of nearby populations from nuclear power plants, including a striking decline in infant deaths, birth defects and childhood cancers within two years of the closure of a plant. Also suggestive is work by Ernest Sternglass, who pointed out that US infant mortality rates had been falling steadily from 1935-1950, in line with improvements in health care and living standards, but then levelled off for 1951-1964, before then starting to decline again. No one has come up with an explanation for what amounts to 375,000 excess infant deaths, except that the US began to test large scale nuclear weapons in the Nevada desert in 1951 and stopped doing so in 1963.
Since there are therefore distinct suggestions that nuclear power plants may not be good for the health of the people living downwind of them, it seems likely that a meltdown, which releases far more radiation in one go than during normal operation, would have marked deleterious effects. The studies of the health effects of the US nuclear programme make the larger rather than the smaller estimate of the death toll from Chernobyl seem more likely. Chillingly, Mangano points out that there is reason to think that as far as nuclear accidents are concerned, we have so far got off lightly. Many US reactors are located close to major cities, and in 1966, for example, the Fermi 1 reactor came perilously close to a major explosion which would have irradiated most of Detroit. Older reactors are also more dangerous than newer ones because they have amassed more spent fuel. One of the features of the Fukushima disaster was that some of the cooling pools, used to cool spent fuel rods safely, ran dry and caught fire. The reactors at Fukushima were relatively young and had not built up a large amount of spent fuel. If the same type of accident were to happen at one of the many older US plants, with cooling pools already filled to more than capacity with spent fuel rods, the release of radioactivity would be very much greater.
The response to all this from pro-nuclear greens would be that industrial accidents happen in any industry. This is clearly true: recently fifteen people were killed and buildings flattened in West, Texas after a fertilizer plant exploded. The evidence Mangano presents does suggest that there is a difference in scale. Nuclear power is the only type of power generation to be able to kill nearly a million people from a single accident. However, this is not really the point.
Pro-nuclear environmentalists are effectively arguing that we have to choose between a number of murderous power generation options, and since they all kill people, we may as well go for the one which is least bad for the climate. This is indeed the unpalatable choice if we only look at what would be attainable within the current framework of power generation run by private companies for their profit. If we were able to plan our power generation with the needs of people at the forefront, there is nothing to say that we could not have electricity which managed both not to cook the planet and to kill hundreds of thousands of people. There are after all renewable options out there. Footage of a wind turbine on fire has been seized on with delight by climate change deniers and anti-wind farm campaigners, but as far as I am aware, the death toll remains at zero.
Industrial production under capitalism has always been about making profit while killing and maiming workers and anyone else who could not afford to live far enough away from industry. Just because that has been the norm however is no reason why it must continue in a new century of power generation. What it takes is an understanding that we have to fight to change the system and not simply rely on EDF to decide to build a nuclear reactor rather than a coal-fired power station. The nuclear argument is one of the most contentious and difficult in the environmental movement, and it is far from settled. Mangano’s book provides important ammunition for anyone who sees that nuclear is the answer only if we give up believing in our collective power to change the question.