The nuclear discourse exclusion zone

The nuclear discourse exclusion zone: How the nuclear lobby shuts out the voices that have been proven right about nuclear hazards

Asse Nuclear Waste Repository, Germany (Spiegel Online)
The most obvious and immediate lesson I drew from the Fukushima meltdowns was that the anti-nuclear groups in Japan had been right all along. The earthquake-tsunami-meltdown syndrome had happened exactly like they said it would. One would think that such accurate prognosticators would now be given a prominent role in setting energy policy for the future, not only in Japan but throughout the world. It doesn’t take much imagination to appreciate how valuable these critics of the nuclear industry could be, if the people in power cared to listen to them. TEPCO would still be a viable and profitable corporation today if it had followed the advice of its most hostile critics, to say nothing of all the harm to people and other life forms that could have been avoided.
In spite of the obvious value of viewpoints that come from outside the nuclear industry and its servants in government, advertising and academia, these institutions have gone right back to their old habits, turning inward and referring only to their own narrow parameters of analysis. Two recent news items illustrate this dismal trend.
The first example, from Phys.Org, is entitled “Researchers grapple with UK's nuclear legacy.” The article describes how The University of Leeds and a consortium of ten universities will study ways to deal with Britain’s nuclear waste. The UK government’s Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is spending less than 1% of its budget to fund the program.
The objective is to “bring together the nuclear industry, the Government's nuclear advisors and the country's leading academic researchers” who will work on how to deal with different types of spent fuels, packaging and storing waste, and nuclear sludges in ponds and silos at nuclear power stations.
The report frames the issue as if it hadn’t been an urgent and well-researched problem since the inception of nuclear technology. Project leader Professor Simon Biggs, Director of the University of Leeds' Institute of Particle Science and Engineering, said, “The project is primarily focused on developing new technologies and providing confidence in the safe storage and disposal of legacy waste. The UK is a technology leader in this field and the core aim of this project is to maintain and further develop that skill base.
The key words here are “providing confidence,” which indicate that the mission is political rather than scientific. If the intent were to do scientific research, there would be no goal at the outset of providing confidence. Honest research might lead to the conclusion that the situation is so dire that it might not give any confidence at all.
The claim to being a leader in the field must also be kept in perspective. This leadership has consisted of the contamination of British shorelines and the Irish Sea. The news from Phys.Org was released just as a related report in The Independent was published announcing that Ireland will now be free to sue the UK for radiological contamination of the Irish Sea, thanks to changes in the Paris Convention on Third Party Liability in the Field of Nuclear Energy that will take effect this year. In addition, the elevated cancer rates along the UK shores near the Sellafield nuclear facility were documented by Chris Busby in his book Wolves of Water. So this gives some additional understanding of what is involved when people claim that their nation is a “technology leader” in this field.
Professor Biggs also said that he was glad the “appropriate research” was being funded and that it would be a “truly interdisciplinary effort.” However, it includes only civil engineers, chemists, chemical engineers, robotics experts, radiochemists, mechanical engineers and material engineers working on thirty projects. The problem apparently needs no input from philosophers, historians, economists, artists, lawyers or contrarian radiochemists like Chris Busby who assert that the legacy of radioactive waste is something more than a “challenge” ─ a term which exemplifies the sort of anodyne, obfuscating understatement preferred by the nuclear lobby.
The most telling quote from the report came from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority's Head of Research and Development, Melanie Brownridge, who said: “Our industry benefits hugely when high-level academic research is focused at some of the challenges we face in decommissioning our nuclear legacy.” This statement makes it explicit: the purpose of the research is to benefit the nuclear industry, not to pursue yet unknown conclusions that might suggest the nuclear industry should be shut down.
Most strangely of all, the acronym for the new program is DISTINCTIVE, which one is supposed to guess stands for Decommissioning, Immobilisation and Storage Solutions for Nuclear Waste Inventories. This replaces the previous research program launched in 2007 called DIAMOND (Decommissioning, Immobilisation And Management Of Nuclear wastes for Disposal). The nuclear waste problem has been well understood for many decades, yet it remains unsolved. Solutions are promised as governments continually launch into one more research program after another that promises to solve the “challenge.” It may be a bad sign that solutions have been so elusive that the British can no longer come up with suitable acronyms that will put fresh lipstick on this pig. DIAMOND was good, but in the present case they seemed to have done alright only with the first three letters, then they just sort of threw the rest together randomly with any letters they found in the remaining words. It is strange that they didn’t see a more obvious combination of letters there: DISINVENT, which is exactly what sensible people wish could be done with nuclear technology.

The second example is the Asahi Shimbun article SYMPOSIUM: Japan’s massive stockpile of plutonium casts shadow over nonproliferation efforts. The Asahi Shimbun has done a lot of critical reporting on nuclear issues since 2011, and it has published many editorials that are opposed to the continuation of nuclear energy, but for some reason it invited no critical outsiders to this symposium. Most of the participants appear to have been selected from insiders and “realists,” the very perpetrators who were in charge during the lead-up to disaster. Now they all acknowledge the significant problems, but their proposed solutions are compromises that are not solutions at all. They remain within parameters that nuclear advocates will find to be “realistic” policy options.
The main issue was the complete failure of Japan’s nuclear energy policy as it was envisioned in the 1970s. The dream was to achieve energy independence by reprocessing nuclear fuel and using the new fuel, rich in plutonium, in fast breeder reactors. The reprocessing center was built in Rokkasho, in Northern Japan (Aomori Prefecture), and the Monju fast breeder reactor was built in Western Japan (Fukui Prefecture). Both facilities consumed billions of dollars, but neither has worked as planned. The program has essentially failed.
When Monju failed to be a viable way to use the reprocessed fuel, power companies agreed to take it as MOX fuel, and run it in their existing reactors. It was this fuel that was released in the explosion of Fukushima Daiichi No. 3 reactor, which scattered large amounts of plutonium into the earth’s atmosphere.
The dilemma for planners now is what to do about this completely failed nuclear fuel cycle dream. Aomori Prefecture agreed to take spent fuel from all over Japan, on the promise that it would not be left there. It was to be sent out to fast breeder reactors yet to be built. In order to live up to its promises, some think the Japanese government should advance with plans to make Rokkasho function as designed. It actually never has operated, and the spent fuel has been sent to the UK and France to be processed then re-imported later. There is now no realistic hope of fast breeder reactors ever being operational in Japan, and the whole future of nuclear energy is in doubt, but there are still people in high places saying that spent fuel should be processed in Rokkasho simply to live up to the agreement made in the past with Aomori Prefecture.
To make matters worse, the dream of fuel recycling has always been a major weapons proliferation issue. All other countries that reprocess spent nuclear fuel possess nuclear weapons. Since reprocessed spent fuel is a source of plutonium for weapons, neighboring countries wonder why Japan has desired to have such a large stockpile of plutonium, enough to make 1,500 weapons.
These issues are what the chosen experts at the symposium discussed.
Steve Fetter, a former U.S. White House official during the Obama administration, said, “Japan should stop reprocessing spent nuclear fuel,” but then hedged this assessment by waffling, “… if that is not possible, it should at least make clear its plan to use plutonium and reduce the amount of plutonium to the minimum necessary.” How would one define the “necessary” amount of plutonium?
Yoriko Kawaguchi, who has served as foreign minister and environment minister, declared it was not possible for Japan to arm itself with nuclear weapons, in spite of having a massive stockpile of plutonium the likes of which the international community would never let Iran possess. She said, “Going nuclear would mean withdrawing from the NPT and facing international sanctions like North Korea and Iran. Japanese people would never support (Japan’s nuclear armament).” However, this contention is not necessarily true. According to a strict interpretation of the the NPT, Japan shouldn’t be stockpiling plutonium, but it does. Under Kawaguchi's logic, Israel would now be suffering sanctions for its possession of nuclear weapons. Furthermore, it remains to be seen whether Japanese people would tolerate nuclear armament. We were told for years that Japanese people would never accept American nuclear weapons being kept on Okinawa, or on US naval vessels in Japanese ports, but the nation didn’t erupt in protest when it learned that nuclear weapons have always been kept in Japan by US forces.
Yukio Sato, a former permanent representative of Japan to the United Nations, claimed that Japan’s current lack of a feasible plan to use its plutonium is an “unintended situation,” created by the devastating accident that unfolded at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster. This utter falsehood could have been countered effectively if leaders from the anti-nuclear movement had been invited to attend. The recycling program was stalled before 2011. The Monju reactor had worked for only a few hours since opening in the early 1990s. Beyond that time frame, the proliferation implications, and the danger and implausibility of the reprocessing dream had been foreseen by critics before construction began. The situation was unintended only to the extent that it was unforeseeable by gullible people who ignored the fundamental problems with the whole project.
Sato went on to say that when the reprocessing program restarts, Japan will “return to the principle of holding no more plutonium than absolutely necessary.” Once again, no one acknowledges the ethical and political questions involved in determining what amount of plutonium is “necessary.”
We can credit Sato for bringing up the usually unmentionable topic of the true causes of the meltdowns at Fukushima. He said, “Japan should fully disclose information concerning the causes of the Fukushima nuclear disaster,” but he diplomatically avoided specifying what he was alluding to. This lack of courage is disheartening. If anti-nuclear representatives had been invited to speak, they would have understood the need to clearly raise the alarm about this important matter before power companies are allowed to restart their reactors. The crucial facts about the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns, which TEPCO is loath to talk about, are that (1) the earthquake fatally damaged the reactors before the tsunami hit, and (2) when the waves hit they damaged the heat removal system so badly that the loss of electricity for pumps may have been irrelevant.
Vice chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, Tatsujiro Suzuki, was honest enough to admit that pluthermal power generation, which burns MOX fuel, is more expensive than the cost of just disposing of spent nuclear fuel. Unfortunately, he made no mention of the health effects of MOX fuel being released into the environment during an accident, as was the case with the Unit 3 explosion.
Klaus Janberg, a German nuclear engineering consultant pointed out that in Germany, when the costs were understood, “It was the electric utilities themselves who pulled the plug.” He added that without a continuous breeder program (i.e. reactors like Monju) it simply makes no sense do continue reprocessing spent nuclear fuel.
Another non-Japanese person in the room was able to point out the obvious dangers that the Japanese experts hesitated to confront. Gordon Thompson, executive director of the US Institute for Resource and Security Studies, said it would be dangerous to gather spent fuel from all nuclear power plants in Japan in one location at Rokkasho. There is simply too much volume of radioactive isotopes to risk having them in one place. The effects of an accident or terrorist attack, or act of war, would be devastating on a global scale.
It is stunning to me, as it would be to many sober observers, that after these experts described the horrific implications of the mess that has been created, they couldn’t agree that Japan should stop reprocessing. The most they could agree on is that they shouldn’t reprocess all the spent nuclear fuel. Hajime Yamana, chairman of the International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning, added that the realistic approach was to pursue a mix of options. However, his reasoning was based on the irrational pursuit of recovering costs sunk into a lost cause. Because so much has been spent on building Rokkasho, and so much was promised to the citizens of Aomori (economic benefits, safety, removal of reprocessed fuel to elsewhere), he argues that the project must continue no matter how pointless, dangerous and costly it is.
The reason for this view is that we are supposed to feel sorry for the people of Aomori Prefecture who agreed to host the reprocessing facility. Motohisa Furukawa, former minister of national strategy of Japan, claimed, “But we have to honor the promises the successive administrations have made to Aomori Prefecture.” Actually, no, they don’t. Believing that Japan has to honor this promise means that the whole nation has to go along with some rigid and childish notion of the importance of keeping promises, even if it has become clear that the cost of keeping them will be a much greater injustice. One would think that the educated elite at this symposium would know that ethical dilemmas do not usually offer up black and white solutions. In the adult world, debts and promises are renegotiated all the time as circumstance change. 
The Asahi reporter added, “Abandoning the policy of promoting nuclear fuel recycling could destroy the trust between the central government and Aomori Prefecture.” This would be true, if there remained any trust between the central government and Japanese citizens, but it should be clear by now that the failure of the national energy policy has already broken this sacred bond.
Another way of looking at this is that the people of Aomori were warned. If anti-nuclear groups had been at the symposium, they could have reminded everyone of this fact. The people of Aomori didn’t oppose the intrusion of national energy policy on their lives, they shunned anti-nuclear activists as social misfits, and they elected governors and mayors who unwisely accepted assurances from the central government. They have to accept responsibility for this mistake.
Another non-Japanese person at the symposium was William Walker, a professor at St. Andrews University who studies Britain’s nuclear energy policy. He pointed out that Britain has already gone down this road of a failed reprocessing program. Plutonium has been extracted from spent fuel since the 1990s, but he says, “Nobody knows what to do with the 100 tons of plutonium that have been left behind.” Processing continues just because of the momentum of established economic interests.
Another foreign scholar, Frank von Hippel, of Princeton University, thought it would be better to store spent fuel over a wide range of sites in dry storage casks, even if this meant moving what is already at Rokkasho. Termination of the reprocessing program would save seven trillion yen over time, and this could be used to compensate Aomori Prefecture for the broken promises.
The symposium finally got around to discussing the final solution ─ permanent underground storage of radioactive waste. Japan has devoted little thought to this problem, perhaps because it staked so much hope on reprocessing.
Hiroya Masuda, former minister of internal affairs and communications, said about 70 percent of national land in Japan is scientifically suitable for locating a final disposal site. This absolutely stunning claim seems to have gone unquestioned. It is a surprising statement because the US, with much more land, has not been able to establish an appropriate place for permanent storage. The proposed Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada was cancelled by the Obama administration after billions of dollars and decades had been spent studying its suitability.
If Chris Busby, or any other scientist from the anti-nuclear side, had been invited to this symposium or the British research project, he would have been able to refute the optimistic claims about solutions to “challenges.”
The symposium failed to address, and the British project will fail to address, the hard truths of the situation. The Yucca Mountain site was cancelled partly due to NIMBY politics and senator Harry Reid’s influence, but the main factors were uncertainties about geological stability and the integrity of containers. There is no known material that can remain intact for 100,000 years while it holds radioactive waste, especially now that so many nuclear plants are using high burn-up fuel. Busby has claimed that the only feasible solution is to, first, stop making nuclear waste, and, second, prepare to store it above ground across many future generations. We will need to create a new profession called something such as Guardians of the Nuclear Waste, and pass on the knowledge of how to isolate it from the ecosystem and continually repair and replace nuclear waste receptacles. That’s the honest truth that the perpetrators of the nuclear dilemma don’t want to face up to, so honest messengers are not welcome at their table.

Sources and Further Reading:

Allison Macfarlane and Rodney C. Ewing, Uncertainty Underground Yucca Mountain and the Nation’s High-Level Nuclear Waste (MIT Press, 2006).

Chris Busby, Wolves of Water: A Study Constructed from Atomic Radiation, Morality, Epidemiology, Science, Bias, Philosophy and Death (Green Audit Books, 2007).

“Researchers grapple with UK's nuclear legacy.” Phys.Org. Jan 08, 2014.

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