Magical Thinking

The oxymoronic term “alternative facts” has recently taken root in American political conversation, but the alleged magical thinking by the nuclear power industry is nothing new to informed energy sector critics.

The nuclear power meltdowns at Three Mile Island (TMI) in the US, Chernobyl, now the contaminated legacy of the Ukraine, originally part of the USSR – now Russia, and the triple meltdowns in Japan at the Fukushima Daiichi atomic reactor site show that the various atomic power disaster scenarios created by the nuclear industry are far from what actually occurred during the last 38-years.

Inaptly named “maximum credible accidents” by the atomic power industry, these actual meltdowns are really more of the industry’s alleged magical thinking based on the projected maximum cash available in each country hosting the reactor.  Not surprisingly, nuclear reactors are simply incapable of withstanding the worst disaster imaginable. The proclamations made by nuclear power and nuclear weapon fixated governments have been designed to reduce costs to reactor owners, which are either corporations or governments, and then passing on the radioactive remains to local communities to sort out and protect for the next 25-mellenniums – until all the radioactivity decays away.

Before TMI, the magical thinking in the nuclear power industry assumed that failures would only occur one at a time: according to industry calculations, there was essentially a zero percent likelihood of multiple systems failing at once.

Nice work if you can get it.

Raised on the pro-nuclear “Atoms for Peace” propaganda that was initiated during the 1950s, Americans have been effectively shielded from any news of near misses at test reactors as well as the releases of radioactivity from experiments gone wrong. Most Americans didn’t know or even believe nuclear power plant disasters or radiation releases could ever happen.

The movie China Syndrome, starring Jack Lemon, Jane Fonda, and Michael Douglas, might have given movie goers a Saturday night of novel suspense and a great performance by Lemon, before disappearing forever into the vast archives of forgettable Hollywood plots, except that it was released only two weeks before the 1979 TMI meltdown.

When the real disaster at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station thrust the China Syndrome Movie into the limelight it also shattered the world’s illusion of the invulnerability of atomic reactors.  The coincidence of fact mirroring fiction was all anyone could talk about until the nuke industry public relations machinery managed to tamp down public anxiety through deft misdirection:

As Fairewinds and its chief engineer Arnie Gundersen have repeatedly said: The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) cover-up of the true impact of the TMI disaster has been hidden in plain sight for the past 38 years. Arnie’s recent presentation in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for the 38th commemoration of the TMI meltdown, illustrated the NRC’s alleged magical thinking in detail. Newly provided and previously hidden internal NRC documents are now posted on Fairewinds’ website TMI page that further substantiate the magnitude of the government’s cover-up. 

Prior to the fire and meltdown at Chernobyl, the nuclear power industry remained confident that the TMI meltdown was an anomaly; that operating nuclear reactors had been rigorously designed, competently operated and thoroughly planned to meet universal standards of safety. The nuke industry’s proclaimed magical thinking still maintained the same low failure probability that anything would ever go horribly wrong at any nuclear reactor in the world during an ordinary person’s lifetime.

Just as the NRC hid the truth from Americans and the world after TMI, the tragic events at Chernobyl unfolded in extreme secrecy in April of 1986, during the waning years of the Soviet Union. The detection of radiation in Sweden alerted the world that the worst nuclear catastrophe in history was underway at Chernobyl. We may never know the true scale of human and environmental tragedy that unfolded in the wake of Chernobyl, since the controlling regime of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) – now Russia – was disinclined to keep and share legitimate records.

Nevertheless, from Chernobyl, we learned that feigned magical thinking by nuclear regulators can mean disaster when operator error is introduced and unexpected events transpire. Of course, U.S. atomic power spokespersons quickly pointed out the differences between the reactor design at Chernobyl and other operating facilities around the world, insisting that safety features employed on other reactors would ensure that Chernobyl could never be repeated. See Fairewinds library of Chernobyl features here on Fairewinds’ website on the Chernobyl page

And, naysayers were right, Chernobyl wasn’t repeated. The triple meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi 6-reactor site showed the world an entirely unforeseen way for atomic reactors to explode.

Before the explosions at Fukushima Daiichi, reactors were designed, sited, and built based on nuclear power industry magical thinking about maximum flood, hurricane, and tsunami events. It was still believed that natural disasters would occur almost never; and then only in complete isolation from any major industrial catastrophe.

The bitter reality of March 11, 2011 showcased the lie of those hypotheses as an earthquake and tsunami unleashed a chain of cataclysms in northern Japan that was almost biblical in scale. No one could simply blame the operators, like the industry did at TMI and Chernobyl. The reality is that Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi reactors were designed by Americans in Manhattan and built by Americans in San Jose California.

While historic records showed that huge tsunamis were possible, the American designers once again used nuclear power magical thinking during its reactor construction. The hillside was cut down and four of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors were situated adjacent to the water, so that cooling water would not have to be pumped up the hill. Moreover, in order to further curtail expenses, the reactor engineers built an inexpensive 15-foot high tsunami wall to save additional funds.  Once again Maximum Cash Available overrode any calculations determining what the industry claimed to be the Maximum Credible Accident.    

Now, six years after Fukushima, the NRC and international nuclear regulators are in a sudden rush to rehabilitate radiation, alleging that no one died at TMI, Chernobyl, or in Fukushima. The government of Japan is forcing Japanese citizens to return to their contaminated homes and towns in a financially driven public relations effort before the Tokyo Olympics once again thrusts Japan into the international limelight.

The world of renewable alternatives has not been idle as the combustion-and-consumption energy sector stubbornly clung to the old models, including nuclear power reactors. Wind and solar in particular have rewarded backers with steeply declining generation costs, great advances in storage, and delivery that ensure the inevitable transformation of the energy marketplace.

Yet, once again, the nuclear power industry isn’t done with its purported magical thinking. Weakened by market forces as clean renewables gain strength, and facing growing public skepticism, the industry wants to shift people’s focus from the burgeoning nuclear waste and terrorist threats of atomic power by spinning the yarn that nuclear redemption is ‘just around the corner’; and that corner appears to move farther and farther away all the time.

Rather than admit that they have chased the atomic dragon long enough without managing to eliminate the ever-present danger of careless destruction, the nuclear power industry is pinning its faint hopes on new technology that still depends on the same impossible equation of risk to reward. The latest of these, the AP1000, seems to grow further from realization with each passing day as the corporations that designed and are attempting to construct the AP1000 go bankrupt.

If its hurdles could ever be surmounted, and they cannot, the problem of the stockpiles of nuclear waste, which would be increased by the AP1000, has no viable solution anywhere in the world. Meanwhile, operating reactors are piling tons and tons of spent fuel at reactor sites where it will remain a terrorist attraction for the foreseeable future, and it is only a matter of actuarial roulette before the next nuclear disaster adds another uninhabitable zone to its growing list.

Capitalizing on limited public interest in the details of scientific issues, the nuclear industry has exploited this lack of technical curiosity in order to promote its illusion that the old arguments for nuclear energy are still valid. And, when people do demand answers, the atomic power industry uses nukespeak and regulatory jargon to further obfuscate the facts. Finally, when confronted with answers demanded in courts across the country, the nuclear industry claims trade secrets and proprietary material in its ongoing effort to hide the truth from a public ready to move ahead with energy solutions that really are safe, clean, and green.