Let’s imagine – I know this is far-fetched, but for purposes of discussion, we might try it anyhow – a political atmosphere dominated by fear of terrorists and their bombs. There are shoe bombs, pipe bombs, pressure cooker bombs, fertilizer bombs, tannerite bombs, suicide bomb vests, car bombs, truck bombs, improvised explosive devices, drone bombs, commercial airplanes used as bombs …
Whoa, there’s a lot to be worried about. Fear of terrorists and their bombs can be used to make an argument for lots of countermeasures. Obviously, all airplane travelers need to be searched before they board airplanes. Police need to be able to search anyone’s house when they are chasing a possible terrorist. Suspected terrorists who are caught by the police need to disappear into secret prisons forever …
Yeah, it’s an absurd scenario of people getting carried away by such single-minded focus on one issue that they think it’s the ** ONLY ** issue and they are persuaded to support measures that make no practical sense whatsoever. It’s a thought experiment, so we have to temporarily accept extreme scenarios that should never occur in real life, just to see what conclusions we can draw from it.
Let’s imagine a whole society that comes to believe that terrorist bombs are the one important issue for politics. In this context, suppose that the issue of requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets when using public highways comes up. It’s certainly possible to make the argument that no helmets should be required because, when there’s some kind of accident involving a motorcyclist, it’s very unlikely to involve a terrorist bomb or even any explosion resembling a terrorist bomb. Furthermore, a helmet would provide no significant protection against such a bomb. Therefore, there’s no good reason to require motorcyclists to wear helmets.
Clearly, in the real world, practically everyone immediately sees that such an argument makes no sense. Terrorists and bombs are completely irrelevant to the question of whether motorcyclists should be required to wear helmets on public roads. It’s only when you are pretending that terrorist bombs are the only issue worth consideration that the above argument could be made. Basically, that pretense is just silly.
The argument that nuclear power is wonderful because nuclear reactors do not produce carbon dioxide emissions and therefore do not contribute to global warming is equally silly. In this case, the argument wants us to pretend that global warming (instead of terrorist bombs) is the only issue worth considering. It’s only if we imagine an atmosphere completely dominated by fear of global warming that such an argument might seem sensible.
In the real world, nuclear power is opposed because it is dangerous, not for carbon dioxide emissions but for radioactive emissions. In normal operations, nuclear reactors leak various radioactive isotopes at levels that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) says are acceptable. The rate of incidence of cancer in the vicinity of nuclear reactors indicates the radioactive emission are not acceptable, but that’s just a fact, not an official conclusion of the NRC.
Then, of course, there are the spectacularly dangerous examples of reactor catastrophe: Windscale in 1957; Fermi 1 in 1966; Three Mile Island in 1979; Chernobyl in 1986; Fukushima units 1, 2 & 3 in 2011. The least of these “merely” destroyed equipment that would cost multiple billions of dollars to build today. The worst permanently contaminated hundreds of square miles of land and unimaginable quantities of downstream water. In the case of Fukushima, some degree of contamination is measurable in the entire Pacific Ocean.
Well, that’s pretty dangerous. It is not comforting to know that there are still about 100 more reactor sites in the United States where such catastrophe is possible. Just try Google images for “map of north america reactor sites” and you will see the truth of David Suzuki’s statement, “We are all downwind.”
I am disappointed that Harvey Wasserman has chosen to write an article opposing nuclear reactors on the grounds that (to paraphrase and over-simplify) they do too contribute to global warming. It’s a weak and silly argument, especially because it accepts the premise that promoters of nuclear power currently make – that their direct effect on global warming is the only reason to support or oppose nuclear power. I do not accept that premise, and neither should anybody who lives downwind of a reactor.
There are many strong reasons to oppose nuclear reactors, and many important and even life-threatening issues besides terrorist bombs and/or global warming.