If We Built a Safer Nuclear Reactor, How Would We Know?

The most easily understandable and comprehensive information source I have seen on risks associated with different levels of radioactivity comes from a comic strip. Using different colors to represent different orders of scale, xkcd's creator, Randall Munroe, was able to represent information in a clearer manner than I have yet to see from a reputable scientific organization.

When I type "Fukushima radiation" into Google, I get a mish-mash of confusing, unhelpful, outdated or sensationalist articles from a random mix of sources, none looking very trustworthy or comforting. Trying to think of a credible source, I visited the website of the National Academy of Sciences; the front-page greeted me with a technical report on Terrorism Spent Nuclear Storage from 2006, and even less helpfully, a study from 2004 recommending everyone living near nuclear power plants should stock up on potassium iodide pills -- exactly what Americans should not do at the moment given that these pills are actually needed in Japan. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website was barely better. There was very good information on radiation but it was not updated to reflect current issues. Reputable news organizations were somewhat more helpful in terms of analyses of the crisis, but were unhelpful to misleading when it came to understanding the actual risks.

This represents a societal epistemological bankruptcy. Epistemology refers to the process by which we know what we know; and currently most of the ways we know about energy issues, about nuclear power, about fossil fuels and about the climate crisis are in a deeper crisis than the reactors in Fukushima. A confluence of developments has meant that a sane conversation on energy issues appears difficult to impossible for our society to manage. Lack of reasonable discussion leads to avoidance of the topic by politicians and the general public, which then means that powerful interests make these decisions almost by fiat -- and this often translates into "carry on as before."

Behavioral research increasingly confirms what one might suspect: when confronted with a long-term catastrophic problem which requires short-term unpleasant consequences, many people will try to avoid making a decision altogether even if it makes the problem worse over the long run. Complexity of information and choices, too, creates avoidance behavior. Avoidance, however comforting, only makes matters worse.

The Cost of "Carry-on As Before"

To take a concrete example of the dangers of avoiding real discussions about existing problems, let's look at the root cause of the current crisis in Fukushima: loss of water in the spent fuel rod pools. Needing to keep these rods in constantly cycling water is one of the least safe ways to handle spent fuel. There are newer, safer designs, but that would require rebuilding old plants or building new ones, something the public does not want to countenance. Thus, we continue to operate the least-safe designs we have.

Further, spent-fuel rod pools in Fukushima were located on the upper floors of the plant, above the reactor. Let's step back and think for a moment. Imagine you have some goldfish in a jar. Where do you place the jar? Not high up, unless your fish have mortally offended you (made funny faces at you?). You'd keep your jar of fish somewhere level, low, and hopefully away from other obvious sources of danger, like, say, nuclear reactors.

So, why, then, is spent fuel stored in a pool in an upper floor? Because it's a patch, not a solution. Spent fuel was not supposed to be kept in the nuclear power plants for years, as is now routinely done everywhere in the world. Remember the debate about the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository where spent fuel is supposed to be permanently stored? Years of political wrangling have led to inaction on that front. I make this point not to argue whether the Yucca repository was the best option; however, lack of action or active exploration of alternatives means that we have 33 states which have at least one site where nuclear waste is stored in the plant, often right next to the reactors.

Well, then, can't we at least keep nuclear waste safer in the plants? In the case of Fukushima, this wasn't done because, while the expenses are roughly equal over time, it costs more upfront to build safer, concrete casements outside the plant. Spending money over time is easier than a one-time large expense, even if the latter is safer, because the former option allows us to avoid the conversation. This situation prevails in many places in the United States, too.

Are you feeling safer?

If Fukushima shows us anything, "carry on as before" is the most dangerous path of all. We have large-scale nuclear power but are avoiding steps to evaluate it, update it or make it safer. We have an energy crisis but we continue to consume as if there will be a magical solution. We continue to increase our reliance on coal, which has the worst safety record of any source of energy as well as the worst impact on climate change. (Coal is the worst killer and worst polluter of all the possible energy sources we have yet we continue to increase our use of it). Investment in renewable energies has not been anywhere proportional the dire situation would suggest, and thus are not ready to step up to replace even a portion of the growing, massive energy needs of the planet.

The Public Sphere

Currently, the public sphere on these very important, interrelated debates about climate change and energy options is overrun by corporate interests focused on this quarter's earning reports, politicians thinking only one election cycle at a time, and environmentalist groups whose credibility is undermined by their inability or unwillingness to deviate from orthodox scripts and entrenched positions familiar and comfortable for their funders and supporters. The scientific establishment, already under fire from many directions, remains largely sidelined, even though they are likely the most appropriate resource to help us make sense of the complex mix of problems we face.

Scientists spend increasing amounts of their time in the increasingly-competitive chase for the dwindling supply of grant money, and there is less and less space for faculty to use their time and expertise for public service. Consequently, natural science fields most directly involved with these questions which pose an existential threat to humanity are producing fewer public intellectuals who are noticed and accepted by broader audiences. We do not have a sufficient number of interdisciplinary, independent commissions whose goal is to help clarify our options and our choices; and the ones we have, like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, find themselves under constant attack by powerful interests who profit from the fossil-fuel status-quo.

Many environmentalist organizations, too, appear to be to slow to react and too attached to their long-standing anti-nuclear stance to risk a full-fledged debate about our energy options. I have seen too many "Fukushima shows how we are right about the dangers nuclear power" press releases in the past weeks to count. Unfortunately, the question on the table is not whether nuclear power has downsides, which it clearly does, but how to evaluate its role and potential evolution in light of alternatives, i.e. oil, coal and available renewable sources and the actual energy needs of the whole planet.

Hypothetically, if we were able to build a reactor that was 100 times safer by all metrics, how would the public even know? Who would they turn to? Who could they trust? Who would believe the authorities?

The world needs a sane, rational, deep conversation about all these topics and first, we must deal with the thorny issue of knowledge and how we know what we know. It's either that, or go out with our heads in the sand.