The horrifying news from Fukushima worsens daily. It is an unparalleled global catastrophe that cries out for anyone and everyone with nuclear expertise to pitch in.
Topping this list should be Dr. James Hansen. Hansen is a climate scientist and a hero of the global warming movement. He has courageously engaged in civil disobedience against mountaintop removal and the Keystone Pipeline.
Hansen also claims some nuclear expertise, a credential he’s used to justify his support for a new generation of Small Modular Reactors.
Many of us in the No Nukes campaign find this advocacy profoundly mystifying. Even under the best of circumstances, there will be no SMR prototype for as long as a decade or more.
The SMR’s primary customer, the Tennessee Valley Authority, has now pushed back to 2015 the target date for submitting its construction permit application. Even if wildly successful, the SMR could not meaningfully affect climate change for another 20 years—this in the midst of a crisis Hansen and so many others see as critical and immediate.
The SMR blueprint hinges on technologies that have already failed. The leading candidate for SMR production at this point seems to be Babcock & Wilcox, which brought us Three Mile Island and Ohio’s infamous Davis-Besse. It was there that boric acid ate through a pressure vessel to within a fraction of an inch of major disaster.
Big questions remain unanswered about the SMR’s health and environmental impacts such as on water, vulnerability to terrorism, its effects on waste disposal and much more.
But the most obvious deal killer is economic. Even by current calculations, any new reactor design would have difficulty competing with renewable energy sources, especially solar panels that can be installed on rooftops, thus avoiding transmission costs.
With the nuclear industry’s half-century history of massive delay and cost overruns, we can expect the SMR to come in very late and billions over budget. As climate activist Bill McKibben told The Rumpus in December: “Nuclear power, I mean—it’s just too expensive. It really isn’t going to happen.”
By contrast, the cost of renewables routinely drops, while rising in efficiency and speed of deployment. Germany has addressed the intermittency problem by balancing wind, solar and other sources into an effective baseload supply system. Every dollar diverted from that green-powered mix only worsens our vulnerability to climate disaster.
Given all that, the sales pitch for new nuclear technologies is a dangerous diversion, like building an experimental garage while a raging radioactive fire forever contaminates our only home.
A multimillion-dollar dis-infomercial called “Pandora’s Promise” apparently (the producers have refused to send a review copy) promotes the SMR much like Disney pushed “Our Friend the Atom”—as a “too cheap to meter” miracle with can’t-miss guarantees. Soon to air on CNN (supposedly without a balancing green point of view), the film was partly financed by billionaire Paul Allen, whose Microsoft cohort Bill Gates has invested heavily in new nukes.
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But even Pandora’s mainstays waiver on today’s reactors. In a riveting YouTubed debate, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. calls Pandora an “elaborate hoax.” Director Robert Stone, in turn, terms the current generation of reactors “1960s technology.” Hansen refers to it as “that old technology” and criticizes Japan for building Fukushima in a spot vulnerable to tsunamis.
But California has two “old technology” reactors—at Diablo Canyon in an earthquake/tsunami zone in San Luis Obispo County. (It recently had four, but citizen action thankfully shut two at San Onofre in the southern part of the state.)
Thousands of protesters practicing civil disobedience have been arrested trying to shut down Diablo. It’s time Hansen joined us.
We also need Hansen on the emergency team at Fukushima. Some 1,300 fuel rods are still stranded 100 feet in the air, threatening to spew thousands of times more radiation than was released at Hiroshima/Nagasaki. Fukushima’s three melted cores have yet to be found. Steam bursts indicate fission may still be going on at the site. Heavily contaminated water is pouring out from storage tanks and through the ground, undermining damaged structures and bleeding lethal radiation into the Pacific.
Former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner Dale Klein told Fukushima’s owners “you don’t know what you are doing.” Japan’s government acknowledges there’s an “emergency” but has no credible solution. Evidence of serious damage to sea life and human infants is mounting. The situation is dire and worsening, with no end in sight.
Thus the need for the world’s nuclear scientists and engineers to converge on Fukushima is increasingly desperate.
We hope Hansen will switch from pushing the theoretical new SMR to helping humankind bring this all-too-real “old technology” disaster under control.
Perhaps he, McKibben, George Monbiot and other key climate activists can join us at Diablo Canyon to prevent the next Fukushima from happening there. Or at one of America’s three dozen “old technology” reactors threatened by global-warmed dam breaks and flooding, which has already inundated two reactors in Nebraska. Or at one of three U.S. reactors already damaged by seismic shocks, which in many places are being made even more dangerous by fracking.
Hansen certainly has the right to advocate a new generation of reactors. We can respectfully disagree.
But ask yourself: When you draw a line from Three Mile Island through Chernobyl and Fukushima, what comes next?
At the very least—before anyone spends time and money on still more atomic pipe dreams—we need a unified global scientific community to put an end to the escalating radioactive horror that’s with us now.