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green and sustainable business

No Doublespeak in Nukespeak

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In The Stand, one of Stephen King’s early (and imo best) novels a nuclear power plant becomes a central part of the action, and indeed is instrumental in keeping the world from descending into barbarism.

It sort of makes the point that, as The Police say, “When the world is running down/You make the best of what’s still around.” There is something to be said for the role of nuclear power as part of the modern-day, post-carbon-based fuel energy mix.

But a revised and updated version of the Sierra’s Club‘s classic Nukespeak throws some needed clear thinking about the inherent dangers of nuclear energy and concludes, as the first edition did, that it’s not really worth the risk.

Nearly 30 years ago, in the wake of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, the first edition of Nukespeak from Sierra Club Books was published and immediately framed public debate on the immense risks of nuclear technology.

The extensively revised and updated edition promises to continue that debate, especially in the aftermath of the March earthquake and tsunami that struck the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan.

According to the Club, the original 1982 edition broke through the “linguistic filter of the nuclear mindset,” by documenting how nuclear developers confused their hopes—remember the dream of energy too cheap to meter?—with reality, covered up damaging information, harassed and dismissed scientists who disagreed with official policy, and generated false or misleading statistics to bolster their assertions about the benefits and safety of nuclear power.

“Sadly, these developers also failed to learn from their mistakes—as this updated 30th anniversary edition of the book makes abundantly clear,” authors Richard C. Bell, Rory O’Connor and Stephen Hilgartner write. The new edition examines the critical events of the last three decades—including Chernobyl; nuclear proliferation thanks to the fiction of “Atoms for Peace”; the campaign to re-brand nuclear power as a clean, green solution to global warming; and the still-unfolding disaster at Japan’s Fukushima power plant. The updated edition argues that “nukespeak” and the nuclear mindset continue to dominate public debate about nuclear weapons and nuclear power “in a continuing attempt to seduce us into accepting the unthinkable.”

Looking at the turbulent history of nuclear power, “we human beings have often struggled to see the big picture. Perhaps it’s the sheer enormity of the risks that makes them hard to comprehend,” says Michael Brune, executive director if the Sierra Club in the book’s preface. He concludes, “Even an imperfect glimpse of the big picture should be enough for us to see that those kinds of risks are just not worth it. Not when we have technologies like wind, solar, and geothermal that can deliver energy without the threat of a cataclysm beyond our ability to comprehend.”

A main message from the book is that the more things have changed in the nuclear field since 1979, the more they have remained the same. “Nuclear developers worldwide maintain the same culture and ways of thinking, and the same lack of transparency, as they did thirty years ago. The same sloppy mix of public relations and industry dominated regulatory bodies is still a hallmark of the nuclear power industry.”

Yes, there are pros and cons when it comes to nuclear power. For one thing the demand for alternatives to fossil-fuel energy options means that nuclear energy is likely to remain part of that mix, at least as an intermediate solution until clean energy sources fully emerge. For another, compared to conventional fossil fuel-based power plants, nuclear plants are more efficient and produce almost carbon-free clean electricity.

But is the risk embedded in nuclear power really worth it?

Here’s Nukespeak: “The accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima remind us again that, in spite of their allegedly redundant defense-in-depth design safety features, nuclear power plants can indeed fail, with extremely costly and deadly consequences. Attempts to correct past errors have led to huge increases in the price tags of new plants, making them so expensive that only massive government subsidies keep the nuclear industry afloat.”

Meanwhile the costs of renewable energy sources are continuing to fall and “investments in energy efficiency provide far higher rates of return than those in nuclear plants.”

Nukespeak is a powerful reminder of the follies and misconceptions that still surround nuclear power. It re-frames the debate for the twenty-fist century.

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