Any citizen with even a casual awareness of the public debate
over nuclear power is familiar with the usual talking points, pro and con,
regarding this issue: safety, costs, environmental impacts, etc. I will not
burden the reader with a rehash of these familiar issues.
Instead, I propose to enrich the debate with some issues with
which the general public might be less familiar, all of which issues lead
strongly to the conclusion that electric power generation from nuclear reactors
should be phased out with deliberate speed and the technology abandoned --
This essay consists of three sections: First of all, the
recent disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan urgently brings the
science of plate tectonics into the debate, and raises the question of whether
the promoters of nuclear power are willing and able to take the long-term
implications of that technology into consideration as they select sites for
In the second section, we ask whether it is possible to
accurately and reliably assess the safety of nuclear reactors. A failed attempt
to do so thirty years ago suggests that such an assessment is impossible, not
simply because of a lack of scientific knowledge and technological capacity, but
more fundamentally, because of the insurmountable inability to anticipate all
possible circumstances that might occur in the operation of the plant.
Finally, these and other considerations lead to the
conclusion that nuclear power is not economically viable and sustainable without
massive government subsidies that are unavailable to its competing technologies.
Fukushima: A Disaster Waiting to Happen
What were Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) and General
Electric thinking when they decided to site the world’s largest nuclear power
complex at Fukushima, on the eastern coast of Northern Japan?
Perhaps they weren’t thinking at all, or at least they were
thinking only for the short-term. Myopia is endemic to the corporate mind, which
is dedicated to an early return on investment. "In the long-term," John Maynard
Keynes famously remarked, "we’ll all be dead."
Nonetheless, a disastrous earthquake followed by a tsunami
was certain to happen along the eastern coast of Japan. Not a question of if,
but of when. That certainty was ordained by the science of plate
tectonics and validated in the geological record.
The sword of Damocles hanging over Fukushima is the Japan
Trench, located about 100 miles due east of and parallel to the coastline where
the plant is located.
The trench is a subduction zone, where the Pacific plate
dives down under the Okhotsk plate and into the mantle. The Japanese islands,
like the Marianas and the Aleutians, owe their very existence to subduction
which, as it grinds along, produces great earthquakes and tsunamis.
Tsunamis can be produced by volcanoes and landslides. But
they most reliably occur along subduction zones, as the ocean floor during an
earthquake is suddenly and violently jolted, causing a pulse of water to move
outward and perpendicular to the fault line. The Indonesian tsunami of December
26, 2004, which killed almost a quarter of a million people, was caused by a
magnitude 9.1 earthquake along a subduction zone about 100 miles west of
Sumatra. Among other noteworthy subduction quakes/tsunamis are the "Good Friday"
Alaska earthquake in 1964 (magnitude 9.1), and the Chilean earthquake of 2010
And so, because the Japan Trench is parallel to the coast of
northern Japan, the tsunami was aimed directly at that coast.
Because of the dynamics of plate tectonics,
earthquake/tsunamis are endemic to Japan. For example, in 1923 a magnitude eight
earthquake struck central Japan, leveling the city of Yokohama and destroying
more than half of Tokyo, at the cost of about 100,000 lives.
The investors of the Fukushima plant knew all this, and yet
they went ahead and built a facility that was designed to withstand a magnitude
seven earthquake. (The Richter magnitude scale is not linear, it is logarithmic.
Accordingly, the energy released in a magnitude nine quake is not two-ninths
greater than that of a magnitude seven. It is about a thousand times greater).
TEPCO continued to operate the facility,
despite warnings from the International Atomic Energy Commission.
To put the matter bluntly, the investors and designers of
Fukushima gambled that during the operational lifetime of the plant, there would
be no earthquake greater than magnitude seven. They gambled, and the people of
northern Japan lost. Economists call this loss an
In California two commercial nuclear power facilities, at San
Onofre between San Diego and Los Angeles and at Diablo Canyon near San Luis
Obisbo, are located along the Pacific coast and near seismically active faults.
As a resident of southern California, I must wonder if the operator of that
plant Southern California Edison, like TEPCO in Japan, is likewise gambling with
my life and the lives of my neighbors. Heads they win, tails we lose.
And earthquakes and tsunamis are not the only, or even the
greatest, threat posed by nuclear power reactors. The Three Mile Island accident
was caused by a mechanical failure, and the Chernobyl disaster was caused by
Building a nuclear power complex along a shoreline opposite a
subduction zone is risky. That fact is a "known known." How risky? That is an
unknowable unknown. Any attempt to assess the risk, or for that matter the risk
associated with any and all nuclear power plants, is almost certain to
underestimate that risk. A reliable and accurate assessment of the risk of a
failure of a nuclear power reactor is unobtainable, now and forever.
These are bold assertions that I will endeavor to demonstrate
below. To do so, we will examine an ambitious and massive attempt, some thirty
years ago, to assess the safety of nuclear power plants, and its subsequent
spectacular failure to achieve that objective. Because the reasons for that
failure remain valid today, this is a tale well worth retelling in the light of
the disaster at Fukuyama and in the face of the determination of the Obama
Administration, despite that disaster, to proceed with the construction of the
first new nuclear power plants in thirty years.
Reactor Safety: The Rasmussen Report Revisited
Concerned about public criticism of their nuclear energy
ambitions, the promoters of commercial atomic energy at the Atomic Energy
Commission (AEC) initiated in 1972, the "Reactor Safety Study," which was to
become known as "The Rasmussen Report," after its Director, Norman Rasmussen of
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In August, 1974, the draft Report was
released with much fanfare in a public-relations extravaganza that prompted one
newspaper to proclaim: "Campaigners Against Nuclear Power Stations Put to Rout."
Following this triumphant entrance, scrupulous scientific assessment began
behind the facade, after which it was all downhill for the Report. The AEC's
successor organization, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), quietly
withdrew endorsement of the Rasmussen Report in January, 1979.
Rushed into print to provide support for a renewal of the
Price Anderson Act (a federally mandated limit of industry liability following a
nuclear reactor failure), an eighteen page "Executive Summary" of the final
Report was distributed to Congress and the Press in October, 1975, and in
advance of the release of the full, 2300 page Report.
Perhaps the most famous item of the Executive Summary was the
claim that the chances of being killed by a nuclear power plant "transient" is
about equal to that of being killed by a meteorite. This mind-catching statistic
has proven to have a longevity far exceeding that of the Report which spawned
it. In general, the Summary concluded that
... The likelihood of reactor accidents is much smaller
than that of many non-nuclear accidents having similar consequences. All
non-nuclear accidents examined in this study, including fires, explosions,
toxic chemical releases, dam failures, airplane crashes, earthquakes,
hurricanes and tornadoes, are much more likely to occur and can have
consequences comparable to, or larger than, those of nuclear accidents.
Closer examination revealed a startling discrepancy between
the cheerful reassurances of the Executive Summary and the nine volumes of
technical information. In his splendid book, The Cult of the Atom (Simon
and Schuster, 1982), based upon tens of thousands of pages of AEC documents
pried loose by the Freedom of Information Act, Daniel Ford observes that
As one moves from the very technical material ... to the
Executive Summary ... a change of tone as well as of technical content is
evident. In the "back" of the study, there are cautionary notes, discussion
of uncertainties in the data, and some sense that there may be important
limitations to the results. The qualifications successively drop away as one
moves toward the parts of the study that the public was intended to see. In
the months following the study's completion, the honesty of the official
summary ... became the most controversial issue.
The reassuring conclusions of the Rasmussen Report were based
upon numerous highly questionable assumptions and methodologies. Among them:
By definition, the report estimated damage and casualties
due to anticipated events. There is no clear acknowledgment that all
possible significant events were not, and could not be, covered by the
study. As it turned out, the near-disaster at Three Mile Island was just one
of several "unanticipated" events. And as noted above, a magnitude nine
earthquake was not anticipated by the designers of the Fukushima plant.
In fact, whole categories of failures were excluded from
the risk estimates. For example, it was assumed that back-up safety systems
would always operate in case of the failure of a primary system. Given this
assumption, the risk of a catastrophic accident would be the product of the
probability of the independent failure of both systems, and thus highly
unlikely. However, this discounted the possibility of a "common-mode
failure," such as that at Browns Ferry, Alabama, in 1975 (soon after the
release of the Report), where, due to faulty design, an accidental fire
disabled both systems at once -- yet another event excluded by the Rasmussen
rules. Similarly, the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011
disabled both the primary and backup safety systems at the Fukushima
The Report focused on mechanical and equipment failures,
and discounted design flaws and "human error," as if these were in some
sense insignificant. Also overlooked was the possibility of sabotage and
The report adopted the so-called "fault-tree" method of
analysis, described by the Report as "developed by the Department of Defense
and NASA ... [and] coming into increasing use in recent years." Not so. As
Daniel Ford reports, "long before [Rasmussen] adopt the fault-tree methods
... the Apollo program engineers had discarded them."  As a retired
professor of engineering recently explained to me: "the simulation or
probability tree ... analyses ... are used to locate the weak links in your
design, given the possible sources of failure that you know of or can
specify... [However, the analyses] are not meant to yield a credible
probability of failure, but instead yield at best a lower bound for that
probability." (EP emphasis)
The "probabilities" assigned to the component "events" in
the "fault tree," leading to a hypothetical failure, were based upon almost
pure speculation, since, because the technology was new, the evaluators
lacked any precedents upon which base probability assessments. (Both
Rasmussen himself, and his Report, admitted as much). (Ford 138, 141). Thus,
because the Report was fundamentally an advocacy document, this gave its
pro-nuclear investigators the license to concoct unrealistically low risk
These "low risk estimates" in the Executive Summary were
startling, to say the least: "non-nuclear events," it claimed, "are about
10,000 times more likely to produce large numbers of fatalities than nuclear
plants." But the footnote to this statement gave it away, when it added that
such "fatalities ... are those that would be predicted to occur within a
short period of time" after the accident. However, few fatalities due to
radiation exposure are "short-term." In fact, as Physicist Frank von Hipple
pointed out, a careful reading of the voluminous technical material would
disclose that for every ten "early deaths" conceded in the Summary, the same
accident would cause an additional seven thousand cancer deaths. (Ford, 170)
This was only one of the several scandalous discrepancies between the
"public" Executive Summary and the Technical material in the Report, which
led Morris Udall, then Chair of the Subcommittee on Energy and the
Environment, to demand a new Executive Summary. The NRC refused.
The "peer review" of the Report was perfunctory at best.
The reviewers were given eleven days to assess an incomplete 3,000 page
draft report -- a schedule virtually designed to yield invalid assessments.
Even so, many of the referees returned withering criticisms, especially of
the statistical methods employed by the studies. The findings of this review
group were not released by the AEC or the NRC, and the published Report was
unaltered by these criticisms.
These and numerous other flaws in the study led one critic to
wryly comment that "the chance of the Rasmussen Report being substantially wrong
is somewhat more than the chance of your being hit by a meteorite."
Though the general public was much impressed by the public
relations show orchestrated by AEC, informed professional investigators
immediately began the erosion of credibility. Among these were the Bulletin of
the Atomic Scientists, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and, most
significantly, an independent panel set up by the American Physical Society and
chaired by Harold Lewis of the University of California, Santa Barbara. Each of
these returned severe criticisms of the Report.
All this bad news eventually led the Reactor Safety Study
into the halls of Congress. Daniel Ford describes what followed:
In some cases [congressional] members and staff probed
the issues [of reactor safety] carefully, prepared detailed follow-up
reports, and tried to bring about needed reforms. Congressman Morris Udall's
Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment, for example, held extensive
hearings on the validity of the Reactor Safety Study. His protests about the
misleading manner in which the report's findings were presented to the
public forced the NRC, in January 1979, to repudiate the results of the
study. (p. 226)
And so, at length, the relentless discipline of science and
scholarship, combined with a rare display of uncompromising congressional
oversight investigation, brought about the downfall of the AEC/NRC "Reactor
The NRC's "withdrawal of endorsement" stood in stark contrast
to its release, scarcely four years earlier. This time there were no publicity
releases, media interviews or press conferences. It was hoped that the
announcement would go unnoticed amidst the usual gross output of news out of
Washington. Given the widespread public opposition to nuclear power, this
expectation was bound to be frustrated.
In the end, the Rasmussen Report was yet another attempt at
justification of "the peaceful atom" which backfired on the proponents.
Historians looking back on this technological extravaganza may note, with some
bewilderment, that however severe the attacks by the critics, commercial nuclear
power was, in this case at least, inadvertently done in by its defenders.
Nuclear Power Fails the Free Market Test.
Still more substantial objections to nuclear power have been
raised by scientists and engineers much more qualified than I am. So I will not
repeat them here. (To read these objections, google "Physicians for Social
Responsibility," "Union of Concerned Scientists" "Natural Resources Defense
Council" and "The Rocky Mountain Institute"). However, in closing, a few
additional concerns are worthy of mention.
(1) First of all, every source of electric power, with the
exception of nuclear power, "fails safe." A failure at a coal-fired plant would,
at worst, destroy the plant. But the damage would be localized and short-term.
Failures at a wind-farm or solar facility are trivial. However, the damage
caused by a nuclear meltdown and radiation release endures for millennia and can
render huge areas permanently uninhabitable, as they have in Ukraine and Belarus
due to the Chernobyl disaster, and as they likely will in Japan following the
(2) Nuclear industry assurances as to the safety of their
facilities are flatly refuted by their unwillingness to fully indemnify the
casualty and property losses that would result from a catastrophic release of
radiation from a nuclear accident. Since 1957, the Price Anderson Act has set a
limit on the liability that private industry must pay in the event of an
accident. The amount of that limit, originally $560 million for each plant, has
been routinely revised, so that as of 2005 the limit is now $10.8 billion for
each incident. Clearly, the Fukushima disaster will exact a cost far exceeding
that amount. Were such an event to occur in the United States, the cost of such
a disaster in excess of ten billion would be born by the victims and by the
taxpayers. The contradiction is stark: the nuclear industry and its enablers in
the NRC tell the public that nuclear energy is safe. And yet, at the same time,
they are unwilling to back up these assurances with a full indemnification of
(3) The public has not been adequately informed of the
ongoing hazards of nuclear power. For example, the Union of Concerned Scientists
report that in the past year, there were fourteen
"near misses among the 104 nuclear plants operating in the United States.
And according to the Washington Post (March 24),
the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has disclosed that "A quarter of U.S.
nuclear plants [are] not reporting equipment defects."
(4) The widely-heard claim that "nobody in the United States
has ever died due to commercial nuclear power" utilizes
"the fallacy of the
statistical casualty." Specific cancer deaths due to artificial nuclear
radiation are, of course, indistinguishable from cancer deaths due to other
causes. Yet epidemiological studies show, beyond reasonable doubt, that some
deaths are attributable to artificial radiation. The inference from "no
identifiable specific deaths" to "no deaths whatever" is fallacy made infamous
by the tobacco industry’s successful defense against suits filed by injured
smokers or their surviving families.
(5) The claim that nuclear power is the "safest" source of
energy commits the "fallacy of suppressed evidence." Such a claim pretends that
the risk of nuclear power is confined to the radiation risks adjacent to a
normally operating plant and immediately following each "event." Usually
excluded from such assessments are deaths and injuries involved in the mining,
milling, processing, shipment, reprocessing, storage and disposal of fuel -- in
short, the entire "fuel cycle."
(6) Similarly, the claim that nuclear power is the "cheapest"
power available is likewise based upon "the fallacy of suppressed evidence."
Specifically, nuclear proponents arrive at this conclusion by "externalizing"
(i.e., failing to include) such costs as government subsidies for research and
development, the costs of disposing of wastes, the cost of decommissioning of
facilities, and, again, the cost of risks to human life, health and property. As
noted above, the risk factor is excluded due to the Price Anderson Act and the
failure to acknowledge "statistical casualties. Once all these "externalized
costs" are included, nuclear power adds up to the most expensive energy source,
hands down. Over fifty years of industry research, development and operation
have not altered this fact. Meanwhile, as R & D of alternative energy sources
progress and economies of scale kick in, the costs of solar, wind, tide,
geo-thermal and biomass energy continue to fall. (See UCS,
"Nuclear Power Subsidies: The Gift that Keeps on Taking," and Amory Lovins,
"With Nuclear power, ‘No Acts of God Can Be Permitted’").
Because of considerations such as these, no nuclear plants
have been commissioned since the completion in 1985 of the Diablo Canyon
facility along the central coast of California. The Obama Administration is
prepared to change all this, as the President has announced $8 billion in
federal loan guarantees to allow the building of the first nuclear power plant
since Diablo Canyon.
Without this "federal intervention," along with the
Price-Anderson liability cap, no new nuclear plants would be built. The "free
market" would not allow it. And yet there are no conspicuous complaints from the
market fundamentalists on the right.
Why am I not surprised?
PostScript: My involvement in the Diablo Canyon
controversy goes way back. In 1981, a group of local citizens blockaded the
Diablo Canyon construction site in an act of civil disobedience, for which,
predictably, they were arrested. At the time, I was a Visiting Associate
Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of California, Santa
Barbara. The defense team asked me to testify as to the "reasonableness" of the
protesters’ belief that the Diablo Canyon nuclear reactors posed a significant
danger to their community and to themselves. The prosecution objected on the
grounds that the defense was asking me to "do the jury’s work." The judge
concurred, and so I was not permitted to testify. My account of this experience
and critique of the ruling may be found in my unpublished paper,
"A Philosopher’s Day in
Court" at my website, The Online Gadfly,
The discussion above of the Rasmussen Report is a revision of my unpublished
class discussion paper from 1980,
"The Strange Saga of the