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Reality in about 430 words (you can put the headline on twitter, anyway)

June 10, 2011

I know. Wind me up and I go on for way, way too long. I sat down yesterday to quote a few paragraphs from Ed Markey’s Fukushima report that I thought everyone should see, and look what happened. At least I’m in good company on this blog (I won’t name names; you know who you are). Hopelessly Twitter-challenged, to say the least.

So here’s an attempt at something short (okay…short-ish) and to the point. One simple fact above all others joins nuclear energy and nuclear weapons at the hip: the consequences of the failure of either technology are so horrible that neither can be allowed to fail. Which, of course, is impossible. Hiroshima and Nagasaki taught us that nuclear weapons can’t be used—that using them is failure. All of the arguments for having (and keeping) nuclear weapons boil down to one breathtakingly stupid claim: having them prevents everyone from using them. Until someone does.

Nuclear energy is meant to be used, so the failures—Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, numerous “accidents” that never made the headlines— are spun to look like aberrations. One of the most twisted pro-nuclear “lessons” of Fukushima that I’ve come across is—in so many words—that when something this bad happens, it’s a reminder of how well the technology works most of the time—oh, and also lots of people die because we burn coal and oil and wood, so why do fission products get singled out for condemnation?

Here’s a new elevator conversation (sorry…it’s still not twittable):

On the scale of consequences represented by Fukushima, and Chernobyl, and Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, low probabilities that such things will ever happen again are distractions from reality. Low probability doesn’t mean nuclear disasters won’t occur; to the contrary, it means we can expect them to occur, even if the number of events is small relative to the numbers of operating reactors (or bombs in the arsenals, or countries possessing bombs). The consequences of even one such occurrence—anywhere—are devastating, long lasting, global, unacceptable, and not hypothetical. The Japan Center for Economic Research says the cost of Fukushima could be a quarter of a trillion dollars. Chernobyl has cost hundreds of billions over two-and-a-half decades and counting. That’s just the monetary calculation. If the probability of another Fukushima or Chernobyl or Hiroshima is not zero, then some thousands or millions (or billions?) of people—now or later—are going to pay a price—in far more than money—that ranges from cruelly unaffordable to unpayable in any currency.

“Us or them” has always been an ugly, murderous attitude among us humans, but when it comes to technologies that are ultimately incompatible with all of us, it might be the best philosophy we’ve got.

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