Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.
Wednesday, August 17, 2011 4:20 PM
The nuclear industry is teaching its vision of a bright nuclear future to schoolchildren by offering teachers free guides that extol “the beneficial uses of radiation,” The New Republic reports. The guides are the marketing brainchild of the EnergySolutions Foundation, the charitable arm of a large nuclear-waste processor, and they’ve been doled out to eager recipients including the Mississippi Department of Education.
Among the materials for sixth- to 12th-graders is a trivia game that points out the ecological destruction wrought by wind towers (bird killers!) and solar farms (desert destruction!). One video game in the works by EnergySolutions “revolves around a broken-down reactor buried in the jungle,” according to The New Republic. Presumably, the possible outcomes do not include slow, excruciating death by radiation poisoning or cancer.
Industry-funded school propaganda initiatives have a decades-old history, the magazine points out—“but they’re making a comeback as the once-moribund nuclear industry gears up for a revival.”
If you’re not outraged yet, you may be when you find out that government is getting into the act, too, using our taxpayer dollars. The New Republic also reports that the U.S. Department of Energy has updated a pro-nuclear curriculum called the Harnessed Atom, which it will be promoting in schools nationwide, and its website hosts an interactive, animated city called Neutropolis where nuclear power is cool, fun, safe, and secure.
“We’re always looking for new ways to reach kids,” EnergySolutions’ executive director, Pearl Wright, tells TNR about the firm’s educational efforts.
They might want to be aware that such efforts can backfire, too. One natural-gas firm tried to cozy up to the kids with a coloring-book dinosaur called the Friendly Frackosaurus, only to pull it after the creature was incisively satirized by Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report last month. And earlier this year, the schoolbook publisher Scholastic severed its ties with the coal industry after a host of organizations criticized a fourth-grade pro-coal energy curriculum that had been paid for by the American Coal Foundation.
In the meantime, the schoolchildren near Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have also been learning a lot about nuclear energy lately—but for them, the scary part hasn’t been edited out.
UPDATE 8/19/2011: It’s not just energy companies that are getting into the curriculum-revision game. California Watch reports that the plastics industry edited the state’s new 11th-grade environmental curriculum to put a more positive spin on plastic bags.
Source: The New Republic
(full article available only to subscribers), DeSmog Blog, Grist, New York Times, California Watch
Marshall Astor – Food Pornographer
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Tuesday, May 24, 2011 4:09 PM
How many times have we been told, since the Fukushima nuclear crisis began, that we’re not being told everything? The revelation that three reactors suffered fuel meltdowns soon after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami—a scenario vigorously denied by plant and government officials at the time—only reinforces my view that whatever the technological wonders of nuclear fission, it’s humans that can’t be trusted. The continually shifting “facts” and belated revelations about the disaster have me wondering how nuclear proponents can continually be seduced by the wonders of this “clean” energy while completely overlooking how miserably it’s being managed, and how the cover-ups keep piling up.
Science journalist John Horgan writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Chronicle Review about his on-and-off status as a nuclear proponent, noting that he “jumped on the pro-nuclear bandwagon” again last fall after being convinced of its safety and its low emissions relative to coal.
Fukushima took a bit of the green glow out of him, though: “I was still congratulating myself for my open-mindedness when the tsunami smashed into Japan, which had been a paragon of nuclear competence.”
The past competence of Japan’s nuclear industry is not very impressive when you dig into it. But setting that aside, Horgan’s main point—that Fukushima ought to at least give us pause—is a rare admission for a nuclear proponent. Horgan, who teaches a class in the history of science and technology at the Stevens Institute of Technology, concludes his commentary by noting that he encourages a healthy skepticism in his classrooms full of techno-optimists:
Here’s what I say to my students: I wish I could encourage you to make a career in nuclear power. Given the current limits of wind and solar energy, we need more nuclear generators to reduce our reliance on coal and other fossil fuels and to curb the effects of global warming. But given the checkered history of nuclear power both in this country and elsewhere, I don’t blame the public for opposing new plants, or for not wanting to live as close to one as I do.
This opposition may thwart the nuclear revival in America. If you want to help solve our energy problems, I tell the young engineers in my classes, you should probably look for a more stable industry. In short, I’m staying on the nuclear bandwagon, but I’m not encouraging anyone to join me.
It seems to all come down to who, and what, you believe and trust. Nuclear power is like a religion, and you’re either a true believer or a skeptic.
Rod Adams pushes a hard pro-nuclear line at his Atomic Insights blog and was one of the people who helped usher Horgan back into the pro-nuke fold after they appeared together on a post-tsunami Bloggingheads.tv discussion. Adams spends a lot of time hashing over the technological arguments surrounding nuclear power, but ultimately even his views are largely an act of faith. One of his most telling personal revelations came in a recent comments-field back-and-forth over a blog post questioning whether Nation environmental reporter Mark Hertsgaard is “a nuclear skeptic or a nuclear crank.” Adams wrote:
. . . I am unabashedly in favor of personal mobility, fresh vegetables in the middle of winter, and moderate indoor temperatures even in July and August in the steamy southeast U.S. I like fast boats, cruising back roads with the top down, and flying to exotic vacation spots every once in a while. I think our creator has offered us a technology that makes it possible to both eat cake today and to have some available tomorrow.
So there you have it. Adams is very well-practiced at debunking nuclear-energy opponents with oodles of techie talk, but at the end of the day he believes God wants us to drive deluxe motorboats and convertibles and live lives of comfort and convenience—thus he’s given us the knowledge and power to split atoms. To me, this makes Adams little more credible than the anti-nuke zealot who has a gut feeling, deep down inside, that nuclear power is just wrong.
Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Bloggingheads.tv, Atomic Insights
Image by Sakucae, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, May 03, 2011 4:16 PM
President Obama’s tenacity in clinging to nuclear power is astounding. With the Fukushima disaster still spewing radiation into the atmosphere and brutal budget cuts on the table, Obama wants to extend another $36 billion in taxpayer-guaranteed loans to the nuclear industry to build new plants—in addition to the $18.5 billion he has already offered.
Writes Nation environmental correspondent Mark Hertsgaard, “As health, education, and other social services are being sacrificed on the false altar of deficit reduction, $54.5 billion is a massive amount of money. Worse, Obama is shoveling money at nuclear energy at the very same time he has diverted funds from renewable energy.”
Hertsgaard sees Obama’s nuclear ambitions as playing into “a larger meta-narrative dominating discussion of the Fukushima disaster here in the United States”:
Yes, Fukushima is scary, the narrative goes, but it is far away, our own nuclear plants pose little danger and, besides, neither our economy nor the fight against climate change can succeed without more nukes. Even the usually sensible nonprofit journalism enterprise ProPublica is publishing articles implying that anything less than a Chernobyl-scale disaster amounts to only “limited” impact.
The supreme tragedy here is that more nuclear power is not only unnecessary but downright unhelpful to securing America’s, and the world’s, economic and environmental future. Countless studies have shown that the enormous financial cost and long construction times of nuclear power plants make them the costliest, slowest way to supply electricity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions (which is exactly why investors demand loan guarantees rather than risk their own money to build new nukes).
Even with Obama’s bully-pulpit backing, the phenomenally bad economics of building new plants are dogging the industry, reports the New York Times’ Matthew L. Wald. One expert tells Wald that he thinks nuclear plant construction will “go quiet” for two to five years, and Wald notes that “of the four nuclear reactor construction projects that the Energy Department identified in 2009 as the most deserving for the loans, two have lost major partners and seem unlikely to recover soon.”
Obama’s strategy is for U.S. taxpayers to take on the risk that energy investors are afraid to touch. Having already committed us to $18.5 billion, he wants to effectively triple our exposure.
“A federal loan guarantee is a little like a parent co-signing a child’s car loan; if the child makes the payments, the parent pays nothing,” writes Wald. But “If the builders default, as happened on some nuclear construction projects in the 1980s, the taxpayer liabilities could run into the billions of dollars.”
That’s a loan I wouldn’t co-sign. Would you?
UPDATE 5/6/11: Apparently, Rep. Ed Markey wouldn’t. The Massachusetts Democrat today released a letter he sent to the Office of Management and Budget demanding answers to several questions regarding loan guarantees for new nuclear reactors and the risk to taxpayers, reports the Nuclear Information and Research Service.
Sources: The Nation, New York Times
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Tuesday, April 12, 2011 12:53 PM
Before the extent of Japan’s nuclear crisis had even become clear—in fact, before the aftershocks had ended—nuclear apologists were rushing forth to point out that the Fukushima incident was no Chernobyl. Some of them were pointing out, correctly, that the two disasters were very different in their particulars—one was caused by human negligence and error, one by a tsunami, the reactor designs are different, etc.—but others were effectively saying, don’t worry, they’re simply not in the same ballpark.
Well, the latter group of prognosticators can eat their words. The Japanese nuclear regulatory agency has revised the severity of the Fukushima accident so that it is now ranked equal to Chernobyl on the International Nuclear and Radiation Event scale. Yes, more people were killed immediately in the Chernobyl meltdown, and in it more radiation was released—if we’re to believe what we’re being told by Japan’s nuclear spokesmen, that is—but under the nuke industry’s own rating system, the two events are now in the same category: The worst.
Grist’s Jess Zimmerman is still intent on delineating the differences between the incidents (even though that’s been done extensively), and unfortunately she does so under the CNN-worthy headline “How much should you panic?”
Well, I’m not panicking: Like many environmentalists, my own skin is not always my foremost concern. But I am worried for the many Japanese people who are and will be affected, for the sea ecosystems that will be polluted, and by the ongoing sense that this tragic story is still unfolding.
Sources: BBC, Grist, Pro Publica
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Wednesday, August 04, 2010 11:24 AM
Nuclear power plants have a life expectancy of about 40 years. Many U.S. plants are near the end of that span—and like many humans at a similar stage, their plumbing is going to hell, writes Terry J. Allen in In These Times. “America’s nuclear power plants are more incontinent than a nonagenarian with an enlarged prostate,” she warns, noting that pipes at 27 of America’s 65 nuclear power sites have leaked radioactive material.
Nonetheless, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has grandfathered in lower standards and rubberstamped all 59 applications it received for extending the operating life of reactors for another 20 years, and is … expected to consider 37 more renewals in the next seven years.
Allen notes that a leak was discovered this spring at the 38-year-old Vermont Yankee plant, which was the site of a fire in 2004 and a partially collapsed cooling tower in 2007. The Vermont legislature refused to relicense the facility beyond its 2012 license expiration, and just a couple of weeks ago Rep. Edward Markey (D.-Mass), the chairman of the House energy and environment subcommittee, cited Vermont Yankee as a poster child for derelict nuclear plants in a letter to the NRC that was reported by the Washington Independent:
“After decades underground, neither the NRC nor the plant operators can be absolutely certain that the pipes are intact. I am appalled by the safety procedures not only at Vermont Yankee, but at other nuclear facilities across the country who have failed to inspect thousands of miles of buried pipes at their facilities.”
Another nuclear plant leak in Vermont, reported by the Boston Globe the day before Markey sent his letter, had put an exclamation point on the issue. Tritium was discovered in a monitoring well outside the Pilgrim Nuclear Station in Plymouth, and while the NRC said the leak wasn’t a threat to public health, the official line from Pilgrim wasn’t exactly reassuring:
David Tarantino, Pilgrim spokesman, said that a team of environmental engineers, chemists, maintenance, and operations specialists, and others are now trying to pinpoint the source of the tritium.
“It’s in an area where there’s lots of underground systems that carry radioactive water, but we can’t even say for certain that it’s a leaking system yet,’’ he said.
Sources: In These Times, Washington Independent, Boston Globe
Image by AmyZZZ1, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, May 15, 2009 3:49 PM
Reading Tom Zoellner’s book Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World (Viking) is a great way to wrap your head around many of the technical, geographical, and ethical issues surrounding nuclear power and nuclear weapons. By learning exactly how we came to turn an odd yellow rock into an agent of phenomenal promise and danger, you’ll be better informed to decide the wisdom of reviving nuclear power and letting nuclear weapons proliferate.
One of the book’s most memorable sections is about William L. Laurence, the public relations man who hyped the atomic bomb for the U.S. government. Laurence was a science writer for the New York Times who became so enthralled by nuclear weapons that he became their paid P.R. man while covering the science beat, a brazen conflict of interest that was kept secret until the day after the bombing of Hiroshima.
Zoellner chronicles Laurence’s almost spiritual conversion to the religion of the atom and unsparingly critiques his writing style, which was so over the top that the White House once sent back a press release draft for being too exaggerated:
Laurence never met a classical allusion that he didn’t like, or attempt to employ. ... Uranium was to Laurence, at various points, ‘a cosmic treasure house’ and a ‘philosopher’s stone’ or a ‘Goose that laid Golden Eggs,’ which ‘brought a new kind of fire that lead to ‘the fabled seven golden cities of Cibola.’ These messianic word-pictures of a life to come, though wildly overoptimistic , helped to create in the American public a generally positive and hopeful feeling about the dawn of the new atomic age.
Laurence, known as “Atomic Bill” to some, won a Pulitzer Prize for his Times series about the making of the atomic bomb—a prize that journalists Amy Goodman and David Goodman have said should be rescinded. Not only was Laurence on the War Department’s payroll, they contend; he also wrote stories that debunked the deadly effects of gamma ray radiation even as Japanese bomb victims lay dying.
Fairly, Zoellner notes that Laurence himself had misgivings about the “great forebodings” of the nuclear age, and once characterized the human race’s dilemma in his typically dramatic style: “Today we are standing at a major crossroads,” he wrote. “One fork of the road has a signpost inscribed with the word Paradise, the other fork has a signpost bearing the word Doomsday.”
It might have been as close to the truth as he ever got.
Sources: Viking/Penguin, Common Dreams
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