A cloud of nuclear mistrust spreads around the world
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 Japans 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 Tokyos
Roppongi district had sold out of radios, torches, candles and sleeping bags.
But perhaps the most alarming thing was that
although Naoto Kan, Japans 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
its even displaced the terrible story of Japans
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 Japans 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 powers 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, historys 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
worlds first really serious nuclear accident
occurred: the Windscale fire of October 1957. The
reactors 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), Asias 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 worlds 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 doesnt have to be like this. A quarter of a
century ago, Britains 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 nations 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
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