The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 14, 2017

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.

The Danish minister for the environment has criticized Sellafield for releasing the isotope technicium 99 into the sea. Measurements in the Kattegat arm of the North Sea show that the resulting radiation level is between two and three Becquerels (Bq) per cubic metre and 0.1 Bq /kilogram (kg) in fish and 20–25 Bq/kg. in lobsters. If a fish-lover consumes 50 kg of fish and 20 kg of shellfish per year, the resulting radiation dose is about 0.14 mS. For comparison, a person inside a typical Danish house receives an annual dose of about 30 mS so that the dose from the air is about two hundred times that from the fish. Furthermore, all fish and shellfish contain polonium 210, and this gives a dose about three hundred times that from the technicium. In any case, the technicium discharges from Sellafield have now ceased.

Detailed studies by the National Radiation Protection Board and the International Commission on Radiation Protection of the life histories of thousands of workers have shown “that there is no evidence that radiation workers have cancer mortalities which are higher than those for the general population.” If anything, the statistics showed smaller rates. A study of workers in the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority in 1985 showed that their death rates from cancer were 22 percent lower than the national average, and 14,347 workers at Sellafield had an average mortality rate from all causes that was 2 percent less than the national average. A study of 21,358 men who took part in the UK atomic bomb tests in Australia and the Pacific showed no detectable effect on their life expectancy or on the incidence of cancer and other diseases.

It still remained to understand the origin of the cluster of cases of leukemia around Sellafield. It was found that similar clusters occur in regions where there are no nuclear plants. A possible explanation is that they are connected with the influx of many people into a relatively isolated rural community, as occurred around Sellafield. Dr. Kinlen proposed that the cases are due to some viral infection. This hypothesis was tested by seeing whether the effect occurs in cases of similar population movements due to the construction in rural areas of factories with no connection with the nuclear industry, and indeed this was found to be the case.[4]

As part of its campaign, an environmental group published an advertisement in several national newspapers. It shows the photograph of a baby, described as a Kazakhstan nuclear test victim, followed by the quotation “Hush mother, do not cry. I am filled with angels.” The advertisement continues: “These brave calming deathbed words of a child radiation victim may shock us. They should not surprise us.” The impact of this emotion-laden photograph is somewhat changed when one learns from other sources that the child is suffering from hydrocephalus, and, according to Professor Trott, professor of radiation biology at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, no case of hydrocephalus has ever been identified as liable to have been caused by radiation exposure.

The advertisement continues: “Now we face the prospect of huge increases in radiation, heightened chances of accident and greater polonium risks, all from THORP, the newly licensed reprocessing plant at Sellafield. It is our opinion that these risks are real. They beckon a world where radiation linked disease becomes an accepted part of everyday life. As if to prove the point, it can be shown from official figures that two thousand people will die because of the discharges from Sellafield over the next ten years.”

This statement is untrue. The amount of radiation that will be emitted by THORP is minute, comparable in magnitude to the extra radiation received on a short airplane flight, or a visit to Cornwall. The figure of two thousand deaths is the result of using the discredited linear relation dose hypothesis.

The advertisement goes on to accuse the nuclear industry of being “intent on spreading radiation and the means of mass destruction around the globe,” and appeals for money to help the environmental group to continue the fight: “All you need is a sense of right and wrong and to refuse to be walked over by powers who deem it right to play with children’s lives.”

The reality is that the Sellafield plant took its responsibilities so seriously that they spent £250 million to reduce radioactive discharges by an amount estimated to save one or two hypothetical statistical cancer deaths over the next eleven thousand years. “Hypothetical” means assuming the discredited linear dose relation at low energies. If the money had been spent on new motorway crash barriers, it would save one actual statistical life for every £5,000.

These are just a few of the ways the nuclear power has been vilified. The character of the battle has been well described by Professor Cohen: “First let’s consider the cast of characters in the battle. The two sides are of an entirely different ilk. One of the main interests in life for a typical anti-nuclear activist is political battling, while the vast majority of scientists have no inclination or interests in political battling, and even if they did they have little native ability or intellectual preparation for it . . . While the former was making political contacts and developing know-how in securing media co-operation the latter was absorbed in laboratory or field problems with no thought of politics or media involvement. At this juncture the former went out looking for a new battle to fight and decided to attack the later; it was like a lion attacking a lamb.”[5]

Nuclear scientists had long agonized over such questions as what safety measures are needed in nuclear power plants and what health impacts their radioactivity releases might cause. All the arguments were published for anyone to see. It took little effort for the antinuclear activists to collect, organize selectively, and distort this information into ammunition for their battle. Anyone experienced in debates and political battles is well prepared to do this. When activists charged into battle wildly firing this ammunition, the physicists at first laughed at the naïveté of the charges, but they did not laugh long. They could easily explain the invalidity of the attacks by scientific and technical arguments, but no one would listen to them. The phoney charges of the attackers dressed up with their considerable skills in presentation sounded much better to the media and others with no scientific knowledge or experience. When people wanted to hear from scientists, the attackers provided their own—there were always a few available to present any point of view, and who was to know that they represented only a very small fraction of the scientific community? The antinuclear activists never let it be made clear who they were and whom they were attacking. The battle was not billed as a bunch of scientifically illiterate activists attacking the community of nuclear scientists, which is the true situation. It was rather represented as “environmentalists”—what a pure, good, sweet connotation that name carries—attacking big business (the nuclear industry), which was trying to make money at the expense of the public’s health and safety.

The rout was rapid and complete. In fact the nuclear scientists were never even allowed on the battlefield. The battlefield here was the media, which alone have the power to influence public opinion. The media establishment swallowed the attackers’ story hook, line, and sinker, becoming their allies. They freely and continually gave exposure to the antinuclear activists and their allies, but never gave the nuclear scientists a chance. With constant exposure to this one-sided propaganda, the public was slowly but surely won over. The public was driven insane over fear of radiation; it became convinced by the demonstrably and utterly false notion that nuclear power was more likely to kill them than such well-known killers as motor vehicle accidents, cigarette smoking, and alcohol; that burying nuclear waste, actually a very simple problem, was one of the world’s great unsolved problems; that, contrary to all informed sources, the Three Mile Island accident was a close call to disaster and so on. Fears of everything connected with nuclear power were blown up out of all perspective with other risks. Hitler’s spokesman, Goebbels, had shown what propaganda could do, but the nuclear scientists never believed that it could succeed against the rationality of science. Yet succeed it did. The victory of the anti-nuclear activists was complete.

The antinuclear activists have won their battle, and to the victors belong the spoils—the failure of nuclear science to provide the cheap and abundant power we sorely need. This is the goal they cherished and they have achieved it. Our children and grandchildren will be the victims of their heartless tactics. When Shakespeare said “the truth will come to light,” he didn’t reckon with the power of the modern media.

This analysis of the situation is borne out by the experience of any scientist who tries to bring some sense into what is euphemistically called the nuclear debate. The media frequently present ill-informed attacks on nuclear power, and if a scientist tries to correct them, he is usually ignored. His own writings presenting the truth as he sees it are routinely rejected. One of my attempts to correct an absurd statement by a (left-wing) politician that there would be thousands of cases of cancer if a nuclear accident like that at Three Mile Island occurred at a proposed nuclear power station in Britain was brushed aside with insults.

Another example is provided by a leading article in a prominent daily newspaper reporting a large increase in the death rates in the United States due to the dust from Chernobyl, complete with a large picture of Death the Reaper. It was obvious that this was extremely unlikely because no such effects had been reported from Europe, where the amount of dust deposited was much larger, though still far below that likely to cause any detectable effects. The article was supported by statistical data showing a strong correlation between the amount of dust deposited and the death rate in that area.

The story seemed so unlikely that I contacted Harwell and asked for detailed figures. This took some time, and when the data arrived, it soon became clear that the figures in the article had been obtained by statistical juggling and that they showed no effects whatsoever. I wrote to the newspaper and was told that nothing could be done because it all happened so long ago that everyone would have forgotten all about it. It is, however, more than likely that they will remember the association between nuclear power and Death the Reaper.

One might well expect the governments to take action to ensure that the public has access to reliable knowledge, but they are hamstrung by political considerations. Any move that could appear to favor nuclear power would immediately affect their popularity adversely and with it probably the next election. If it is suggested that a nuclear waste depository is built, then immediately a pressure group in that locality is organized to oppose it. The member of Parliament for that area tells the minister that if the proposed depository is built he will probably not be elected at the next election. The minister then shelves the proposal and the depository is never built.

Governments are now concerned about global warming and convene conferences to discuss possible countermeasures. At these conferences every conceivable method is discussed except nuclear despite its being the most effective alternative. Nevertheless, the reality of the danger of climate change is increasingly realized and the leaders of several governments now declare their support for nuclear power, although they still fail to take action.

If representatives of the nuclear industry, who really know what they are talking about, attempt to contribute to the debate, they are dismissed with the remark “They would say that, wouldn’t they?”

The churches are in a strong position, as they are free to say what they like and are committed to truth. Many church bodies have realized the importance of the energy crisis and climate change, and have made statements. Most fail to realize how much detailed expert study is necessary, and have been strongly influenced by the antinuclear campaign. Only two statements are based on the necessary studies by experts in the necessary disciplines: the document “Shaping Tomorrow,” issued by the Methodist Church in Britain,[6] and the seven-hundred-page report of a study convened by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.[7] Due to the antinuclear bias of the media, neither of these valuable studies received much publicity.

The whole debate has been gravely hindered, if not made practically impossible, by a false democracy, which treats everyone’s opinion, even on highly technical subjects, as of equal value. This is equivalent to a denial of objective truth. Professor Maier-Leibniz has described what happened in Germany when the government established a commission to decide the future of atomic energy with equal numbers of experts and anti-experts: “The result was a great number of papers, minutes of meetings, opinions and counter-opinions, responses and counter-responses. Everything was discussed and nothing became clear. And what is worse, the experts were the best experts that could be found, so there was nobody left who could give a final opinion.”

Energy for the Poor

The people who are suffering and dying from the effects of the energy crisis and climate change are billions of the poorer people in Africa and many other countries elsewhere. Drought due to climate change is leading to destitution and widespread starvation. Even if the rains come, they have no money to buy seeds and livestock. With more energy available they could begin to rebuild their lives.

Their problems are daunting and many-dimensional and need to be tackled on many levels. On the small scale of individual homes, simple solar heaters have been designed to cook food. Electricity would solve many of their problems, but these countries certainly cannot afford power stations. This would seem to be an area that could be tackled by the United Nations, encouraging manufacturers to build power stations in the poorer countries and then to market the energy produced. The more affluent business organizations and wealthier people could pay for their electricity, while the poor could initially get it free. As they began to stand on their own feet, they could begin paying a modest amount. Gradually the initial investment would be repaid. It would be a long time before the industry could break even, so some form of international subsidy would be needed.

The imposition of worldwide controls on greenhouse gas emissions is understandably resented by the underdeveloped countries. They point out that the developed countries industrialized without caring about the pollution they caused, and so it is unjust to prevent the poorer nations from developing in the same way.

If the energy program included nuclear power stations, it might well be objected that a rogue government could seize power and use them to make bombs. To prevent this, the power stations would have to be kept under international control. The financial and organizational problems of implementing such a plan are immense, but the idea offers one of the best hopes for poorer people. The scientists have opened up the possibility of providing the power the world needs, and now it is up to the politicians to transform their vision into reality.

The Future Outlook

There are now many people who care for the environment and are inclined to accept the reality of climate change. They feel that they ought to do something but do not assess the comparative efficacies of various possible actions. They buy some energy-saving light bulbs and join a protest against flying. Such activities give the illusion of action, but their effects on global warming are minuscule. At the same time, they strongly oppose the replacement of fossil fuel power stations by nuclear, which is known to effect substantial reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. The manifesto of a well-known environmental movement includes an emphatic rejection of nuclear power.

There are some who prefer to wait for the advent of fusion power, believing that it is free from radioactivity. Certainly there are no fission fragments to contend with, but radioactivity is still produced in the surrounding materials, though not with the same intensity as in fission reactors. The success of fusion would really solve our energy problems, as it uses deuterium, which is present in ordinary water at about one part in five thousand. However, the problems of building a viable fusion reactor have not yet been solved. The need for more energy is so urgent that existing technologies must be used, although of course it is always necessary to continue research into possible new sources.

There are also sincere defenders of the environment who stress the great benefits that can be obtained from energy conservation, the adoption of more modest lifestyles, and the development of renewable sources. All this is admirable, but it will not solve the problem. Generally speaking, people do not change their lifestyle as a result of exhortation, but only if it is in their direct immediate interest to do so. It is certainly unrealistic to expect renewable sources to provide more than a small fraction of our energy. Perhaps the best strategy is to say to them that we must meet urgent immediate needs by building more nuclear power stations, while they continue their program of self-denial and renewals. If and when these prove their worth, they can gradually take over from nuclear power. Some may believe that this will never happen, but it is a challenge that they can hardly reject.

As for climate change, it does not seem to have had much effect on the lives of most people. There are reports of the melting of the Arctic ice, the inundation of New Orleans, and the melting of the permafrost; but these things happen far away, and anyway what can I do about it? People only take action when their own lives are directly threatened. The first priority of governments is to win the next election, not to introduce expensive measures to save the next generation. Scientists, who have made possible a new energy source, are horrified by the lack of urgent action to stave off impending dangers. It may well be too late.

To learn more, visit the ISI short course on Free Markets & Civil Society.

Notes:

  1. P. E. Hodgson, Nuclear Physics in Peace and War (London: Hawthorn Books, 1961).
  2. C. Andrew and V. Mitrokhin, The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archives and the Secret History of the KGB (London: Penguin, 2000).
  3. Sir Richard Doll, Dr. H. J. Evans and Dr. S. C. Darby. Nature 367.678, 1994.
  4. P. E. Hodgson, Nuclear Power, Energy and the Environment (London: Imperial College Press, 1999).
  5. Bernard L. Cohen, Before It’s Too Late: A Scientists’ Case for Nuclear Energy (New York: Plenum Press, 1983).
  6. Edgar Boyes, ed., Shaping Tomorrow (London: Home Mission Division of the Methodist Church, 1981).
  7. Andre Blanc-Lapierre, ed., “Semaine D’Etude sur le Theme Humanité et Energie: Besoins—Ressources—Espoirs,” November 10–15, 1980, Pontificiae Academiae Scientiarum Scripta Varia No. 46, 1981.
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