Tuesday, March 15, 2011

“Experts” Stoking Nuclear Fears

There was an accident at an oil refinery. A series of equipment failures led, eventually, to several explosions and a fire. There were dozens of injuries as workers struggled to bring everything under control. Police had to evacuate the neighborhood. In the middle of all this, many scientists and petrochemical engineers appear on television and in the most public forums they can find. The ongoing disaster is proof, they say, of how safe petroleum really is as an energy source.

No. Obviously, that never happened. No one who works with oil will ever tell you flatly that oil is safe. People who work in a refinery or anywhere there are large amounts of oil are aware of the potential dangers every minute they are there. Rather, the above sequence of events is what is happening right now in the nuclear power industry. I am particularly dismayed to see nuclear scientists exploiting an ongoing disaster to promote their industry.

The nuclear specialists who are so publicly promoting nuclear power have a valid point: people’s fears about radiation leaks from nuclear power stations are sometimes exaggerated. But this is the wrong time to make that point. You cannot brag about safety on a day when people are dying, even if the deaths are not your fault.

It does not help that the public cannot easily separate the legitimate statements on behalf of the nuclear industry from the fake documents that have widely circulated in blogs and e-mail, with more than a few reputable bloggers taken in, claiming to assess the situation at Fukushima. No one has been able to say who really wrote these fake documents, but what is clear is that the authors believe in nuclear safety as a matter of religion or duty rather than science or engineering. Some assert, for example, that it is physically impossible for heavy particles of nuclear material to escape from a reactor core. It is all too easy for people to imagine that this false sense of security is shared by some of the managers of nuclear power stations.

Returning to the more responsible experts who have been heard from, it is still a mistake for them to imply even the slightest criticism of those who are afraid at this point. It must be remembered that we are in the middle of an ongoing disaster with thousands of dead bodies already recovered and so many people missing that it is impossible to get an meaningful estimate of the numbers. It is human nature to be frightened at a time like this. Meanwhile, workers are rushing around a nuclear plant, trying to keep things under control, and running for cover when things blow up. That would be frightening to see even if it were happening at a cookie factory. An entire city has had to be evacuated, and among them, thousands have gone without food for a couple of days. That is no minor inconvenience. Nor is the cost to their customers worldwide, from products that cannot be delivered, a small matter. After the crisis is over, we can ask accountants to add up the numbers and compare the value of the nuclear-generated electricity to the costs of the current evacuation. We can hardly do that now. Anyone who would speak on behalf of the nuclear industry today should be very careful to avoid belittling the efforts and sacrifices of the people most directly affected in Fukushima. Looking or sounding irritated at the inconvenience of the situation while sitting comfortably in a chair, at a time when people are dying and in danger, can easily come across as heartless — and heartless people speaking on behalf of those in positions of power is something people legitimately can fear.