The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 18, 2017

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The Politics of Nuclear Power
P. E. Hodgson - 07/03/09
Alternative Energies headline

Excerpt from Modern Age 50:1 Winter 2009

The last three articles have shown some of the difficulties of understanding the advantages and disadvantages of this new source of power in order to decide whether it is the best way to secure our future. Having at least provisionally decided what needs to be done, one is faced with the far more difficult problem of persuading people to take the necessary actions. The decision is not a matter of dispassionate analysis of the objective facts but becomes embroiled in a maelstrom of emotion, rhetoric, and national and international politics.

After the end of the Second World War, nuclear scientists were very concerned about the dangers of this situation. They knew that nuclear reactors had vast potentialities for both good and evil. Society was faced with vitally important decisions, and yet very few really understood the scientific and technical facts about nuclear reactors. Without this knowledge, unwise decisions would be almost inevitable.

The nuclear physicists who had worked on the bomb, most of whom had returned to their universities after the end of the war, realized that they had a serious responsibility to inform the public about the potentialities of nuclear energy. They founded the Federation of Atomic Scientists in the USA and the Atomic Scientists’ Association in Britain. They wrote books and articles, gave lectures, and organized exhibitions. The public was very receptive. Everyone had high hopes for the future and journalists waxed lyrical about the coming atomic age.

At this time, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, I was a research student in nuclear physics at Imperial College of the University of London, working under the supervision of Sir George Thomson. Many of the scientists in the department were active in the Atomic Scientists’ Association, and I was invited to join them. Soon I became a member of the council, and served from 1952 to 1959 and edited the Atomic Scientists’ Journal from 1953 to 1955. The presidents and vice-presidents of the Association included practically every eminent physicist in Britain: Lord Cherwell, the scientific advisor to Churchill during the war; Sir George Thomson; the theoretician Sir Harrie Massey; the crystallographer Dame Kathleen Lonsdale; the experimental physicist Patrick Blackett; the theoretician Sir Rudolf Peierls; and several others. The driving force was Joseph Rotblat, a medical physicist. He had worked at Los Alamos during the war, but resigned as soon as the war with Germany was over and there was no longer an atomic threat from that country.

As a member of the council, I took part in discussions about how to avoid the threat of nuclear war and how best to develop nuclear power for peaceful purposes. There were many serious problems to be tackled. The Cold War intensified, but the USA felt secure because only it had the atomic bomb. The scientists, however, knew very well that there were plenty of highly competent nuclear physicists in the USSR who would soon enable the Soviet Union to make a bomb of its own. This prediction was quickly realized when the USSR exploded its first bomb in 1949, greatly to the consternation of the USA. Both countries embarked on a nuclear arms race, developing more and more powerful types of bomb. This research required testing the new designs, and this injected substantial amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere. Indeed, it was by detecting this material that the USA found out that the USSR had made a bomb. Scientists were therefore very interested in devising better methods of detecting test explosions, not only by the radioactive material in the atmosphere but also by seismic means.[1]

The euphoria about the coming era of nuclear power did not last very long. It was gradually destroyed by a well-planned political campaign, which was part of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West, and which was enhanced by several accidents to nuclear reactors. The long-term strategy of the Soviet Union was to weaken the West as a prelude to its aim of world domination. The Soviet strategists realized that the Western countries relied on coal and oil to provide the bulk of their vital energy supplies. Oil was the more important, as it was gradually replacing coal as the principal energy source. Most of the oil comes from the Middle East, and so the aim was to disrupt the supplies by fomenting unrest in those countries and making it more difficult to transport the oil to Western Europe.

It then became increasingly clear that this strategy was being undermined by the new source of energy provided by nuclear power. As the Western nations built more and more nuclear reactors they became less reliant on oil. It was therefore necessary to persuade them that nuclear reactors were unsafe and dangerous, so that public opinion would become opposed to nuclear power and so prevent more reactors from being built.

During the Cold War the Soviet Union provided massive financial support to Communist parties worldwide.[2] It is notable that the vast majority of the vociferous opponents of nuclear power have been Communists and left-wing politicians. It is therefore not unreasonable to surmise that the campaign against nuclear power originated in the Soviet Union. It was very well planned and was made plausible by basing it on physical facts that are correct, but exaggerated completely out of proportion. Thus it was pointed out that nuclear radiations are dangerous in large doses, as was well-known from the effects of the atomic bombs on Japan. Nuclear reactors are a source of such radiations, and so it was argued that they are inherently dangerous. What matters, of course, is the intensity of the radiation, which is so low from reactors that it poses no hazard. It is necessary to express the comparison numerically to show this, but it was never done. The disposal of nuclear waste was billed as a great unsolved problem, whereas it is a simple and well-understood operation. Great publicity was given to reports of increased numbers of cases of leukemia near nuclear installations, although these were not supported by detailed medical studies.

Ever since the end of the Second World War the Soviet Union had carried out a continuous campaign to persuade the West to disarm. It organized peace conferences that stressed the dangers of nuclear war. When this danger receded with the collapse of the Soviet Union, thousands of peace activists looked for something else to do. Already fervently antinuclear, they enthusiastically supported the campaign against nuclear reactors. They found it easy to recruit many well-meaning people, who naturally wanted peace and safety, but were unaware of the deeper implications of the campaign, to join them.

The campaign against nuclear power received a powerful boost from the accident to the reactor at Three Mile Island in the USA and the much more serious disaster at Chernobyl. No matter that a reactor designed like the one at Chernobyl would never be accepted in the West; Western capitalist reactors were bad but socialist reactors were good. Indeed, the Soviet Union had a large program of reactor construction; this was halted by Chernobyl and played no small part in the Soviet collapse.

Chernobyl is still used as an argument against nuclear power, and every reactor is seen as continually on the brink of a similar disaster. This ignores both the folly of the operators of the Chernobyl reactor and the great advances in reactor design since that time. Many children have been brought to Europe from the area around Chernobyl for medical treatment and publicized as “victims of Chernobyl,” liable to die prematurely from the effects of radiation, whereas they were actually suffering from the effects of malnutrition.

The general fear of nuclear radiations was enhanced by the discovery of seven cases of childhood leukemia between 1955 and 1983 in Seascale in Cumbria near the nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield. This number seemed to be greater than would be expected by chance, and it received much publicity. It was, however, very difficult to see how these cases could be blamed on Sellafield, since the amount of radiation emitted from that plant is far smaller than that in the natural background.

Another possible mechanism to account for the Sellafield cluster was suggested in 1987 by Gardner, who postulated that the children developed leukemia as a result of their fathers’ exposure to nuclear radiation. He collected statistics that showed a significant correlation between paternal radiation dose and leukemic children.

The Gardner hypothesis has such serious implications for the nuclear industry that many further studies were made. These included the actual process whereby paternal irradiation could lead to childhood leukemia, the statistics of leukemia in the children of survivors of the atomic bombing of Japan, and more extensive studies of leukemia around nuclear plants.

The results of these studies were published by Sir Richard Doll, Dr. H. J. Evans, and Dr. S. C. Darby.[3] They showed that the possibility that nuclear irradiation could cause a gonadal mutation leading to childhood leukemia can be studied using data on genetically-determined leukemia. The detailed study shows that there may be a recessive mutation that could contribute to a number of the observed cases. However, “it effectively excludes any major contribution from the type of mutation that would be required to account for the appearance of the Sellafield cases in the first generation, namely a dominant mutation with a high degree of penetrance.”

Studies by Neel and colleagues of “the children of atomic bomb survivors, including more that one thousand five hundred children born to parents who received a gonadal dose of one sievert or larger, revealed no clearly increased frequency of mutations.” These doses are far higher than those received by the Sellafield workers.

Further studies were made of all the leukemia cases in people under twenty-five years of age in 1958–90, of those born after 1958 in Scotland and a part of north Cumbria near the Scottish border, and of all children under fifteen born near five nuclear installations in Ontario. They found that “neither set of results supported the probability of a hazard from the father’s occupation.” Several other studies reached the same conclusion.

Thus the authors conclude that “the association between paternal irradiation and leukemia is largely or wholly a chance finding.” They note that there appear to be “small but real clusters of leukemia in young people near Sellafield, and some other explanation for them needs to be sought.”

This highly authoritative study should have finally laid to rest the fears of radiations from nuclear installations, but whether it will or not depends on the mass media. The presence of leukemia clusters, and particularly the Gardner hypothesis, has been widely publicized by organizations opposed to nuclear power. This has encouraged families with children suffering from leukemia to seek compensation, but when the scientific evidence is laid before a court, the judgment inevitably goes against them.

There is also some concern about the radiation dose received by people who eat seafood from the Sellafield region. Studies have shown that the few people who eat very large amounts may receive an extra annual dose of 0.35 millisiemens (mS). Those living near Sellafield may receive an extra dose of 0.25 mS. This is to be compared with the average annual background dose of 2.2 mS per year and about 8 mS in Cornwall. Similar studies on other countries give the same results.

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