Special Report

Pass the Plutonium

Fukushima is not the end of nuclear power -- just the opposite. Even Dick Durbin might agree.

By 4.1.11

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People think that Fukushima will mean the end of nuclear power, but I'm convinced it's the opposite. We're going to lose our nuclear virginity over this accident and start seeing the world as adults. In fact it's already happening.

Exhibit A is George Monbiot, the left-wing British columnist and global warming fanatic with the Guardian who explained to readers three days after the earthquake, "Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power." 

You will not be surprised to hear that the events in Japan have changed my view of nuclear power. You will be surprised to hear how they have changed it. As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology.

Monbiot's point is quite simple. For years we've lived with the impression that a nuclear meltdown is the equivalent of a nuclear bomb going off, killing thousands and leaving whole landscapes uninhabitable. Now we've had one and look what's happened. The fourth worst earthquake in history has failed to crack open the concrete containment and the difficulty arose only because the utility didn't have enough backup electricity on hand. Fukushima remains a horribly dangerous situation and the workers who are bringing the reactor under control ought to be given a parade down Broadway when it's finally over. But what has the toll been so far? One worker died in a steam explosion and others have been exposed to levels of radiation that may increase their chances of getting cancer somewhere down the line. But this is basically an industrial accident. As Monbiot points out, coal mining in China kills more people in a week than ever died as a result of Chernobyl.

The real problem at Fukushima has been that headline writers can't seem to keep the phrases "catastrophe" and "holocaust" out of their vocabulary. At one point, one cable news website headline read, "Steam Explosion at Reactor, 10,000 Dead." The 10,000 deaths, of course, were from the earthquake but you have to read the story to discover that. This week in the print edition of the New York Times, theScience section ran a headline, "When All Isn't Enough to Stop a Catastrophe," claiming that "Nuclear plants have plans for every contingency, but no one can predict everything that might go wrong." But the only catastrophe the authors could come up with was the failure of an emergency shutdown system in New Jersey in 1983 where there was no fuel melt and no one was hurt. The story ended with a risk analysis specialist saying, "On a continuum, there is no question in my mind that the dangers from fossil fuel burning should worry us more."

One by one, the nuclear myths have fallen. In the immediate aftermath, reporters and commentators right up to Bill O'Reilly were anticipating a dreaded "meltdown" would be the equivalent of a nuclear bomb. In fact, a meltdown simply means the fuel has melted to the bottom of the steel pressure vessel, which is inside the concrete containment structure. In days of yore environmentalists dreamed up "The China Syndrome," which had the fuel melting through the pressure vessel, then through the concrete containment and continuing on its way to China until it hit groundwater, at which point it would cause a steam explosion that would kill everybody in Los Angeles -- or at least that's what Jane Fonda was told. Three Mile Island proved this wouldn't happen. Fukushima has confirmed it.

Another hot button has been plutonium, an artificial element formed in a reactor. (Plutonium is forged in supernovas, along with all the other heavy elements, but it disappeared on earth long ago.) In the effort to portray nuclear power as the devil's handiwork, Ralph Nader once labeled plutonium "the most toxic substance ever known to mankind." In fact it is about as toxic as caffeine. Bernard Cohen, the tireless crusader for nuclear common sense, offered many times to eat as much plutonium as Nader would eat caffeine on "The Tonight Show" but Nader never took him up.

Failing to convince anyone of plutonium's toxicity, Nader next announced that "one pound of plutonium would be enough to kill everyone on earth." The scenario here was plutonium, if ground into fine dust and breathed in by everyone on earth, would eventually give everyone lung cancer. As the late Petr Beckmann responded, "So would tomorrow's production of hatpins kill everyone on earth if carefully placed in each individual heart."

All this came back again last week when traces of plutonium turned up in seawater. Was the nuclear holocaust eminent? Not at all. The plutonium in seawater is no more dangerous than barium or americium or any of the other radioactive elements that accumulate in nuclear fuel rods. We don't want to be exposed to too much of them, but iodine-131 is the truly bad actor because it migrates to the thyroid gland and causes thyroid cancer. The usual route of exposure is ingestion from milk and vegetables, however, and it can be carefully monitored. Naturally we want to limit exposure to these radioactive elements as much as possible, but radiation is not a death ray and exposure does not equal instant death.

So the encouraging news out of Fukushima is that that all these bad things have happened and we're still miles away from anything that could be called a "nuclear holocaust." Monbiot debated the venerable Helen Caldicott on Democracy Now! on Wednesday and it took Caldicott only 30 seconds to conjure up another doomsday scenario. The fuel rods in one reactor, she said, had already melted through the steel pressure vessel (not true) and were lying on the concrete floor. The plutonium in the rods would soon react with the concrete and cause a hydrogen explosion, which would blow the containment structure to smithereens and scatter a radioactive plume all over Japan, making it uninhabitable forever, and then drift over to the United States and kill a lot of people here as well. Caldicott has been conjuring such apocalyptic visions for thirty years but now it seemed oddly quaint. Even the Democracy Now! anchor looked skeptical. Monbiot gently chided her for making "unjustifiable and excessive claims for the impact of that radiation" and accused her of encouraging "what could be far more devastating to the lives of the people in Japan -- a wild overreaction in terms of the response in which we ask the Japanese people to engage." That's not the kind of reaction Caldicott usually expects.

But there's more. At the hearings of the Senate Energy and Water subcommittee on Wednesday, Democratic Majority Whip Dick Durbin, one of the most liberal members of the Senate, asked Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko and Deputy Energy Secretary Peter Lyons why we aren't reprocessing our nuclear fuel. "I remember reading about Sisyphus in college and how he kept pushing the rock up that hill only to have it roll back down again and I realize now the name of that hill was Yucca Mountain," Durbin began.

"What about nuclear reprocessing?" he continued. "There was a time when we took a national position not to reprocess because it might create the opportunity for someone to use plutonium to develop a nuclear weapon. Yet today two of our closest allies, Britain and France, have decided that reprocessing is not only okay, it's a great commercial investment. They are receiving waste from other countries and not only reprocessing it but dramatically reducing the amount of radioactive material."

Now you have to realize how important this is. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter caved in to environmental hysteria and banned nuclear reprocessing on the grounds that we were saving the world from the proliferation of nuclear weapons. John McPhee had written a book, The Curve of Binding Energy, postulating that someone might steal plutonium from a reprocessing factory and use it to make a bomb. His authority was Ted Taylor, one of the U.S. Army's most prolific bomb designers, who had started regretting his work and was also convinced that because he could make a bomb in his basement anyone else could as well. Taylor warned McPhee that there would be "dozens," even "hundreds of [nuclear] explosions a year" once we began to reprocess. Carter swallowed all this and banned reprocessing his first few months in office.

The result was the everlasting pseudo-problem of "nuclear waste." Reprocessing reduces the volume of spent fuel by 95 percent. The amount is already remarkably small (as Gwyneth Cravens, author of Power to Save the World, says, "All the nuclear waste we've ever produced in this country would fit into one Best Buy"), but with reprocessing it is even smaller. The French store all their high-level waste from 30 years of producing 75 percent of their electricity beneath the floor of one room at Le Hague.

Now no Democrat has ever wanted to admit that Carter might have made a mistake, since he meant so well. If they do question the ban on reprocessing, they usually blame President Ford, who temporarily suspended it the year before. Yet now here is Democratic Majority Whip Durbin ending his remarks by saying, "Is that thinking from the Carter Administration really appropriate today?"

Don't be too quick to write off the nuclear renaissance. The world is changing. Nuclear is going to have its day.

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About the Author
William Tucker is news editor for RealClearEnergy.org.