Nuclear Power: Again, Why Not?

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Those who believe that manmade climate change threatens civilization, and even nature itself, with imminent death should be clamoring for more nuclear energy production, which releases no greenhouse gases. I wrote this recently as part of a longish essay about my nonexpert citizen’s skepticism regarding climate change. I speculated that one reason for the fact that there is no closing of the ranks around nuclear energy is that it’s reputed to be dangerous, especially in view of the possibility of radiation leaks. I also argued that, in spite of this ill fame, it’s difficult to find anywhere evidence of much health damage caused by radiation.

This information scarcity makes it difficult to assess the reasonableness of the widespread avoidance of nuclear energy production. Almost everyone who expresses an opinion dislikes it or is mistrustful of it. Voicing the objection that these unfavorable attitudes are not rooted in evidence either raises the eyebrows of disbelief or triggers the silent charge that you have not looked hard enough (which may, of course, be true).

Soon after writing the essay I just mentioned, I read a new book overflowing with anti-nuclear evidence that moved the hand on my clock some — only a little, but enough — to be worth discussing. The book is Kate Brown’s A Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future. In any case, if I don’t discuss it, others will, from a predictably laudatory angle, I would bet.

Brown is an engaging writer, though one with baffling lapses, in several languages.

Brown’s thesis is that the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident released more radioactivity, in more places, for longer than the official sources allow, and that many more people’s health was affected, and much more severely, as well as more lastingly, than is openly acknowledged.

Brown is an engaging writer, though one with baffling lapses, in several languages (“tribunal” for “tribune,” “amass” for “mass,” “bales of hay,” for “bales of wool,” to “curate” for to “examine,” “Judenrein” for “Judenfrei”). Although she is a Soviet expert and a reader of Russian, for several pages (p. 184 and on), she confuses perestroika (“deep societal reform” or “restructuring”) with glasnost (informational “opening,” in the sense of increased transparency). And despite the fact that Brown is a tenacious, assiduous, even a formidable, researcher in the service of her thesis (more on this below), several major defects detract from the persuasiveness of her book.

First, Brown is not a neutral investigator, or even a journalist, but unambiguously an activist who hates nuclear anything. Perhaps as a result, she pretty much treats every dissenting voice as part of a long-lasting conspiracy involving Soviet authorities (national and local — no surprise), major UN agencies, and several US federal agencies, to conceal the scale of the ill effects of radiation exposure, as well as the intensity and duration of such exposure. This is not completely unbelievable. I myself think that the deadly climate change narrative is supported at once by local, national, and international government actors, although not within the context of a conspiracy but of a passively shared perception.

But Brown’s overreliance on a conspiracy explanation ends up undermining the credibility she earns by good archival digging. When she adds the International Red Cross to her already rich mix of plotters, my willingness to suspend disbelief vacillates. I don’t see how it cannot. As she continues, it crashes. The main international organization that cites large numbers of radiation victims following the accident is Greenpeace. But Brown herself honestly describes Greenpeace’s attempt to collect data in the Soviet Union as a fiasco.

Second, and possibly fatally for her, Brown straightforwardly imputes increases in mortality and morbidity in the vicinity of Chernobyl to a rise in radioactivity in the region following the reactor’ meltdown. She does this without benefit of baseline estimates regarding either radioactivity or health conditions before the accident. This is a major defect, of course: you may not impute a rise in Y to a rise in X if you cannot demonstrate a rise in X. In a roundabout way, she admits in several places that she cannot demonstrate a rise in radioactivity around Chernobyl or, in fact, anywhere at all, following the accident. She argues — persuasively if you disregard the rest of her book — that hundreds of nuclear weapons tests in the ’50s and ’60s had so overwhelmingly loaded the atmosphere with radioactivity that it may be difficult or impossible to isolate the comparatively modest radioactive emissions from Chernobyl specifically. (See, for example pp. 244–245, for the radioactive saturation following American tests.)

Brown’s overreliance on a conspiracy explanation ends up undermining the credibility she earns by good archival digging.

But it seems to me that if you are unable to measure a rise in X, there is no point in trying to blame it for a rise in Y. And if you believe that X causes Y and you cannot link an actual increase in Y even to an identified increase in X, you may not claim much about anything. Brown thus finds herself in the impossible situation of trying to demonstrate rigorously that something that she argues cannot be assessed (increase in radioactivity) is the cause of something that she loosely measures or that remains unmeasured (rises in illness and in mortality reasonably traceable to radiation exposure).

Third, like many writers with a cause, Brown devotes no attention to possible negative evidence, to evidence against her thesis. She has nothing to say about situations where there should be an excess of pathologies and of mortality — according to her implicit model that enough exposure to radiation must result in noticeable excess morbidity — but none appears. The book is written a little like a scholarly article in which contradiction is pretty much expected, even guaranteed, from other knowledgeable sources, as part of a social process. But for this book, it’s not, for reasons I develop below.

Some of the book’s tangible findings seem defective as soon as you perform a little comparison around them. For example, Brown deals abundantly with rates, including accident rates, of course, before and after the Chernobyl disaster. But she seldom provides absolute numbers, which alone can tell us how much the rates matter. (If I read that the annual rate of suicide among churchgoing southern black grandmothers of five has increased by 100% in one year, I should ask whether it’s gone from 10,000 to 20,000, or from two to four, or even from one to two.) When she does give real numbers, absolute numbers, the effect tends to be underwhelming in ways she does not seem to understand: “eighty new thyroid cancers among 2.5 million Belarusian children . . .” (p. 250). Obviously, that’s hundreds of tragedies for parents and relatives and for the sick children themselves, but it’s not a massive epidemic. Perhaps it’s no more than a counting error.

Here is an indirect but reasonable comparison of orders of magnitude: in 1990, the rate of child mortality for Russia was 2.15% (“Child Mortality,” Max Roser, Our World in Data, May 10, 2019). Applying this rate to Brown’s 2.5 million children gives us a raw number of children’s deaths from all causes of about 54,000. I am sorry, but 80 out of 54,000 is not a big surplus. This comparison assumes that Belarusian children's death rate from all causes after Chernobyl is similar to Russia’s in 1990. This does not seem farfetched. Furthermore, the 80 thyroid cancers Brown reports probably did not all result in deaths, which makes the raw number of 80, blamed on accidental exposure to radioactivity, look even smaller.

When she does give real numbers, absolute numbers, the effect tends to be underwhelming in ways she does not seem to understand.

More strangely, the author treats what I believe is her best causal evidence with near indifference. She mentions in passing two large studies of nuclear plant workers conducted in Europe, in relative openness and under favorable European conditions — studies that convincingly link exposure to radiation to several pathologies (p. 294). To reach skeptics like me, that research should have been presented at the beginning of the book, rather than near the very end. Since it was not, I have to wonder what’s wrong with this research. (It’s probably nothing, but am I expected to confirm the research myself?)

Even the best evidence that Brown collects herself seems relegated to a near afterthought. She reports that the health statistics for areas affected by radiation remain normal-looking until shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the ’90s, when higher figures begin to show up. It’s as if a lid had been removed that constrained the truth. However, there are other possible explanations for this sudden change and its coincidence with the end of Soviet power; Brown spends little time discussing them.

In spite of its serious structural defects, in spite of its inadequate treatment of intriguing data, I am not able to dismiss Manual for Survival . . . not entirely. The main reason is that I am one of those who secretly suspect (against orthodoxy) that a large enough accumulation of anecdotal evidence ceases to be merely anecdotal.

If nothing else, the secretive habits of the Soviet informational first responders at the time pretty much guaranteed that some data were locked up, and others simply not collected.

Brown has performed huge amounts of both field research and archival research, spread over what seems to be 25 years, or even 30 years. Her perseverance is exceptional. Thanks to the quality of her narrative, the reader easily gathers that much of her work was done under adverse conditions, physically and politically. (The thought crossed my mind that I would want Brown on my side in any bar fight.) But, as I said in an opening paragraph, Brown is an activist. She seems to understand the scientific endeavor, but science isn’t her main business. It’s difficult to imagine anyone checking her numerous sources, except perhaps a scholar funded by the nuclear industry. The hire would pretty much have to be a Ukrainian with a very good command of English, because a high proportion of the book references are in Russian, or even in Ukrainian. It’s not going to happen. No one is likely ever to check all her sources — not even a principled sample of her sources, not even a handful.

Yet, I am thinking, a portion of her alarming assertions is probably true, and official sources probably underestimate the health damage caused by the Chernobyl accident. If nothing else, the secretive habits of the Soviet informational first responders at the time pretty much guaranteed that some data were locked up, and others simply not collected. The health lessons that Chernobyl has for today are still necessarily limited. The accident happened in connection with a primitive nuclear technology and under the rule of a political system that was routinely both criminal and mendacious. Since Chernobyl, the nuclear reactor core at Fukushima melted down in the worst possible context of a natural catastrophe. Dissimulation of the health consequences of the Fukushima disaster was unlikely in the relatively open Japanese society. Radiation leaks took place in the midst of a population especially sensitive to such dangers. And yet, not much appears to have happened to anyone’s health that can be linked to radiation.

So, Manual for Survival has moved the needle a little for me — not much, but some. The best way I can express it is this: I would still advocate the replacement of nearly all coal-fueled energy production plants with nuclear plants. I would probably refrain from the same recommendation in connection with relatively clean natural gas plants. That’s because there is no doubt that coal burning pollutes in several ways, irrespective of the reality of the climate change narrative. Natural gas is so clean by contrast that it may not be worth it to take even the slight and poorly demonstrated health risk that may be associated with accidental radiation exposure in order to avoid burning gas.

Her monumental work is largely irrelevant for rationalists, except from a historical viewpoint. It may stand well as another chapter in the sorry history of the Soviet Union.

Of course, if someone whom I thought qualified reviewed Brown’s multiple sources and pronounced them mostly adequate, I would revise my judgment again about the safety of nuclear energy production.

In the end, her monumental work is largely irrelevant for rationalists, except from a historical viewpoint. It may stand well as another chapter in the sorry history of the Soviet Union. The primitive technologies and the incompetent and weak sociopolitical controls of Chernobyl are gone for good. There is a segment in Steven Pinker’s well-documented Enlightenment Now (2018) about both the disadvantages and the overwhelming advantages of nuclear power (pp. 144–150). Why, even climate-change-fixated National Geographic shows a few signs of coming around! Though not many signs: see the short feature on nuclear engineer Leslie Dewan, in the March 2019 issue.


Editor's Note: Review of "A Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future," by Kate Brown. Norton: New York, 2019. 432 pages.



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Comments

R R Schoettker

While the safety issues are very important, and I believe underestimated by an overreliance on examinations solely of effects on existing living people’s health and lives; I still believe the most damming points about the use of nuclear power are economic factors. From the initial fuel cycle costs and especially the subsequent decommissioning and disposal costs attendant on this method of generating electric power the nuclear option is heavily subsidized by the public sector via government to a degree that obscures and masks its real costs of production to the final consumer. If the mining of coal and its health risks and the disposal of wastes, both during and after combustion, associated with its employment were in a similar fashion subtracted from the bottom line used to determine its costs then I have no doubt that it too would be “to cheap to meter”. In short the apparent economic advantage of nuclear generated power is an illusion resulting from an ignoring of its complete and total costs which if fully acknowledged and accounted for would show it to be the most expensive way to generate electricity that the human race has so far developed.

Dave

I have some questions regarding your well written article, given the caveat that I have no direct knowledge of the nuclear power industry. The closest I've come is pursuing a PHD in experimental high-energy particle physics (the kind done with particle accelerators such as at CERN). That was many years ago, and I gave up the PHD for a career in computer programming.

Your article (and I presume Kate Brown's book, which I haven't read), mostly addresses the health issues surrounding nuclear power, and not so much the economic ones. Even if the Chernobyl and Fukushima incidents did not cause widespread harm to people, the cleanup activities they required, which at least in the case of Fukushima are still ongoing, have been quite expensive, and I wonder to what extent they impact the economic viability of nuclear energy. Because those types of accidents are relatively infrequent, the expenses they may incur over the lifetime of a plant are very hard to predict.

Although in the absence of serious accidents nuclear power plants may produce lots of relatively inexpensive and clean energy while they're in service, there are considerable costs associated with both their initial construction and their eventual decommissioning. Also, in addition to accidents, nuclear power plants are vulnerable to threats of sabotage and/or theft of fissionable material involving both physical and cyber attacks by nation states and non-state actors. Those risks, as well as the costs of the efforts required to mitigate them, may be increasing as conflicts heat up around the world.

Perhaps someone with a better understanding of the trade-offs involved could weigh in with a more authoritative opinion on these issues.

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