Soon after the Paris agreements on climate change were signed, The Guardian carried an opinion piece titled “There is a new form of climate denialism to look out for—so don’t celebrate yet” (Oreskes, 2015). What’s being denied is the possibility that the goals of the agreement can be met using a 100% renewable energy resource strategy—the explicit implication of which is that nuclear energy is a necessity in order to prevent the world from going to hell in a climatic hand basket.
The opinion piece was written by Naomi Oreskes, co-author of the 2010 book Merchants of doubt: how a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming. As the title suggests, and as other people have argued, the corporate strategy in preventing change that’s not in their interest is to not disprove claims that industrial practices cause harm but rather to lend legitimacy to the claim that there’s no proof of harm, which enables the matter to be settled by the politics of the regulatory process—a process that is a captive of the industries regulated.
More alarming, it is not just nuclear industry scientists and rightwing cranks who are flogging renewable energy but reputable climate scientists and environmentalists. These include people such as James Hanson (the NASA scientist who has been a leading voice in the science of climate change), James Lovelock (the originator of the Gaia theory that the Earth functions as an organism), and, of course, Al Gore of “An inconvenient truth” fame.
The “merchants of doubt” theme shows up in mainstream media in how the new denialism is covered. In a recent article titled “Is nuclear power our energy future—or a dinosaur in a death spiral?” Dave Levitan writes a he-said-she-said account of the argument between pro- and anti-nuclear climate scientists and activists (Levitan, 2016). This is very much a part of the environment in which the merchants of doubt pedal their wares.
For example, no where in the article will you find information that will help you evaluate the claims made by each side in the argument. If you already think nuclear is a bad idea, your mind won’t be changed. If you already think nuclear is a great idea, your mind won’t be changed. And if you’re trying to promote nuclear, what’s in the article will support you in saying that to avoid the disastrous consequences of climate change we need to deal rationally with the uncertainty inherent in all the options and so, with Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping of China, pursue all of the above—including nuclear.
With Fukushima back on our minds, Levitan says, “By most measures nuclear power is among the safest forms of energy ever devised.” His source? A blog post in which another journalist made some estimates drawn from various official sources—not one piece of science cited (Merchant, 2013). So we don’t even get he-said-she-said. It’s simply the safest form of energy around based on some CDC and similar statistics on deaths in the various energy industries. Nothing is said about other health consequences.
It’s embarrassing to read. It also reflects the position of the US and international nuclear regulatory apparatus, which is that there are no known health impacts of the normal operation of nuclear power plants and minimal impacts from the catastrophic events such as at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima.
Despite those reassurances, many governments have curtailed their nuclear programs in the aftermath of Fukushima. Some, such as Germany, have plans to eliminate nuclear altogether by mid-century in response to public concern. This despite the Japanese government essentially preventing any research into the effect on human health. However, it missed the research on the pale grass blue butterfly in the area surrounding Fukushima after the meltdown (Hiyama et al., 2012). Published in 2012 in Nature Scientific Reports, the research found numerous physiological abnormalities and increases in mortality through many generations of butterfly. The research results were carried widely in the world’s mainstream media. No surprise here, it was extensively attacked. And it was successfully defended (Hiyama et al., 2013).
But butterflies are not humans and a massive meltdown is not normal operation.
Cancer has been the focus of attention in evaluating the human health effects of exposure to ionizing radiation—what gets blown out when a reactor melts down and what leaks out in day-to-day operations. There are practical reasons for this, among them the difficulty of isolating ionizing radiation from other environmental risk factors in explaining diseases. In other words, researchers focus on cancer because it’s an extreme reaction and, if it occurs, then it might imply other damage. However, to the outside world the opposite seems to be true: if cancer doesn’t occur, it implies everything else must be OK.
One of the lead investigators in this research was Chiyo Nohara, a graduate student who previously had a career teaching university accounting when at the age of 55 she entered a PhD program in environmental health in Okinawa. Only a year into her program when Fukushima blew in 2011, she was a major force behind doing the butterfly research and was the principal in collecting samples in the Fukushima area, taking 15 trips over 18 months—during which her health deteriorated. She died of a heart attack in October 2015 (Greaves, 2016).
Did the Fukushima radiation cause Chiyo’s heart attack? Possibly. Her own research results demonstrate that exposure to Fukushima’s ionizing radiation increased biological damage that caused widespread physiological, developmental, and hereditary illness.
But that’s butterflies. What about humans.? John Gofman’s work demonstrated that the low dose ionizing radiation of X-rays damages the heart and increases the risk of heart attacks (Gofman).
What about humans exposed to the normal operation of a nuclear power plant?
The US Nuclear Regulatory Agency, the CDC, the EPA, and the World Health Organization reassure us that there’s no evidence that there’s any effect.
Independent researchers tell a different story. There are something like 60 studies by independent researchers showing an increased incidence of various cancers and all cause mortality among populations within range of nuclear power plants. Many of these focus on cancer in children, who are (depending on the cancer) 10 to 1000 times more sensitive to carcinogens than adults.
A recent one of those studies took a novel approach by looking at the incidence of cancer before and after the closure of the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant outside Sacramento, California (Mangano & Sherman, 2013).
Over the first 15 years following closure, the rate of cancer in children dropped by 18%. By comparison, for the entire state of California the cancer rate for children increased by 3%. That’s an effective decrease of 21%—which brought the Sacramento rates below state levels. Other statistics tell the same story: a variety of health outcomes improved after the Rancho Seco shutdown. It translates into over 4300 children who escaped cancer during the 20 year period following the closure of the nuclear power plant.
In other words, had Rancho Seco stayed open, over those 20 years an additional 4300 children would have diagnosed with cancer.
Other than cancer, how many children escaped physiological, developmental, or hereditary damage as a result of Rancho Seco’s shutdown? We don’t know—which does not mean none occurred nor that it is not possible to know; it means there’s no science upon which to base an estimate; which simply means that no one (specifically regulatory agencies) has been willing to spend the money and time necessary to answer the question.
In other words, the powers that be could better understand the health risks of nuclear, but they choose not to. For example, the last official report on the health effect of living close to a nuclear power plant was by the National Cancer Institute in 1990. It said there was nothing to worry about. It was a methodological mess.
In 2009, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission initiated a new study managed by people fraught with conflicts of interest (for example, the original chair of the project sits on the board of directors of two nuclear corporations). And the new study is being conducted by people “few [of whom] have backgrounds in public health or medicine, and none has ever published a peer-reviewed article on cancer near nuclear plants.” (Sherman, 2015).
This all sounds hopeless. That’s another effect of sowing doubt—it works because we’re kept within the confines of business as usual. Power comes in three forms. The first is simple brute force. The second is the ability to use the rules of the game to your advantage. The third is the ability to define the rules.
For example, why is this discussion about technologies? You and I don’t control decisions over technology. We have to take what the industry offers. The alternatives involving nuclear versus renewables is about how to continue using the grid, a centralized behemoth of technology that enables the continuation of energy production by the same cast of industrial beasts, regulated by the same bunch operators who rotate between government and industry, and run according to the same old set of rules.
Those beasts not only dictate how energy is produced, but how it is consumed. The conflict between an energy future with and without nuclear turns on what is taken to be the future demand for electricity. Where does that estimate come from? From experts who assume the future will be like the past—or more accurately, the future will be like the past as experienced and understood by the industrial beasts that are the energy industry.
In a recent edition of Yes! magazine, a climate scientist writes about how he went about changing his carbon footprint (Kalmus, 2016). He realized that most of the carbon he spewed into the atmosphere was from flying to various sites to conduct his professional business—a variation on “We had to destroy the village in order to save it,” only in this case it was “We had to increase atmospheric CO2 in order to reduce it.” So he stopped flying and did many other things and now lives more simply while still conducting his climate scientist business.
It is a challenge—for him and his family. It would be much easier in a physical and social environment created to accommodate reduced carbon footprints. This would be a physical and social environment that meets our needs without exposing our children to low dose ionizing radiation or any other toxicant for that matter. We would need to seize the means to life and permit the development of technologies to serve it. Although you might not see them on CNN or the PBS Newshour or Fox News, but there are many organizations throughout the United States that are working toward that goal of community-based energy development such as Oakland-based Local Clean Energy Alliance (Local Clean Energy Alliance) and the Washington-based Center for Social Inclusion (Center for Social Inclusion).
Center for Social Inclusion. http://www.centerforsocialinclusion.org/.
Gofman, J. http://www.ratical.org/radiation/.
Greaves, S. (2016). Honouring the life and work of Chiyo Nohara. Science in Society. Retrieved from http://www.i-sis.org.uk/Honouring_the_Life_and_Work_of_Chiyo_Nohara.php
Hiyama, A., Nohara, C., Kinjo, S., Taira, W., Gima, S., Tanahara, A., & Otaki, J. M. (2012). The biological impacts of the Fukushima nuclear accident on the pale grass blue butterfly. Nature: Scientific Reports. Retrieved from http://www.nature.com/articles/srep00570
Hiyama, A., Nohara, C., Kinjo, S., Taira, W., Gima, S., Tanahara, A., & Otaki, J. M. (2013). The Fukushima nuclear accident and the pale grass blue butterfly: evaluating biological effects of long-term low-dose exposures. BMC Evolutionary Biology. Retrieved from http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2148/13/168
Kalmus, P. (2016). How Far Can We Get Without Flying? Yes! Retrieved from http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/life-after-oil/how-far-can-we-get-without-flying-20160211
Levitan, D. (2016). Is nuclear power our energy future — or a dinosaur in a death spiral? Ensia. Retrieved from http://www.ensia.com/features/is-nuclear-power-our-energy-future-or-a-dinosaur-in-a-death-spiral/
Local Clean Energy Alliance. http://www.localcleanenergy.org/.
Mangano, J. J., & Sherman, J. D. (2013). Long-term Local Cancer Reductions Following Nuclear Plant Shutdown. Biomedicine International. Retrieved from http://www.bmijournal.org/index.php/bmi/article/view/26/24
Merchant, B. (2013). What’s the Deadliest Power Source? Motherboard. Retrieved from http://motherboard.vice.com/blog/whats-the-deadliest-power-source
Oreskes, N. (2015). There is a new form of climate denialism to look out for – so don’t celebrate yet. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/dec/16/new-form-climate-denialism-dont-celebrate-yet-cop-21
Sherman, J. (2015). Watching the Nuclear Watchdogs. The Washingtong Spectator. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonspectator.org/watching-nuclear-watchdog/