A cloud of nuclear mistrust spreads around the world

Tony Gosling tony at cultureshop.org.uk
Fri Mar 18 12:45:23 GMT 2011

A cloud of nuclear mistrust spreads around the world
March 16, 2011

After decades of lies, nuclear reassurances now fall on deaf ears

Special report by Michael McCarthy

It is unprecedented: four atomic reactors in dire 
trouble at once, three threatening meltdown from 
overheating, and a fourth hit by a fire in its 
storage pond for radioactive spent fuel.

All day yesterday, dire reports continued to 
circulate about the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear 
plant, faced with disaster after Japan’s tsunami 
knocked out its cooling systems. Some turned out 
to be false: for example, a rumour, disseminated 
by text message, that radiation from the plant 
had been spreading across Asia. Others were true: 
that radiation at about 20 times normal levels 
had been detected in Tokyo; that Chinese airlines 
had cancelled flights to the Japanese capital; 
that Austria had moved it embassy from Tokyo to 
Osaka; that a 24-hour general store in Tokyo’s 
Roppongi district had sold out of radios, torches, candles and sleeping bags.

But perhaps the most alarming thing was that 
although Naoto Kan, Japan’s Prime Minister, once 
again appealed for calm, there are many – in 
Japan and beyond – who are no longer prepared to be reassured.

The scale of the alarm is the remarkable thing: 
how it has gone round the world (Angela Merkel 
has imposed a moratorium on nuclear energy; in 
France, there are calls for a referendum); how 
it’s even displaced the terrible story of Japan’s 
tsunami itself from the front-page headlines. But 
then, public alarm about nuclear safety, as the 
Fukushima emergency proves, is very easy to raise 
– and, as the Japanese authorities are now discovering, very hard to calm.

The reason is an industry which from its 
inception, more than half a century ago, has 
taken secrecy to be its watchword; and once that 
happens, cover-ups and downright lies often 
follow close behind. The sense of crisis 
surrounding Japan’s stricken nuclear reactors is 
exacerbated a hundredfold by the fact that, in an 
emergency, public trust in the promoters of 
atomic power is virtually non-existent. On too 
many occasions in Britain, in America, in Russia, 
in Japan – pick your country – people have not 
been told the truth (and have frequently been 
told nothing at all) about nuclear misadventures.

To understand the mania for secrecy, we have to 
go back to nuclear power’s origins. This was not 
a technology dreamt up as a replacement for 
coal-fired power stations; this is a military 
technology, conceived in a life-or-death 
struggle, which has been modified for civilian 
purposes. At its heart is the nuclear chain 
reaction, the self-sustaining atom-splitting 
process (“fission”) which occurs when enough 
highly radioactive material is brought together, 
and which produces other radioactive elements 
(“fission products”), and a release of energy.

When it was first achieved by the physicists 
Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard, in an atomic “pile” 
built in a squash court of the University of 
Chicago in December 1942, it merely produced 
heat; but all those involved understood that if 
it could be speeded up, it would produce the 
biggest explosive power ever known. And so was 
born the Manhattan Project, the US undertaking to 
build the atom bomb which was, while it lasted, history’s biggest secret.

Secrecy came with nuclear energy, like a 
birthmark, and, indeed, for 10 years after the 
first A-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in August 
1945, it remained a covert military technology, 
although first the Russians, and then the 
British, followed the Americans in developing it. 
Britain built a pair of atomic reactors at 
Windscale on the Cumbrian coast, which produced 
(as a fission product) plutonium, the material 
used in the first British nuclear weapon. That 
was exploded off the coast of Australia in 1952. 
And it was in one of these reactors that the 
world’s first really serious nuclear accident 
occurred: the Windscale fire of October 1957. The 
reactor’s core, made of graphite, caught light, 
melted and burned substantial amounts of the 
uranium fuel, and released large amounts of 
radioactivity. It was the most serious nuclear 
calamity until Chernobyl nearly 30 years later, 
but the British government did all it could to 
minimise its significance, trying at first to 
keep it a complete secret (the local fire brigade 
was not notified for 24 hours) and keeping the 
official report confidential until 1988.

It was to be the first of many such nuclear 
alarms and cover-ups at Windscale. In 1976, for 
example, the secrecy surrounding a major leak of 
radioactive water infuriated the then Technology 
Minister, Tony Benn, who supported nuclear power, 
when he learnt of it. But similar cover-ups were 
happening all around the world.

At the US atomic weapons plant at Rocky Flats, 
Colorado, there were numerous mishaps involving 
radioactive material which were kept secret over 
four decades, from the 1950s to the 1980s. In 
Russia, the province of Chelyabinsk, just east of 
the Urals, housed a major atomic weapons complex, 
which was the site of three major nuclear 
disasters: radioactive waste dumping and the 
explosion of a waste containment unit in the 
1950s, and a vast escape of radioactive dust in 
1967. It is estimated that about half a million 
people in the region were irradiated in one or 
more of the incidents, exposing them to as much 
as 20 times the radiation suffered by the 
Chernobyl victims. None of which, of course, was 
disclosed at the time. Chelyabinsk is sometimes 
referred to now as “the most polluted place on the planet”.

When we turn to Japan, we find an identical 
culture of nuclear cover-up and lies. Of 
particular concern has been the Tokyo Electric 
Power Company (Tepco), Asia’s biggest utility, 
which just happens to be the owner and operator 
of the stricken reactors at Fukushima.

Tepco has a truly rotten record in telling the 
truth. In 2002, its chairman and a group of 
senior executives had to resign after the 
Japanese government disclosed they had covered up 
a large series of cracks and other damage to 
reactors, and in 2006 the company admitted it had 
been falsifying data about coolant materials in its plants over a long period.

Last night it was reported that the International 
Atomic Energy Agency warned Japan more than two 
years ago that strong earthquakes would pose 
“serious problems”, according to a Wikileaks US 
embassy cable published by The Daily Telegraph.

Even Chernobyl, the world’s most publicised 
nuclear accident, was at first hidden from the 
world by what was then the Soviet Union, and 
might have remained hidden had its plume of 
escaping radioactivity not been detected by scientists in Sweden.

So why do they do it? Why does the instinct to 
hide everything persist, even now, when the major 
role of nuclear energy has decisively shifted 
from the military to the civil sector? Perhaps it 
is because there is an instinctive and indeed 
understandable fear among the public about 
nuclear energy itself, about this technology 
which, once its splits its atoms, releases deadly forces.

The nuclear industry is terrified of losing 
public support, for the simple reason that it has 
always needed public money to fund it. It is not, 
even now, a sector which can stand on its own two 
feet economically. So when it finds it has a 
problem, its first reaction is to hide it, and 
its second reaction is to tell lies about it. But 
the truth comes out in the end, and then the 
public trusts the industry even less than it 
might have done, had it admitted the problem.

It doesn’t have to be like this. A quarter of a 
century ago, Britain’s nuclear industry acquired 
a leader who for a few years transformed its 
public image: Christopher Harding. He was an open 
and honest man who thought that the paranoia and 
secrecy surrounding nuclear power should be swept away.

When he became chairman of British Nuclear Fuels, 
which ran the Windscale plant, he decided on a 
new order of things. He renamed it Sellafield, 
and, to general astonishment, decreed that 
instead of sullenly turning its back to the 
public, it should welcome them with open arms. He 
did the unthinkable: he opened a visitor centre!

Harding died young in 1999, but he was, in his 
lifetime an exceptional man: not only for his 
charm and his personal kindness – he was revered 
by Sellafield employees – but for his vision of a 
nuclear industry which would be better off 
dealing with its problems through transparency 
and honesty, rather than through obfuscation and 
deceit. But he was, unfortunately, the exception who proved the rule.

The rest of the nuclear industry has been 
dissembling for so long, and caught out in its 
lies so often, that the chance for trust may have 
passed. Even if, as I suspect, the Japanese 
government is trying to be reasonably up front 
about the problems at Fukushima, it is by no 
means certain that anything it says about the 
nuclear part of their nation’s catastrophe will be believed.
+44 (0)7786 952037
"Capitalism is institutionalised bribery."

"The maintenance of secrets acts like a psychic 
poison which alienates the possessor from the community" Carl Jung
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <https://mailman.gn.apc.org/mailman/private/diggers350/attachments/20110318/e61e083e/attachment.html>

More information about the Diggers350 mailing list