Greenman's Occasional Organ

Ecosocialist. Syndicalist. Critical Techno-Progressive.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Nuclear Panglossian Hubris and Survival

I have recently been watching DVDs of Terry Nation's seminal 1975-77 British TV series, Survivors. The basic plot is that a small number of people survive the accidental release of a very high fatality/very highly infectious flu-like virus. As the series developed it explored various political and philosophical themes around self-sufficiency, law and justice, technology, democracy and education. Despite a very English middle class bias, typical of the period, the series retains the power to shock and impress which I remember from watching it as a child. The series has topical relevance at the moment with the Avian Flu virus stories, although even in the worst case scenarios with the current viruses and their likely mutations we are not looking at quite such an apocalyptic outlook.

A green trivia point is that John Abineri who played Hubert Goss in Survivors was an environmentalist who played some role in the development of the Green Party in England and Wales (at the time of the series , the Ecology Party.) It was Abineri , who with Chris Rose, proposed the change of name from Ecology Paty to Green Party at the Party conference in 1985.

In the summer of last year it was said that the BBC were looking to revive the series following the success of the revival of Dr Who.

One question mark that raises its head about the artistic license in the scenario of people rebuilding some kind of civilisation after the disastrous pandemic is the question of nuclear power. Considering this issue raises some important points about the nature of nuclear technology and the worldview of those who present it as some sort of solution to global energy and climate change problems. In the series the breakdown is very rapid, we are shown things getting progressively worse over a few days, and then one of the characters goes through the illness to emerge 4-5 days later and find her husband, and the bulk of the rest of the population dead. I have not re-watched all three series yet, but I cannot recall any significant storylines dealing with the results of abandoned reactors, reprocessing and waste facilities.

Now it might be argued that a die off like this is not likely, and even if rapid extensive mortality did occur in advanced economies reliant on nuclear energy, there would be ample time for safe, effective shutdown of reactors, which would then be safely contained within their containment vessels for long enough for society to get back on its feet again and sort out the long term danger of multiple Chernobyl-style releases of radioactive materials. Likewise it might be said that current waste storage in the UK at least would survive intact for many years without the necessity for monitoring. You could believe that, if you wanted to. Whether you would be being hopelessly optimistic is another matter.

Of course, you could say , that if we are talking about a global catastrophe of the type fictionalised in Survivors, then the safety of reactors and waste would be the least of our worries. On the other hand, we are talking about the resilience and survival of the human race here - and whilst the chance of a global catastrophe exactly like that in Survivors is hopefully very low, one cannot be smug about our chances of avoiding all possible near-extinction level events in the light of the work of the respected British Scientist Sir Martin Rees. If humanity is reduced to struggling to re-establish itself from a much reduced base, then heavy radioactive contamination of the necessary agricultural basis of life would perhaps significantly shift the odds against our survival.

Rees discusses a range of existential risks confronting humanity, and controversially estimates that the probability of extinction before 2100 AD is around 50 per cent, based on the possibility of malign or accidental release of destructive technology.

Am I alone in thinking that increasing the number of potential disaster sites from this incredible total is not perhaps a good idea if Rees is right? That is before we talk about the risks run by this ever growing army of nuclear reactors in terms of nuclear weapons proliferation, terrorism, war zones, natural disasters etc.

The fact that safe decommissioning and clean up, as at Chapelcross, one of the oldest sites here is reckoned in terms of 100 years does not fill one with confidence, neither does the large number of reactors in Britain and elsewhere that are situated on shorelines at sea level in this age of predicted rapid rises in sea levels.

Now it might be said that all this doomsday stuff is gloomy and morbid and not to be taken seriously - however, this is not the view of the Norwegian government, who are building a doomsday seed depository on the side of a mountain on an island (Svalbard) in the Arctic Circle. That is before we investigate all the deep earthworks and worst case scenario provisions of the US government.

My mind is open on the question of radioactive waste disposal - I am not convinced that a strategy of denial of a solution is a convincing one for greens, even if it is understandable to be opposed to solutions that are dangerous or proposed to make continued nuclear expansion appear more attractive and less problematic. What the above indicates is that leaving the stuff lying around on the earth's surface, even with highest security, is not the best solution given the prognosis for humanity in the coming time period. Yes, monitoring and access must be possible, and yes there must be no argument that "we've 'solved' the waste issue, so we can expand nuclear energy now" but we should also seek the situation whereby the legacy of the nuclear industry (and other industries with potential for wide distribution of toxicity for that matter) is not disastrous for the survivors if current levels of human monitoring and maintenance are curtailed by a catastrophe or global disaster.

The defenders of the nuclear industry, and those urging its expansion to "counter global warming" revel in a state of hubris, where those who disagree 'Just don't get it'. Some of these defenders and proponents, as in this debate on the Plastic discussion boards have an outlook worthy of Voltaire's Pangloss. The gamble is that, not only will our civilization avoid any of the brushes with disaster Rees sees as possible in the next century or so, but that in our current state of development we will now avoid any of the breaks and discontinuities in progress that are evidently common in any sufficiently long term view of history. They seek to avoid any conclusions harmful to their argument from Chernobyl, Three Mile Island or the alarming number of weapons and reactors now rusting on the seabed, as reported in a 1989 Time magazine article by Daniel Benjamin -

“NATO intelligence has confirmed that nine reactors and 50 nuclear weapons of various sizes are resting on ocean floors. Said one Danish official: "Nuclear things don't just go off, but the idea of these weapons and reactors rusting away on the seabed does not seem to be a safe thought”

An interesting writer on technological vulnerability and nuclear and peace issues is Brian Martin.

So what do I propose? Well, firstly the nuclear power programme should be replaced as quickly as possible by a blend of renewables. Even temporary use of carbon capture and deep storage (if proved viable) from carbon based fuels is preferable to expansion of the nuclear programme. A "hardening of energy supplies" would be the best option, by this I mean the possibility of as much local power generation as possible, so that if we face rocky times ahead the loss of cerain strategic areas does not bring down power supplies or availability everywhere. This is in line with the England and Wales Green Party policy.

Secondly all the safest methods of protected storage of current radioactive wastes should be considered, including the "Finnish model" and the current plans that are on the table in Britain and the most favourable implemented rapidly. Continuous monitoring should be facilitated - there should be no dump and run - but the disruption of this, in light of the "catastrophe scenarios" should not compromise the security and safety of the deposit.

Whether climate change is severe or not, we face troubled times ahead. We cannot duck the issue and join the Panglossian optimists - real, worthwhile optimism is about preparing to survive, or help others to survive even the worst that we might encounter, at the same time as pursuing social, scientific and technological progress.

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At 11:52 pm, Blogger Gerry Wolff said...

Regarding " Nuclear Panglossian Hubris and Survival" (2007-02-11), there is absolutely no need for nuclear power in the UK or elsewhere in Europe because there is a simple mature technology available that can deliver huge amounts of clean energy without any of the headaches of nuclear power.

I refer to 'concentrating solar power' (CSP), the technique of concentrating sunlight using mirrors to create heat, and then using the heat to raise steam and drive turbines and generators, just like a conventional power station. It is possible to store solar heat in melted salts so that electricity generation may continue through the night or on cloudy days. This technology has been generating electricity successfully in California since 1985 and half a million Californians currently get their electricity from this source. CSP plants are now being planned or built in many parts of the world.

CSP works best in hot deserts and, of course, there are not many of these in Europe! But it is feasible and economic to transmit solar electricity over very long distances using highly-efficient 'HVDC' transmission lines. With transmission losses at about 3% per 1000 km, solar electricity may, for example, be transmitted from North Africa to Manchester with only about 10% loss of power. A large-scale HVDC transmission grid has also been proposed by the wind energy company Airtricity as a means of optimising the use of wind power throughout Europe.

In the recent 'TRANS-CSP' report commissioned by the German government, it is estimated that CSP electricity, imported from North Africa and the Middle East, could become one of the cheapest sources of electricity in Europe, including the cost of transmission. That report shows in great detail how Europe can meet all its needs for electricity, make deep cuts in CO2 emissions, and phase out nuclear power at the same time.

Further information about CSP may be found at and . Copies of the TRANS-CSP report may be downloaded from . The many problems associated with nuclear power are summarised at .

At 2:14 pm, Blogger Eric McErlain said...

Over at NEI Nuclear Notes, we found an explanation at The Straight Dope that you might find partially illuminating -- so to speak.

At 7:43 pm, Blogger greenman said...

RE: Gerry Wolff's comment - Thanks for that, Gerry - I have added a link to your site in my resources links section, it looks very useful.


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