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My Favourite Planet > Blogs > Edwin Drood's Column > April 2011
back Edwin Drood's Column
12 April 2011
The unclear future
In which Edwin predicts the demise of the nuclear industry as we know it,
though perhaps not for the expected reasons and notwithstanding the possible
rise of another industry based on the far safer processes of another kind of fission.

The unquiet dead accuse them. Did they actually know the risks involved, all along? Did they lie about that knowledge? Did they have doubts they refused to admit or discuss? The answer to all these questions is “yes”. Unfortunately, in a nation that makes such a virtue of conformity, self-abnegation and the acceptance of authority, that affirmative answer is a form of patriotism: yet another rather creepy example of what happens when an otherwise virtuous trait of the national character visits the dark side.
Buoys in the flood
The unclear future at the Mysterious Edwin Drood's Column
A major disaster is either a bombshell out of the blue or an otherwise predictable event that massively exceeds our expectations. It bypasses contingency plans and makes all our calculations irrelevant. While trying to learn from recent history, It is important to notice how few people actually lost their lives directly to the Sendai earthquake, an event that exceeded expectations but for which engineered solutions and emergency plans were ready, and how many were lost to the tsunami, another predictable event, but one that dwarfed all expectations and made a nonsense of contingency plans. One may excuse the failure to build effective defences against a swell of such magnitude. After all, who wants to live inside a gigantic, elastic moored flood buoy, or in the shadow of a ten metre high sea-wall, a wave-resistant concrete rescue mushroom? Well, maybe the returning population will think differently about such barricades and islands in the light of recent events. However, the third punch in this flurry of body-blows, the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, was not only predictable, but should have been seen as inevitable.

In order to build a truly reliable system, you must:

“assume it will fail. For a nuclear facility, aside from specifically hardening against disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, terrorist-flown airplanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, malicious actors, etc., you must also make the fundamental engineering assumption that it will melt down.”

This is from atomic physicist Bram Cohen, writing a few days ago on the safety lessons of Sendai. Mr Cohen is not exactly on the side of the angels here, but then he’s not rooting for the devil either. That’s because he is a proponent of liquid fluoride thorium reactors, otherwise known as “lifters”, from their acronym LFTR. In the current absence of sufficiently copious, reliable, technologically viable and, above all, sustainable alternatives, lifter reactors, with their inherent stability and far greater productivity than uranium-based facilities, would be the nuclear physicists dream, were it not for the stranglehold that the nuclear weapons industry and its traditional fuel of choice, uranium, has on the world’s atomic psyche as well as its cheque book.
Poison the ‘hood
Cohen goes on to explain that the most important aspect of any nuclear facility, and what makes his science so safe, is not how it is engineered to avoid a meltdown, but rather “what happens when a meltdown does occur.” Clearly, poisoning the entire neighbourhood and making at least 7500 square kilometres of land unusable for decades, maybe even centuries, is definitely not any part of the procedure he and his colleagues are touting. “Regardless of how many layers of security you build into something, what really determines its fundamental safety is what happens if all systems fail at once” says Mr Cohen as he argues the case for the safer science of fluoride and thorium. But beyond these secure layers of multiple redundancy and default shutdown procedures, lies another kind of safety net for after the event: major liability insurance.

Short of actually suing the utility or the government, liability insurance, or so we naturally assume, is the sole means of financial redress in a worst case scenario ... well, maybe not. Because for those who saw the video posted by Japanese journalists driving through the exclusion zone – the only sounds being the ticking of their Geiger counters and the accelerating beeps of their alarms, the only signs of life being packs of confused dogs looking for their evacuated owners and herds of stray cattle gradually going native – the probability that all that eerie desolation was not only perfectly predictable but quite deliberately and cynically written into the investors’ profits but out of the insurance policy is utterly sickening. Yet this is what has indeed happened, not only in Fukushima, but everywhere in the world where the nuclear industry has a toehold. And for this reason, if for no other more scientific one, it has to go. No excuses, no delays, shut it all down now!

To prepare my case, what better than this little taster:

“April 12 (Reuters) - Japan is weighing raising the severity level of its nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to a level 7 from level 5, putting it at par with the accident at the Chernobyl reactor in 1986, Kyodo news agency reported on Tuesday.

Kyodo said the government's Nuclear Safety Commission has estimated the amount of radioactive material released from the reactors in Fukushima, northern Japan, reached a maximum of 10,000 terabequerels per hour at one point for several hours, which would classify the incident as a major accident according to the INES scale.

The scale, short for International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale, is published by the International Atomic Energy Agency and ranks nuclear and radiological accidents and incidents by their severity from 1 to a maximum of 7.”

This means the Japanese can expect a 7,500 - 10,000 square kilometre exclusion zone (50 km or more) around the Fukushima plant in the next few days, with all that this entails in terms of mass evacuations, provision of emergency accommodation and infrastructure, etc.

But it doesn’t stop there, because this was not an unsophisticated eastern European rural community under communist rule. This incident involves resettling the entire active citizenry of a densely populated, sophisticated urban and suburban network of commuter towns, the re-siting of technical industries, services and production facilities, the re-routing of rail links and highways, the re-cutting of canals and other waterways and the relaying of many thousands of kilometres of water and power lines. A million, possibly several millions of highly employable people and their families who already are, or will shortly find themselves, suddenly left without homes, jobs, schools, communities, offices, hospitals, shops, parks and gardens, friends and neighbours will need to have their existences reconstructed for them. They will have lost everything familiar and become refugees in their own country. All the multi-layered implicit and explicit social contracts of the modern world will need to be rewritten; the very fabric of their lives – past, present and future – will need to be rewoven.
Noise in the blood
Who will provide all this, where will they provide for it and for how long? Three to five generations, maybe more? Who will guarantee all these futures? And who will look these people in the eyes as the decaying radiation ticks away in their blood and they can neither find partners to found families with nor make friends outside their own accursed community of internal exiles? I defy any government to give full and honest answers to these questions.

And who, when all is arranged, if it can ever be arranged, will foot the bill? Not an already bankrupt utility, not even an entire industry fighting for its financial life. The answer, as I mentioned above, ought to be insurance. But there is a very big catch, and this is where it gets especially ugly. If the IAEA does not have an INES level above 7, this is not because of a lack of possibilities for more severe incidents, but simply because such events lie outside the parameters of reasonable calculation. In other words, that which does not exist on paper because it cannot be quantified cannot be taken into account.

Like any major industry, at least since Union Carbide’s disaster in Bhopal, the nuclear industry is required by law in all civilized countries to have its facilities insured, not only for damage to the immediate area, but also for any short and long-term financial, infrastructural, social and health effects an accident might provoke in populations. Insurance agencies and their backers in banks and reserve funds, are by nature cautious and will not underwrite cover for unlimited liability or incalculable risk. The IAEA obviously cannot publicly suggest that such a risk exists (for example, by using a 1 – 9 ‘Richter-style’ scale, that increases severity by powers of 10), because if it were to admit this possibility, no reactor anywhere would ever receive funding, public or private. No serious investor would put money into a process whose possible ramifications might turn out to be uninsurable.

An “uninsured” meltdown (and please note that a “fully covered meltdown scenario” is oxymoronic), would result in law-suits of such horrendous dimensions as to vastly overstretch the otherwise elastic boundaries of the term "venture capital". Investors would find themselves facing the chilling prospect of a loss of several thousand percent through liability litigation. By the way, the current insurance provisions for a nuclear incident in my adopted country of Belgium are limited to a mere 5 million Euros (three million from the insurance industry and another two million from the government).  In the event of a meltdown, this would just about cover flowers for the mass funerals. 

Personally, I hope for the sake of big science that they either discover a fusion solution soon, or that the “lifter lobby” at last gets some real political backing, because otherwise I firmly believe that the nuclear industry, at least as we currently know it, is going to be driven out of existence in a very short time by such obvious insurance lacuna. And wouldn’t it be ironic if the nervous jitters of big investors rather than the genuine reservations of little environmentalists were to end up finally killing the goose that laid the glowing golden eggs?

So what can we learn from all this? The most obvious lessons are: there are no guarantees of safety and your insurance is probably void. Assume you are being lied to, assume the worst and above all, assume that you’re on your own. Don’t give in to unreasonable fears, keep a cool head, do your own research and make plans accordingly. It's safer that way. And even after they’ve told you it’s safe to go back, safe to drink the water, safe to trust the atom. Go on assuming that you’re being lied to. Keep up with the iodine pills a while longer. Even if the current “facts” may prove you wrong, history will probably prove you right.

© Edwin Drood, April 2011
Edwin Drood's Column, the blog by The Mysterious Edwin Drood,

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