"Nuclear Reaction," which was aired April 22 on Public
Broadcasting Service's (PBS) "Frontline," presented a grossly
inaccurate picture of the safety, security and viability of the
nuclear power industry. Producer Jon Palfreman and guest
correspondent Richard Rhodes attempted to show that the demise of nuclear power in the United States is due to the public's
irrational fears of radiation.|
In fact, nuclear power's demise is attributable to the
industry's poor energy economics, its inability to solve the
nuclear waste problem, its determination to use bomb-usable
plutonium as fuel despite obvious proliferation and terrorism
risks, and the public's legitimate safety concerns following the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents. "Nuclear Reaction"
ignores, glosses over, or inaccurately portrays each of these
Public Concerns About Nuclear Power
Frontline: Public fear of nuclear power is irrational "risk
perception." Nuclear experts conduct methodical "risk analysis"
and conclude that nuclear power is safe.
Response: This claim is arrogant and elitist. There is a
substantial basis for the public's fears. Environmental
devastation has been inflicted for the last 50 years upon dozens of
the Department of Energy sites involved in the U.S. nuclear weapons
program, posing potentially large threats to nearby communities.
Over fifty million gallons of intensively radioactive, potentially
explosive, high-level radioactive waste at the Hanford Reservation
in Washington state provide stark evidence of what happens when
these problems are left to the "experts." Plans to reprocess spent
fuel to extract plutonium only compound the nuclear waste problem.
Moreover, nuclear experts' "risk analyses" usually ignore the
crucial difference between voluntary and involuntary risk. The
public has virtually no say in nuclear power development and its
hazards, and so is less willing to accept the involuntary risks
associated with things nuclear than the voluntary risks that they
choose to take in everyday life, like driving or flying.
Frontline: In France and Japan, citizens better
understand the issues, and thus nuclear power has widespread public
Response: France and Japan provide their citizens
far less access to a free flow of information about, and even less
of a voice in, their nuclear power programs than in the United
States. But even in these nuclear closed societies, support for
nuclear power in general, and plutonium recycling in particular,
has begun to slip in the wake of recurrent safety problems at the
plutonium-fueled Superphenix fast breeder reactor in France, and
serious accidents at the Monju breeder and Tokai reprocessing plant
in Japan. Particularly in Japan, high officials of the
government-run plutonium corporation are now being demoted and are
facing criminal prosecution because of deliberate concealment and
distortion of the evidence of accidents, such as filing of false
reports and doctoring of videotapes. Public support based on
distortions and lies is undeserved.
Nuclear Power Safety Risks
Frontline: Even in the worst case, a nuclear meltdown
would not release any radiation outside the containment building.
Response: This is simply untrue. The U.S. Nuclear
Regulatory Commission (NRC) recognizes the possibility of so-called
"beyond-design-basis" ("Class 9") accidents in which steam or
hydrogen explosions caused by molten fuel interacting with water
could rupture the containment building and cause large radiation
releases. Also, France's standardized nuclear plant design,
praised by Frontline, is vulnerable to "common mode failures." A
serious accident caused by a design defect in one plant could force a shutdown of all other plants of the same type and leave France
with a greatly reduced capacity to generate three-quarters of its
electricity. The French nuclear industry's recent large-scale
distribution of potassium iodide tablets to populations around its
nuclear plants---a means to reduce thyroid-cancer risk in the event
of a large radiation release---went unreported by Frontline but
indicates that France's confidence in its own "fail-safe" safety
measures is somewhat less than total.
Frontline: Nuclear power does not pose a radiation health
threat to the public because it creates far less exposure than such
natural "background" sources as cosmic rays and radon.
Response: The question is not how much background radiation
exists, or how much higher it is than normal nuclear power plant
emissions, but how dangerous is the additional man-made exposure
above background. There is a scientific consensus, reflected in
international radiation guidelines, that the danger from low-level radiation is linear: each additional exposure creates a
proportionally increased risk of cancer, and small increases in
risk to individuals can accumulate to large increases for the total
population. Frontline's logical fallacy should be obvious:
the fact that indoor radon and cosmic radiation can be dangerous
does not mean that nuclear-power-related radiation is not. In
fact, by causing exposures above those already caused by radon and
other background sources, nuclear power does put the general
population at greater risk.
Frontline: Nuclear-power opponents overstate the
impact of the 1986 Chernobyl accident. Only 31 people died. Some
children got thyroid cancer, but it's curable. Even the Hiroshima
and Nagasaki bombings resulted in only a slight increase in long-
term cancer risk.
Response: The official Soviet figure of 31 deaths from
Chernobyl, more propaganda than science, is universally rejected as
far too low. It reflects only short-term deaths from acute
radiation poisoning. More recent and realistic assessments
suggest that long-term fatalities will number in the tens of
thousands. Richard Rhodes should have taken Frontline's
camera to Belarus to record the large number of radiation-induced
illnesses that are in evidence there. What he would have found is
that, as of April 1996, 680 cases of thyroid cancer have been
confirmed in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia since the Chernobyl
accident, and the number of new cases has risen annually. In some
regions of Belarus, the incidence of thyroid cancer in children has
increased by a factor of 200 since the accident. Experts on the
scene have observed that the type of cancers being seen are
"unusually aggressive, often with prominent local invasion and
distant metasteses ... this has made the treatment of these
children less successful than expected ..." However, even if the
cancers prove "curable," it is highly offensive to suggest, as
Rhodes does, that the suffering and expense involved in the
treatment of thousands of children is a reasonable price to pay for
the "benefits" of nuclear power. Similarly, Frontline dismisses
the increased cancer incidence among survivors of the Hiroshima and
Nagasaki as insignificant. Yet, the 500 additional cancer
fatalities among survivors of the atomic bombings still represent
a six percent increase over what would normally be expected.
Frontline: Plutonium is not "the most toxic substance known to
man." A piece of paper can stop its radiation, and ingesting small
amounts poses little danger.
Response: Plutonium is highly carcinogenic, and debates
about whether it is the most carcinogenic or
toxic man-made substance miss the point. It is surely among the
deadliest, on a par with the military nerve gas, sarin. The
greatest health risk from plutonium is not external exposure, but
inhalation. Deposited in the lungs, even a few micrograms
(millionths of a gram) of plutonium are sufficient to cause cancer.
The nuclear-power industry in Europe and Japan processes
plutonium by the ton. How can a sheet of paper stop a microscopic
plutonium particle from irradiating lung tissue? Ingesting
plutonium is also dangerous because lethal quantities will migrate
to bone marrow and cause cancer. To suggest otherwise is
irresponsible. Perhaps that is why Professor Bernard Cohen did not
offer on Frontline, as he has done in past public appearances, to
drink plutonium to prove it is
safe. Someone might actually take him up on his offer.
Frontline: Unlike the United States, most nations that utilize
nuclear power reprocess their spent fuel and recycle plutonium.
Examples include France and Japan.
Response: To the contrary, most nuclear-industrial
nations have abandoned plans for spent-fuel reprocessing, plutonium
recycling, and breeder reactors. Even France and Japan, two of the
few remaining plutonium stalwarts, have put their breeder reactor
programs on hold, and are slowing down their reprocessing rograms.
Britain, the other principal purveyor of plutonium, has cancelled
its breeder and has no domestic plutonium program to speak of,
because only one of its power-plants is suitable for using MOX
fuel. The introduction of plutonium-uranium mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel
in conventional light-water reactors is proceeding very
Frontline: Recycling plutonium eliminates
its long-term hazards, whereas spent fuel perpetuates the risk for
hundreds of thousands of years.
Response: Recycling plutonium does not "burn it up" or
even reduce it significantly. Only about one-third of the
plutonium in a MOX fuel element is fissioned when irradiated in a
conventional nuclear reactor. And plutonium cannot be reprocessed
and recycled indefinitely until eliminated: after three or four
cycles (and perhaps only after one or two cycles), the plutonium is
too degraded to be re-used. Eventually, even with large-scale
plutonium recycling, large amounts of plutonium will remain in
spent fuel, and that spent fuel will have to be placed in a
repository. So, Frontline's suggestion that reprocessing and
recycling eliminate the need for a waste repository is
Frontline: Plutonium recycling would eliminate the need for
a permanent geological repository for nuclear waste. Instead,
scientists in a high-tech underground "nuclear waste laboratory"
would use new technologies to transmute plutonium and other waste
into less harmful substances.
Response: As noted above, recycling does not eliminate
plutonium in spent fuel, or even the need for a permanent spent-
fuel repository. Eventually, spent MOX fuel, like standard, spent
low-enriched uranium fuel, will require permanent disposal in a
>repository. "Transmutation" remains a pipe dream that looks less
promising the more it is studied. Even if it is ever proven
successful, transmutation would require thousands of years and
hundreds of reactor cycles, and still would not eliminate all
plutonium and other actinides.
Frontline: The Carter Administration took the
United States off the plutonium recycle path in the 1970s based on
irrational "concerns that plutonium would end up in the wrong
Response: Plutonium proliferation and terrorism risks
cannot be dismissed so quickly. Less than 15 pounds of plutonium--
-about the size of an orange---is enough to build a nuclear bomb
that could destroy a city. A group of former U.S. nuclear weapons
designers, in a study for the Nuclear Control Institute, concluded
that terrorists would be capable of building such a bomb using
reactor-grade plutonium of the sort separated out by commercial
reprocessing plants. Further, it is technically impossible to
safeguard plutonium bulk-handling facilities, such as spent-fuel
reprocessing and MOX fuel-fabrication plants, that process
plutonium by the ton. Unavoidable measurement uncertainty means
that knowledgeable insiders could beat the accounting system and
remove significant quantities from the plants, perhaps via the
unsafeguarded low-level waste stream. [For detailed analysis of
these proliferation risks, see studies by Paul Leventhal and Marvin Miller,
and the plutonium section on our "What's New" page.]
Why Is the Nuclear Power Industry in Trouble?
Frontline: Irrational public fears have strangled a clean
source of limitless electricity.
Response: Nuclear power has been done in by its inability to
compete economically with other sources of electricity---a
situation that will become even more apparent in the United States
as the electricity market is deregulated. Plutonium fuels are even
less competitive---MOX fuel costs about four to eight times more
than standard, low-enriched uranium fuel. Reprocessing, far from
solving the waste problem, creates much more waste than that
contained in spent fuel (including the reprocessing plant itself
and all waste it produces), and puts nuclear waste into a less
manageable form than spent fuel.
The producers of "Nuclear Reaction" ignored or distorted the
most significant problems of nuclear power and plutonium recycle---
safety hazards, proliferation risks, and an inability to compete
economically despite billions of dollars in federal subsidies.
These problems disprove their main thesis that irrational fear is
what threatens nuclear power in the United States. Public fear and
rejection of nuclear power are not only rational but sensible.