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Opinion: Imagining the unimaginable in a post-Fukushima world.
NEW YORK — Public confidence in nuclear power took a fresh blow last week when yet another Japanese plant shut down because of problems with its cooling system.
After the catastrophic accident at Fukushima in March, when a tsunami washed over the plant, knocked out cooling systems and led to multiple reactor meltdowns, do we really need another reminder that constant cooling is central to the safety of nuclear reactor operations?
And how can we make nuclear plants safe if we literally do not have the words and metaphors to “imagine the unimaginable?”
In our book, “Nukespeak: The Selling of Nuclear Technology from the Manhattan Project to Fukushima,” we argue that proponents of nuclear technology have evolved their own language, Nukespeak.
Three decades ago, for example, U.S. nuclear officials called the accident at Three Mile Island everything but an accident: instead, it was an event, an incident, an abnormal evolution, a normal aberration, and a plant transient. A few years earlier, India referred to its nuclear bomb as a peaceful nuclear device. The highly radioactive wastes from nuclear power plants go by the benign name of "spent fuel rods."
Like its namesake language Newspeak in George Orwell’s 1984, Nukespeak encodes a mindset — the beliefs and world view of nuclear developers. The word mindset means what it implies, a mind that is already set. The nuclear mindset acts like a filter, sorting information and perceptions, allowing some to be processed and some to be ignored, consciously or unconsciously.
Major nuclear accidents always produce torrents of Nukespeak. Take Chernobyl, where the accident began on April 26, 1986 with an explosion that destroyed reactor 4. The nearest town, Pripyat, was just two kilometers away in the then-Soviet republic of Ukraine. Yet Soviet authorities waited 36 hours before ordering its evacuation, even then using language that gave only the slightest hint of the danger residents faced. According to the Moscow Times:
A monotonous “Attention! Attention!” announcement started reverberating through the town’s loudspeakers, a record of which can still be found in online archives. A woman said in a calm voice that residents needed to evacuate because “in connection with an accident, an ... unfavorable radioactive atmosphere is settling on the town of Pripyat.” [authors’ italics].
This “unfavorable radioactive atmosphere” resulted in thousands of deaths.
Minimizing the dangers of nuclear technology is a defining characteristic of Nukespeak. During the early 1950s, the United States government aggressively promoted what was called civil defense, an effort that floundered once the public learned enough to understand that there was no “defense,” civil or otherwise, from bombs equivalent to the explosion of millions of tons of TNT.
More than a half-century later, Nukespeak was on full display as the Fukushima disaster began to unfold. Japanese government and utility officials became notorious for their inability to communicate clearly.
For example, when there was an explosion at Reactor No. 1, spewing radioactive material into the air, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) issued a statement saying only that “a big sound and white smoke” had been seen near Reactor No. 1.
Nukespeak reflects the quasi-religious belief of scientists and engineers in their power to use technology to find solutions to any problem, no matter how difficult, a belief that they rationalize no matter how many times they are proven wrong.
After Fukushima, Japanese officials were quick to claim that no one could have imagined the magnitude of the tsunami that swept over the seawall protecting the Fukushima plants. Yet in villages along the coast, ancient pillars and tablets known as “tsunami stones” warn, “Do not build your homes below this point!” The village of Aneyoshi, north of Fukushima, has such a stone. The Mar. 11, 2011 tsunami stopped 300 feet below it.
Back in the United States, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission could hardly claim the serious problems in the design of the reactors that had failed in Japan, the General Electric Mark 1, were unimaginable. After all, there are 23 Mark 1 design reactors operating in the United States — and as far back as 1972, an Atomic Energy Commission safety official named Stephen H. Hanauer had recommended that the AEC order the Mark 1 design be stopped. In a memo, he pointed out that the design was susceptible to explosions and rupture from a buildup in hydrogen — precisely what happened at Fukushima.
Nor was Hanauer a lone wolf. In 1976, Joseph Hendrie, who would later become chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, also endorsed the idea that the Mark 1 be discontinued. But Hendrie noted that the design had already been so widely accepted that “reversal of this hallowed policy, particularly at this time, could well be the end of nuclear power.”
Despite their reservations, U.S. regulatory officials were unable to imagine that a catastrophic accident might actually occur. The inability of Hanauer and Hendrie to force their bosses to act on their concerns can be said ultimately to have led to the disaster at Fukushima.
What is truly frightening to consider now is how many other “unimaginable” disasters may be lurking, either ignored or hidden away under layers of classification. Calls for transparency in government are everywhere; if ever there were an area where it should be a paramount virtue, it is in nuclear technology.
Only 10 of Japan’s 54 reactors remain on the grid. Germany recently announced plans to eliminate all nuclear power production by 2022. Instead of continuing to ask for multi-billion dollar loan guarantees, the Obama administration should forget about a “nuclear renaissance” — talk about Nukespeak! — and let the “invisible hand” of a skeptical marketplace bury the industry once and for all.
Rory O’Connor and Richard C. Bell are the authors of “Nukespeak: The Selling of Nuclear Technology from the Manhattan Project to Fukushima.” For the 30th anniversary of the book, the authors have updated a new e-book edition that includes new chapters covering major developments in the intertwined worlds of nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. The new edition also covers Chernobyl and Fukushima, the two major reactor accidents since Sierra Club Books published the printed version.