3. The Continuing Nuclear Debate

Chapter 7: No More Victims
Part 1: The Future of Nuclear Power

The tragedy of Chernobyl and the escalation of the suffering of victims in the surrounding areas have without a doubt influenced the decisions of other nations to build nuclear power facilities.

In 1986, the Yugoslavian government announced that the construction of nuclear power plants would be postponed until the formulation of a long-term electricity plan. Switzerland announced the abolition of all nuclear power plants within forty years. The Austrian government announced the dismantling of the newly completed Zwentendorf power plant.

In 1987, the Mexican Department of Mines decided not to put the Laguna Verde plant into operation until safety could be guaranteed. Spain abandoned plans for an experimental radioactive waste treatment site. A referendum in Italy, which revealed that almost eighty percent of its citizens oppose nuclear power, led to the announcement of a moratorium. The Netherlands and Finland also postponed plans for new facilities.

In 1988, the Swedish government promised to close two reactors by 1996. The Swiss General Assembly canceled the construction of a nuclear power plant. Belgium also canceled plans for new nuclear power facilities.

In 1989, West Germany abandoned plans for the nuclear fuel reprocessing facility at Wackersdorf. In Sacramento, California, local people voted to close the Rancho Seco facility. New York State bought the Shoreham plant for one dollar with the intention of dismantling it.

The accident at Three Mile Island occurred several years before Chernobyl, and since then no orders for new reactors have been made in the United States. Three Mile Island provided the impetus for Sweden's decision to shut down all nuclear power plants by the year 2010. The accident at Chernobyl merely served to hasten this reversal in nuclear policy all over the world, and in many countries the prevailing attitude toward nuclear power is one of caution.

A visit to any bookshop leaves no doubt that the general public is more concerned than ever before about the earth's environment: a vast array of publications warns of the imminent destruction of the earth and informs us of ways to avoid it. However, almost without exception, they ignore the environmental problems caused by radioactive contamination from nuclear tests, weapons factories, fuel reprocessing plants, reactor accidents, and the careless disposal of radioactive waste.

Having seen at first hand the destruction caused by radiation, we find it incomprehensible that the issue of radioactive contamination should be left out of the environmental debate.

A glance at world history since the end of the Second World War shows that there have been only two periods during which the contamination of the earth's environment by radiation has been a widely debated issue. The first period was during the 1950s when the United States, the Soviet Union, and Britain carried out atmospheric tests of megaton-class bombs in an effort to maintain their position in the race for nuclear supremacy. The Japanese term shi-no-hai, "ashes of death," an apt description of nuclear fallout, was coined after a hydrogen bomb was detonated at Bikini. The American movie On the Beach, based on the Nigel Shute novel, painted a realistic picture of the end of the world brought about by a nuclear war. It was also during this period that scientists discovered that strontium-90 could make its way into the human body via the food chain.

The second period of reaction against nuclear technology was after the accident at Chernobyl. In Europe there was a rush on iodine, children could no longer be heard playing outdoors, and women decided to delay having children.

During both these periods contaminated food posed an immediate threat to ordinary citizens, who felt the effects of radiation far more intimately than those of global warming, the destruction of the ozone layer or deforestation. Seen in this light it is difficult to see why it has been left out of the debate as the issue of radioactive contamination would seem the obvious starting point for any discussion on the environment.

In spite of the dangers of radioactive contamination, the idea of nuclear power generation has been experiencing a resurgence in popularity in recent years, for the reason that nuclear power plants do not discharge carbons into the atmosphere. Some groups have advanced the argument that nuclear power plants are kinder to the environment than power plants which use fossil fuels. In Sweden, a number of people have been calling for a reappraisal of the plan to abolish all nuclear power facilities, and the argument supporting this type of power generation as a solution to the problem of global warming is gathering force in other countries as well. This trend is most apparent in France, which relies on atomic energy for 69.9 percent of its power. The Soviet Union and Japan are similarly dependent on nuclear power.

France has not altered its policies of further expanding the use of nuclear power generation and is aiming at maintaining its status as Europe's main atomic energy producer before EC unification in 1992.

The Soviet Union, or rather the Soviet government, has been most keen to revive the flagging fortunes of nuclear power generation. However, because of the fierce opposition to nuclear power that was generated after the accident at Chernobyl, further construction of nuclear facilities has become impossible. Power plants in Krasnodar, Minsk, Odessa, and Armenia have been closed, and plans for future plants have been canceled; in March 1990 the Ukrainian parliament demanded that the three remaining reactors at Chernobyl be shut down.

Japan, with its lack of natural resources, continues its policy of decreasing reliance on fossil fuels. The notion of nuclear power as the savior of the environment is widely accepted among officials of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). From MITI's point of view the sudden enthusiasm for protecting the environment is seen as a means to a quite different end: by persuading the public that nuclear power offers a viable alternative to traditional forms of power generation, new reactors may be built without provoking storms of protest. The same applies for those other nations eager to revive the fortunes of atomic energy as a power source. If the dangers of radioactive contamination were to be widely publicized, considerable damage would be done to the case for nuclear power. Consequently, one is forced to the conclusion that this is the main reason why radiation is conspicuously absent from the environmental debate.

This is not to say that the pronuclear governments have been completely successful in promoting nuclear power: in Japan, for example, there is a great deal of public opposition to the government plan to increase the percentage of electricity generated by nuclear power from the present 26.2 percent to 34 percent by 1999.

During our investigations we visited both Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, and came to understand the hollowness of the popular belief that nuclear power is safe. In the book Genpatsu wa naze kiken ka (Why is nuclear power dangerous? ), Tanaka Saburo, a former Japanese power-plant engineer, questions the safety of nuclear power and gives several examples of work he has done at reactors to avert potentially dangerous situations. He also points out the wide discrepancy in terms of safety between new and long-established facilities, where the pressure vessels are likely to have become brittle.

The economy myth as embodied in the slogan "Electricity too cheap to meter" has recently been under attack in the same way as the safety myth. In the case of Three Mile Island, for example, the initial construction cost of the Unit-2 reactor was $700 million, and the cost of the cleanup operation after the accident was $1 billion. If the drop in share prices and compensation to local residents are included, the total cost comes to $4 billion.

When something goes wrong with a nuclear reactor the resulting damage is far from minimal. The Chernobyl disaster has shown that the destructive force of radioactive contamination can affect wide areas. The high financial, environmental, and human costs of that particular accident will be a burden on Europe for many years to come.

These stark realities have brought about a change in attitudes toward nuclear power generation all over the world. It is common knowledge that the techniques associated with the various uses of atomic energy have yet to be perfected. It could almost be said that the disaster at Chernobyl has given us the opportunity to make a choice: whether we should delay the construction of further nuclear power plants while we reevaluate their worth, or whether we should press on with building more facilities and think about it as we go.

Having seen at first hand the suffering caused by exposure to radiation in many different parts of the world, we hope that all nations, including our own, will have the courage to choose the former alternative. Japan, unfortunately, seems to have chosen the latter path, contrary to trends in the rest of the world.