[Note: On Sunday afternoon, I hosted FDL Book Salon, featuring a live Q&A with Martin Cohen and Andrew McKillop, authors of The Doomsday Machine: The High Price of Nuclear Energy, the World's Most Dangerous Fuel. This is a repost of that discussion.]
Little more than 13 months after the world’s third major civilian nuclear accident in three decades, it might be surprising to find that one of the words commonly used in context with nuclear power these days is “renaissance.” Though more the product of public relations than real observation, the concept of a “nuclear renaissance” took hold over the last decade purportedly as a response to the rising price of fossil fuels and a growing concern over climate change–and it became so much a part of the lingua franca that even after an earthquake and tsunami triggered the massive crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant (a crisis that continues to this day), media reports still try to assess how much of a renaissance we will see post-Fukushima, rather than laugh at the idea that a renaissance ever existed.
The persistence of this current narrative is, of course, not an accident. For while it is debatable how good nuclear power is at meeting the world’s energy needs–the ability of the nuclear industry to gobble public money, peddle influence and reinvent its image, all while still clinging to generations-old technology, is practically the stuff of legend.
Or should we say “the stuff of myth?” In The Doomsday Machine: The High Price of Nuclear Energy, the World’s Most Dangerous Fuel, environmentalist and social philosopher Martin Cohen, and energy economist Andrew McKillop explain that myths are the one thing the nuclear industrial complex is consistently good at producing. From the early echoes of “Atoms for Peace,” through the spin-tastic triple lie of “clean, safe, and too cheap to meter,” right up to the current green-washed renaissance, The Doomsday Machine describes over 60 years of industry morphing and mythmaking.
Even before the world witnessed the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the splitting of the atom had a certain aura about it (if not a glow), and the idea of harnessing the raw power that had leveled two Japanese cities for something “good” was a seductive one. There was something godlike about manipulating nature’s most basic building blocks, and something oh-so-modern and evolved about doing it with the power of science. Cohen and McKillop discuss how, from its earliest days, the nuclear industry used the contrast of clean-cut men in white lab coats manipulating dials versus filthy miners feeding dirty coal into furnaces belching smoke to brand nuclear power as “the energy of the future.”
This is the first of eight myths that The Doomsday Machine attempts to debunk by citing history, economics, psychology, statistics and, yes, science, too. In addition to the failure of nuclear power to ever realize its future (I am reminded here of the old quote about Brazil–a country, by the way, with nuclear hassles of its own–”Brazil is the country of the future–and always will be”), today’s book takes on the myths of nuclear being clean and green, reliable and safe, cheap and desirable as an investment, and immune to the tug of geopolitics. Some of those ideas are more absurd than others, but, being the myths that they are, as Cohen and McKillop detail, none of them are true.
Interesting, too, beyond the long and sordid list of nuclear accidents and mishaps–and that list is indeed very long–are some of the other forces that have, over the years, meshed conveniently with the nuclear industry’s quest for relevance and cash.
Take, for example, that contrast with coal. It is true that coal is ancient and dirty, but coal is also predominantly turned into its usable form by union workers. Uranium, on the other hand, is mined in many places by a much-less-organized workforce, and nuclear power plants, The Doomsday Machine says, are largely maintained by contract workers. Was it just a coincidence that world leaders hostile to organized labor–Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, for example–were also vocal advocates for the expansion of nuclear power? Cohen and McKillop think not.
Another example, and one perhaps even more controversial, is the alliance of nuclear power proponents with a certain segment of the environmental movement. In what the authors term an alliance of “Baptists and Bootleggers,” strange bedfellows have found common cause to attack fossil fuels, demand that their use be curtailed to lessen carbon emissions, and then declare that nuclear energy is the only alternative poised to fill the gap.
Cohen and McKillop rightly explain that nuclear is far from a carbon-neutral energy source. As my own writing has explored many times, from mining to refining, from transport to waste storage, from energy intensive plant construction to the fact that you need a steady energy supply to run a nuclear plant safely, nuclear energy has a carbon footprint of awesome proportions. But The Doomsday Machine goes a little further, asserting that “climate change was originally, and remains, a rich country’s hobby,” and that the focus on CO2 is more political and less progressive than the IPCC and its defenders would have you believe.
From my perspective, it is a point that gives one pause. There certainly are some advocates of atomic energy–”elite greens” as the authors call them–that have used climate change to cloak their naked infatuation with nuclear power (and Cohen and McKillop name names), but does that mean that climate science itself is suspect? It is a question more complicated than one might think–and certainly one more nuanced than anyone will hear in the election year coverage of President Obama’s “all of the above” energy “strategy.”
But it is a question–one of many I hope Martin Cohen and Andrew McKillop will endeavor to answer as they join us here today.