Demystifying Nuclear Power: Ethics & Inquiry: Selective Truth Telling by the Energy Sector

written by Sue Prent

Two contrasting energy news stories recently crossed my desk.  The coincidence is noteworthy for what it reveals about innovation and its relationship to corporate greed.

The first story celebrated a triumph of cooperation between inventors and international funders, which has enabled the first fuel-free flight around the world.  Like early fueled flights of circumnavigation, it was slow-going, but on July 26, 2016, Solar Impulse 2  finally completed the last leg of its flight circling the globe and landing in Abu Dahbi where the journey had begun on March 9, 2015.  As its name suggests, Solar Impulse successfully derives all of its energy from the sun, lending an ironic twist to the Greek tragedy of Icarus whose flight was cut short by solar rays. 

Aircrafts are the CO2 producing behemoths of human travel, so this flight has enormous implications for the future of energy efficiency. Any experimental effort that takes on that challenge is a true cause for celebration!

The second news bulletin that caught my eye was the galling revelation that as far back as the 1960’s, oil companies such as ExxonMobil, appreciating the impact that worsening pollution would ultimately have on their industry, conducted research into reducing carbon emissions and even obtained patents for carbon reducing technologies, while actively lobbying to ensure governmental inaction on climate change. 

Here we are in the twenty-first century, and we are faced with an imminent CO2 crisis. The sheer cynicism betrayed in the oil industry’s suppression of this information boggles the mind. As we reflect on their accountability for this shameful deception, we must be reminded that this is by no means an isolated betrayal.  Like the oil industry, Big Tobacco placed its own interests ahead of the health of people throughout the world for decades, all the while engaging in its own war of data suppression.

Even as I write this, there is an effort underway in the nuclear power industry to revise the radiation story in order to allow for greater public exposure.  Why? Once again, public welfare has less weight in deliberations than the economic benefit for an industry in crisis.  A higher exposure threshold translates to the ability to release more radiation during atomic power plant operations, lower insurance costs and more favorable actuarial profiles, and less onerous regulation by the NRC.  In short: it’s all about money.

Fracking and Fukushima have undermined the economic feasibility of nuclear power as an energy source, so at this point, the only way to make the math work is to diminish the risk factor by recreating the myth that low-dose radiation does no damage to humans and other species or to the food we eat, the water we drink, or the air we breathe.

Revisionist radiation theory is entering a third generation.  

The first generation of the nuclear era began with the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese population in 1945.   It wasn’t until five years after the bombings that the U.S. authorities began collecting data on the effects of radiation from the blasts.  By then, the most vulnerable had already succumbed.  The remainder of the exposed population, had already demonstrated a degree of hardiness that set them apart as perhaps unusually resistant. Read Missing Doses in the Life Span Study of Japanese Atomic Bomb Survivors that was funded in part by grant R01-CA117841 from the National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health. The authors, David B. Richardson, Steve Wing, Stephen R. Cole, are affiliated with the Department of Epidemiology, School of Public Health, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC.

Being an army of occupiers, the U.S. authority was highly motivated to unquestioningly accept any data that minimized the human toll of the bombings. Thus, under the influence of the U.S. Department of Defense, that flawed data became the benchmark for future radiation pathology theory, and it was joined by the atomic power production industry once “Atoms For Peace” began a reclamation of the reputation for nuclear energy.

In the wake of the Chernobyl catastrophe, Soviet authorities were aided in their own attempts to minimize the public relations damage from the Chernobyl meltdown by the weakness of data from Japan’s experience suffering atomic bomb attacks at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  According to evidence uncovered and testimony by scientists involved in evaluating the human toll from the Chernobyl disaster, it is clear that the Soviets suppressed information about the true magnitude of the human toll. 

Now, the legacy of flawed radiation exposure data has entered its third generation, as new cases of thyroid cancer have brought the known total from the Fukushima meltdowns to 131 cases, at present count.  The Japanese government, again reflecting its official bias in favor of nuclear power production, dispute the relationship to the meltdowns of three Fukushima Daiichi atomic power reactors for the marked uptick in thyroid cancers among young children; and it cites the flawed Chernobyl data showing negligible thyroid cancers as evidence.  Aiding and abetting this narrative is the fact that, since the nuclear bombings in 1945, disease related to radiation exposure has carried a particular stigma in Japan, causing many affected individuals to deny that radiation might have anything to do with their afflictions or illness. 

How did this this cultural stigma come into being? One is tempted to suspect that the Japanese government may be deliberately encouraging its adoption and perpetuation, as it has certainly served its financial interests as well as its desire to have and control nuclear weapons.

If we fail to scrutinize not just the data as presented, but the interests behind that data, we lend ourselves to the most cynical of corporate and government proliferation agendas.

We glimpse a hopeful future in the flight of Solar Impulse, where innovation will inevitably lead to better energy storage options and truly clean energy technology that will transform our world. However, it is clear that we also must be ever vigilant against the real manipulation of scientific fact in the service of corporate greed.