By Donella Meadows
–June 13, 1991–
I had just given a talk on the greenhouse effect at one of the great corporate research labs of this nation. I had praised the company for developing super-efficient light bulbs — in fact I had demonstrated one of their bulbs. But I hadn’t said a word about another of their products — nuclear power plants.
That knowledgeable audience was very aware of my omission. Efficiency is one way to reduce greenhouse warming. Nuclear power, which does not produce greenhouse gases, is another. So after my talk a frustrated-looking gentleman stormed up to me and exploded, “Professor Meadows, WHY don’t you like nuclear power?”
The look on his face stopped me from making a flip reply. There was anger but also respect in his question. He wasn’t trying to set me up for a blast of his contrary opinion. He really wanted to know what makes nuclear opponents like me tick.
He deserves a better answer than I was able to give in the heat of the moment and the middle of a crowd. What I said then was “the wastes.” That is the worst problem with nuclear power as far as I’m concerned. But it’s not the only one.
All the troubles of nuclear power start with its insidious radioactive materials. They are a toxic and genetic threat to every form of life. Some have lifetimes of thousands of years. Their danger is inherent in their atomic structure; there is no way to render them harmless.
The horror with which ordinary citizens regard nuclear materials is not irrational. Our senses cannot detect them; we can be poisoned without knowing it. Except in high doses the toxicity works slowly. It may show up only after decades, or generations. Add to that the fact that in the wrong hands nuclear materials can make devastating bombs, and you have good reason for public concern.
A first principle of ecological sanity should be “Thou shalt not produce wastes you cannot dispose of safely.” No nation has a disposal scheme for nuclear wastes that is sufficient to their danger. Our nation has no disposal scheme at all. That’s why many nuclear opponents fight plant proposals not with NIMBY — Not In My Back Yard — but with NOPE — Not On Planet Earth.
The lethal materials make problems not only with waste disposal but with operational safety. A leak is more than a mere leak, an explosion more than an explosion, if it scatters radioactive materials into nature. The industry is hard at work designing a new generation of “safe” nuclear plants. But the safest plant human beings can devise will not end my opposition to nuclear power, for two reasons.
The first is that the generating plant is only one stage of the materials flow from the mining of uranium through purification, fabrication, power generation, and disposal of spent fuel. Safety has to extend to trucks, trains, the entire path, which, as plants multiply, covers more and more of the nation.
The second reason is that complete safety is just not possible. I once worked in a nuclear research lab. The preoccupation with safety there was impressive. Given the extreme dangers of the materials it moves, the safety record of the nuclear industry is amazing. But not perfect. The people I worked with were not angels. They were bright, concerned, educated in safety routines, and they still spilled, they joked around, they made mistakes, they got sleepy, angry, forgetful. The machines and detection devices were not divine either. They jammed, corroded, sent wrong signals, failed in a hundred ways.
I do not believe that even the cleverest people or machines can handle large quantities of lethal materials perfectly, much less keep those materials out of the hands of less clever or more malicious human beings.
Then there is the matter of expense, which also results from the hazardous materials. Nuclear plants need safety devices, redundancies, monitoring, extra-solid construction, inspections, insurance, training, and bureaucracy, which is why nuclear will always be the costliest electricity option. Even with greater government subsidy than any other form of power, nuclear has priced itself out of the market — no utility is ordering new plants.
The cost of nuclear power might be worth paying and the risks worth enduring, if it were our only way of having electricity. But it isn’t. Doing without nuclear power does not mean selling our souls to OPEC or freezing in the dark or triggering global warming. There are other options, starting with greater efficiency (which could double our effective electricity supply at no net cost), and including renewable sources, from water to wind to biomass to the sun. Nuclear power, because of its extraordinary expense, draws money, time, and attention from other and better choices.
Legislation before Congress just now aims to streamline the approval process for new nuclear power plants. I think that’s a good idea. It’s stupid to ask about siting, safety, and evacuation after billions of dollars have been invested and a plant is already built. It should be done just once, before construction starts. All information about the proposed plant should be made public. Alternative ways of meeting electricity needs should be taken, if they’re cheaper. Subsidies should be exposed. There should be a guaranteed, approved place to put the wastes. Site selection should be a democratic process.
If all that were done, it’s possible that I could come to like nuclear power. It’s also possible that no one would.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991