2015/06/20

The World Nuclear Association is Worlds Apart

On June 4, 2015, on Russia Today’s Worlds Apart program, the journalist Oksana Boyko interviewed the director general of the World Nuclear Association (WNA), Agneta Rising. Throughout the interview, Ms. Boyko attempted to portray her questions as tough and challenging, but she also made statements that indicated that she was sympathetic to the nuclear industry’s claim that nuclear energy is a viable way to offset the effects of burning fossil fuels. This overly friendly interview could lead the viewer to wonder if Russia Today really is a propaganda tool for the Russian government, as some American politicians like to say. While the French, German, American and Japanese nuclear giants have declined, the Russian state-owned nuclear giant, Rosatom, has been very aggressive and successful in recent years in closing deals in developing countries. Nonetheless, there have been other reports on Russia Today that provided comprehensive and critical coverage of the nuclear industry. But then again, one has to wonder if that was just to give Rosatom a competitive advantage. There is no critical reporting on RT about the Russian nuclear industry.
The only challenging questions were focused on weapons proliferation and the risk of terrorism, and Ms. Rising’s answers were not probed deeply at all. There were no questions about nuclear waste management, the impacts of uranium mining,[1] and the severe financial crisis within the nuclear industry. Because Ms. Boyko was poorly informed about these issues, or perhaps complicit in wishing not to mention them, the interview fell fall short of being hard-hitting and comprehensive.
Ms. Boyko began by restating Ms. Rising’s previous assertion that the reaction to the radiation from Fukushima was more dangerous than the radiation itself. Ms. Rising accepted that statement as accurate and added that it was “first a very big earthquake and tsunami who killed a lot a lot of people,” [sic] but “around the world people think it is the nuclear accident” not the tsunami and earthquake that caused these deaths.
Ms. Rising is not a native speaker of English, so her grammatical errors perhaps need to be forgiven, but it is curious that she used the relative pronoun “who” with the grammatical subject “earthquake and tsunami.” Nuclear proponents have always spoken in a way that diminishes human responsibility when things go wrong, describing crimes of gross negligence as “accidents.” It is common to hear statements like “it was once in millennium” or “no one could have seen this coming” or “it was a freak, one-off event that could never happen here.” In this instance, instead of removing human agency from the crimes that led up to the Fukushima catastrophe, Ms. Rising adds human agency to an event in which there was none.
She goes on to assert without evidence that people around the world think all the deaths were caused by the nuclear accident. This was the first of many absurd, distracting, evasive and irrelevant points she made during this thirty-minute interview. No serious critic of the Fukushima catastrophe is confused about the deaths caused by the earthquake and tsunami. If we tend to focus on the nuclear disaster, that is only because we understand that human actions and inactions were not a cause of the earthquake and tsunami. Ms. Rising’s logic seems to suggest that the anti-nuclear movement should transform itself into an anti-tsunami campaign and go looking for a force of nature “who” could be blamed and sued for damages.
Later in the interview she said about the Fukushima evacuation “that of course was necessary.” Here she admits that the uncertainty of that time and the existence of short-lived radioisotopes (Iodine 131) were reasons to evacuate, but she suggested that the remaining contamination should not be a concern and people should have moved back quickly. She emphasized that Fukushima was primarily a disaster of economic consequences, and she spoke of it in the past tense, as if it wasn’t an ongoing radioactive nightmare that has no end in sight for next several decades at least—a fact which even TEPCO no longer tries to deny with such delusional thinking.
While many experts have called Fukushima Dai-ichi one of the greatest industrial accidents in history, perhaps the greatest, Ms. Rising said it was “not one of the biggest industrial accidents… not even as big as what happens every year.” She didn’t explain what she was alluding to as happening every year, but she was likely referring to the health impacts of burning fossil fuel. Again, this is a failure of logic, if this was the point she wanted to make. The regular operations of the fossil fuel industry are deliberate. They can’t be classified as industrial accidents.
Ms. Boyko showed her agreement with her guest stating, “… not only Japanese people reacted in a somewhat irrational manner.” Throughout the interview, both women focused on the “emotional reaction” and constructed a false dichotomy between emotion and reason. This has been a constant point of confusion and ignorance displayed by people who earn their living in the nuclear industry. They dismiss their opponents’ reactions as “emotional” while never acknowledging their own emotional attachments to their paychecks. The Age of Reason created a legacy of confusion about the relation between emotions and reason. Those who put too much faith in rationality fail to see that emotion is the basis of all reasoning. Whatever we judge to be reasonable and sensible is based on emotional values that have been shaped by biological and cultural evolution. The rational choice to eat arises from a feeling that one wants to live. The “irrational” decision to continue living in a world where everyone dies eventually stems from an emotional attachment to life.
Ms. Rising went on to exhibit great confidence in new Japanese nuclear regulators and upgrades to existing facilities. She seems to have missed the news that the new regulatory agency has already been purged of the experts who were slowing down the process of getting some nuclear reactors back on line.[2] Her confidence is purely a matter of faith, as it remains to be proven whether the new nuclear establishment can prevent another catastrophe when the next large earthquake or volcano strikes.
She added several comments about the crucial importance of public acceptance, as if the public anywhere was ever honestly and fully informed and allowed to have final say in a decision to build a nuclear power plant. She said, “…it’s important to have good support in the general public,” “good transparency” and “possibilities for the public to have an opinion and be involved in the process.” She also said there is “lots of construction going on in the third world,” so she apparently believes this public support and transparency exists there in abundance.[3]
The interviewer shouldn’t have let these statements go unchallenged because there is plenty of evidence in all nuclear nations that the process has never been transparent or concerned with anything more than lip service to public opinion. In countries where some appearance of a democratic process is required, “public debates” are held as a formality, but there is no real possibility of rejecting the plan by this stage. In France, when the public debates were held in Penly regarding a new EPR power plant, President Sarkozy had already formally authorized the launch of the project. Nonetheless, the French nuclear authorities define these debates as essential public involvement. [4] [5] I leave it to the reader’s imagination to wonder how this process unfolds in India, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
As for public acceptance in Japan, Ms. Rising says, “… the whole system was questioned, so it’s hard to get someone to trust… it will take some time to build trust again.” The obvious question remains: why bother with all the work of building the trust when we could more conveniently decide to never see this betrayer again? This is the way it tends to go in human relations where it is very rare to see an injured party interested in building trust after it has been lost.
When Ms. Rising spoke of nuclear energy’s capacity to bring “energy independence” to various countries, it was a perfect opportunity for the interviewer to call out a ridiculous and easily disproven assertion. She cited France as an example, but it is well-known that France gets most of its uranium from its former colonies in Africa (which it refers to possessively as France-afrique). The statement was either a bold lie or a tacit admission that the WNA regards France’s longstanding neocolonialist policy as legitimate de facto recolonization. France has energy independence only if these countries are considered to be French possessions.
Other deliberate deceptions were on display when Ms. Rising stated, laughably, that the UK is “taking the lead in new construction in Europe.” She was referring to the EPR project that is currently stalled due the bankruptcy of the maker, French nuclear giant Areva, and the billion-euro engineering gaffs that have halted, and probably doomed, construction of the EPR project in Flamanville, France. As far as the UK is concerned, their lead in new construction is on an indefinite pause.[6] These were just some of the many inconvenient details that Ms. Rising chose not to talk about, and Ms. Royko went along with the omissions, either out of ignorance or complicity.
Of course, the main point of the whole interview, supported apparently by the interviewer herself, was to make viewers believe that nuclear energy is carbon free. This point was made with such statements as “France decarbonized in the 1980s.” When faced with a knowledgeable audience, nuclear advocates concede that nuclear energy has a significant carbon footprint (how much is a topic of hot debate), but when faced with an audience that seems deceivable, they choose to lie and say it has no footprint.[7]

Another false assertion was made repeatedly in the claim that nuclear is “reliable 24/7.” This also is not true because nuclear plants need to be stopped for refueling and maintenance, and they are often shut down during storms and other emergencies. When a bad accident happens, every reactor in the country might have to be shut down because of the need for safety reviews, or just because of a shift in public opinion—as was the case in Japan. This lie is also a deceptive distraction from the progress being made in energy storage. Renewables are likely to provide a baseload supply of electricity in the near future.
Photos by C.A.N. Coalition Against Nukes

It is impossible to put a monetary value on energy when no one can predict the technologies and the level of supply and demand that will exist in the future, but Ms. Rising was ready to say that in spite of the enormous costs, nuclear is a “very long-term low-price energy source, very competitive.” It would be better to say nothing because it’s impossible to know the future cost of energy, but because she’s the director general of the WNA, we are supposed to just take her word for it. She may be right inasmuch as the costs of the nuclear waste legacy will never be kept in the accounts of private corporations. The eternal cost of nuclear waste management will be a burden to future generations long after such entities as Rosatom and GE-Hitachi have ceased to exist.
The interview descended into absurdity when Ms. Rising claimed that nuclear is presently being “hurt by subsidies in other systems.” She speaks as if the nuclear industry never got an assist from the government investment in the weapons industry, or never got any other form of government assistance. It is well known that nuclear corporations won’t build a reactor in a country until they get a guarantee that the government will cover the liabilities for accidents (Such assurance was recently given in India. The most famous example is the Price Anderson Act in the United States).
These complaints about unfair subsidies point to the fact that it is actually impossible now to see a clear line between public and private investment. If the nuclear industry now cries foul because renewables are gathering more investment, public or private, all we can say is: Sorry, times have changed. This is what people want. You didn’t complain in the old days when it was your turn at the public trough.
More strange assertions came when Ms. Rising said about Japan’s nuclear restarts, “they are not going to destroy their country!” Perhaps she hasn’t heard of Easter Island, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Pearl Harbor, or Fukushima for that matter. History tells us that nations have an astounding capacity for marching like zombies toward disaster. The Fukushima Dai-ichi meltdowns very well could have set off a cascade of disasters at other power plants along the coast, and that scenario would have meant the destruction of the country. Japan sleepwalked straight into it and was saved only by sheer luck and the courageous actions of a few. What if the tsunami had hit at night when few personnel were on site to deal with it? So, actually, yes, they would destroy their country.
Toward the end of the interview, Ms. Royko managed to ask a few somewhat tough questions about the wisdom of building reactors in politically unstable countries, but Ms. Rising simply denied that this was happening. She said, “nuclear reactors are very safe,” oblivious to the fact that this word “safe” has no scientific validity. It’s like saying fire is safe, or fire is dangerous. Either statement is meaningless.
Ms. Royko managed to push a little on the question of political unrest, but Ms. Rising reiterated with her next meaningless statement: “We don’t put it in a region where there is war or unrest.” The war between Yemen and Saudi Arabia was raging as she spoke, yet Russia is going ahead with a deal to build a nuclear power plant in Saudi Arabia. Not only is she oblivious to the present state of the world, the WNA apparently has a crystal ball that tells them where there will be war or unrest during the 40-60 year operating duration of a nuclear reactor, not to mention during the longer lasting existence of nuclear waste. Don’t worry. Just repeat the mantra “nuclear energy is safe.”
Ms. Royko kept pushing on questions about security and political stability, but Ms. Rising wouldn’t give an inch. She denied that the international regulatory framework wasn’t up to the task. She expressed faith in such vague concepts as “international involvement,” which I suppose means the IAEA and the governments that are supposed to follow its unenforceable recommendations. We can keep in mind how the IAEA did such a bang-up job getting Japan to listen to its guidance in the years before 2011.
Toward the end of the interview, the subject came back to Fukushima, which Ms. Rising described as an “economical catastrophe… [it] has not killed anyone… [and it] will not have any discernable effects for anyone in the future, either.” Once again, the nuclear industry gets to repeat its favorite lie that nuclear catastrophes have had no effect on public health.[8]
The most interesting and telling statement came toward the end of the interview when Ms. Royko reminded her guest that she once said, “nuclear energy must remain free of politics.” I was expecting her to deny that she ever said such a ridiculous thing, but she admitted it and elaborated further. The statement reveals that it was fitting for Ms. Rising to appear on a program called Worlds Apart, for the technocrats of our era really do live in their own reality. Any person who has a developed political consciousness knows that wishing for a technology to be free of politics is like wishing for it to be free from the constraints of reality itself. The sociologist Jacques Ellul once wrote, “When these technocrats talk about democracy, ecology, culture, the Third World, or politics, they are touchingly simplistic or annoyingly ignorant.”[9]
Sometimes when an organization is in its dying days, the leader who is pushed to the top is someone who never would have been a contender during better days. The guilty and the powerful want to get out while the getting is good, so they set up a fall guy (or girl) to be at the helm when the ship goes down. I can’t help but wonder if this is the case now that Ms. Rising has been put in charge of the WNA.
A more competent and honest leader would be able to see that the argument made in the Worlds Apart interview makes the WNA look ridiculous. It is illogical, and laughably evasive and in-denial of the unpleasant truths facing the nuclear industry. It begs for subsidies because no one wants to invest in nuclear energy anymore. It is being overtaken by progress in renewables. It was a 70-year experiment, and now the results are in. Honest leadership in the nuclear industry would admit that the game is up. The industry can survive a little longer by selling to gullible populations and corruptible governments in the developing world, but soon they too will wise up. It’s time for the pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear forces to recognize that they have an obvious emerging common interest. There is an opportunity for reconciliation here if a face-saving exit can be taken, and if each side can have a way to portray the truce as a victory to their base of support.
As hundreds of nuclear power plants will soon be simultaneously in need of decommissioning (a process that takes decades for each one)[10], people with technical expertise are going to be needed to manage nuclear plant decommissioning and nuclear waste management.[11] When the public realizes the scale of the problem, there will be plenty of jobs to go around for displaced nuclear workers. The opportunities, like nuclear waste itself, have no end in sight.

Notes

[1] For insight into the nuclear industry’s “back office,” (which it studiously avoids talking about) see the articles on uranium mining at Dianuke.org: “Rampant corruption in the uranium company in Jadugoda has further worsened the safety situation…,” Dianuke.org, June 15, 2015. http://www.dianuke.org/rampant-corruption-in-the-uranium-company-in-jadugoda-has-further-worsened-the-safety-situation-joar-statement-on-the-ucil-scam/

[2] Contrary to what the WNA asserts, this news indicates that there is reason to believe that the new Japanese regulator has reverted to the ways of its predecessor. Industry and political pressure led to the ouster of a seismologist who was holding up approval of nuclear restarts. “Pro-nuclear expert replacing NRA commissioner who raised flag on quake risk,” Asahi Shimbun, May 28, 2014, http://ajw.asahi.com/article/behind_news/politics/AJ201405280023

[3] To see just one of many examples of the way transparency and public involvement plays out in the developing world, see: Soo-hyeok Park, “Voices growing in Gangwon Province against slated nuclear reactors,” Hankyoreh Media Company, June 18, 2015, http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_national/696544.html

[4] See also this viewpoint on the plan to build a nuclear plant in Malaysia: Anas Alam Faizli (Anak Malaysia Anti Nuklear – Aman) & Ron McCoy (Malaysian Physicians for Social Responsibility), “MPSR Nuclear power plants: No safe method of disposing radioactive waste, say NGOs,” Aliran, June 16, 2015, http://aliran.com/civil-society-voices/2015-civil-society-voices/nuclear-power-plants-no-safe-method-of-disposing-radioactive-waste-say-ngos/

[5] The playwright Nicolas Lambert did extensive research on the public debates conducted in France for his play Avenir Radieux. See information in English here: A Radiant Future: A Stage Play about France's Nuclear History, January 16, 2015, http://nf2045.blogspot.jp/2015/01/a-radiant-future-stage-play-about.html

[6] For more on the way the UK is “taking the lead” on new nuclear construction, see: Paul Flynn (Member of British Parliament), “Civil servants must speak out: ‘the time has gone for nuclear power,’” The Ecologist, June, 18, 2015, http://www.theecologist.org/blogs_and_comments/commentators/2913665/civil_servants_must_speak_out_the_time_has_gone_for_nuclear_power.html

 
[8] For information on the health effects of radiation, listen to some of the excellent interviews done by Libbe Halevy on her podcast:

[9] Jacques Ellul, The Technological Bluff (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990), p. 29.


[11] For an explanation of the problems with the burial of high-level nuclear waste, see: “L'├ętat, c'est MOX,” February 20, 2014, (includes a translation of an interview with a leading scientist on the French language edition of Russia Today) http://nf2045.blogspot.jp/2014/02/letat-cest-mox.html


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