May 15, 2014 12:00 am JST

Woody Epstein: 'Pandora's Promise': hope springs infernal

Signs stand along a road near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, bearing the names of towns that no longer exist. (courtesy of Fuminori Tamba)

I recently attended a presentation at the Japan Atomic Industry Forum given by Fuminori Tamba of Fukushima University. The professor showed the above photograph of a road near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, lined with about 130 signs in Russian. There were names on them and some had flowers in memoriam -- not for people who had died from that disaster, but for towns that no longer exist as a consequence of emergency evacuations.

    Two weeks previously, I had been to the British Embassy in Tokyo for a private showing of "Pandora's Promise," a Robert Stone documentary on the nuclear power debate. The film's central argument is that nuclear power is a relatively safe and clean energy source that can mitigate global warming.

     The film's title alludes to the Greek myth of Pandora. The first woman, Pandora was given as a bride by Zeus to Epimetheus, whose brother, Prometheus, had stolen fire from the gods for the benefit of mankind. Zeus, enraged by the fire theft, had a jar, or box, given to Pandora as a wedding present. He cautioned her never to open it.

     Pandora, in spite of the warning, opened the box and released the demons of evil into the world. Horrified, she shut the box, but it was too late -- all evil had escaped. Only one thing remained at the bottom of the box, and that was "hope."

     This, then, is Robert Stone's hope and Pandora's promise: Having lifted the lid on nuclear energy and unleashed its demons on Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Bikini Atoll, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima, perhaps there is hope to utilize nuclear power generation to combat climate change.

     Stone's film mainly focuses on individuals who were once anti-nuclear power activists but have had a change of mind. They believed that radiation emissions happen regularly from nuclear power stations; they believed immediate deaths or fatal exposures from Three Mile, Chernobyl, and the Fukushima Daiichi power plant were very high; they believed the use of nuclear power ran contrary to concerns about the environment.

     They believed uncritically, without examining the complexity of the situation or questioning their assumptions. They were, in the words of Eric Hoffer, true believers.

     When climate change came to the fore of the environmental movement, they considered the carbon dioxide emissions of electricity generated with fossil fuels. They recognized the relative ineffectiveness of current renewable energy sources to deliver enough electricity to the modern world. And when they finally examined their prior misconceptions about the dangers of radiation, they abandoned the exaggerated fake science of nuclear disasters and embraced nuclear power.

     They are still true believers -- they have simply changed what they believe in. They are still sucking on the tasty teat of confirmation bias.

 

The true costs

The real story is not why true opponents of nuclear power converted to true belief in the technology's ability to combat climate change. The real story is that although there were no immediate radiation fatalities from Fukushima, and probably won't be measurable ones in the future, the release of radiation is not the only way to measure a nuclear disaster.

     The consequences of a nuclear accident need to be measured more comprehensively and include the intangibles.

     Patrick Momal at France's Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety Institute (IRSN) has done a sophisticated study of the economic costs of a potential French nuclear accident. He writes that the classical approach to measuring such accidents' costs only covers off-site radiological impact, emergency countermeasures, health effects and food contamination. His model considers much more, including the psychological ramifications as well as the costs of decontamination and decommissioning reactors.

     Momal estimates a Fukushima-type accident in France would cost $560 billion, including more than $220 billion in losses from food production, tourism, exports and other national image factors, plus $124 billion related to power production. This represents more than 20% of France's gross domestic product and more than 10 years of economic growth.

     He further points out that such a blow would "stun the country," the catastrophe would be remembered for decades, and the entirety of Western Europe would be affected. Momal concludes with an understatement: The low likelihood of such an event may not balance its catastrophic potential.

     But just adding more parameters and attaching dollar amounts still does not go far enough in assessing the consequences of a nuclear disaster. Let's go back to Professor Tamba and his presentation, which focused on villages near Fukushima Daiichi.

     "There is no community to revitalize," Tamba said. As a result of the meltdowns, more than 100,000 people have fled. Families have been scattered, and the physical and social infrastructure destroyed. This disaster not only deprived people of their lives and homes. It deprived people of their personal pride and dignity.

     Tamba's concerns were echoed by a politician from Fukushima at the British Embassy screening. He pointed out that you can't justify nuclear power by saying "only" a handful of people have ever died from an accident. How about the thousands more displaced from their homes or dying alone in temporary housing units? What of the emotional, economic toll on the villages that hosted the plant for decades? These things are also costs of nuclear power.

     Environmentalists worry about the loss of natural habitats because of global warming. But their tacit acceptance of the loss of human communities from a nuclear accident is disturbing to say the least.

 

Faustian bargain

Of course global warming is a real and present danger. And at the moment, other than nuclear reactors, we have few energy alternatives with small carbon footprints that can deliver the amount of electricity developed countries want and emerging countries need.

     Would it be possible for the nations of the world to unite and start a global project to find safer, low-carbon methods for producing electricity? Perhaps it could be modeled after ITER, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project, but much wider in scope. Could we bring the best and brightest scientists and engineers together to solve the global warming problem? Do we -- our governments, and especially private corporations -- feel the urgency and necessity to do so? Do we have the will and the vigor?

     I am afraid not.

 

Hard questions

The lack of vigor may be a direct result of pressure on both governments and companies to keep things just as they are, for the sake of quarterly earnings or political alliances. Thus they take the path of least cost, which may later be paid for with the loss of entire communities.

     As "Pandora's Promise" points out, the U.S. government's cancellation of the Integrated Fast Reactor project -- potentially a much safer method of nuclear power generation -- is one example.

     Another is the decision by nuclear technology supplier Babcock & Wilcox, pressured by investors and low prices of liquefied natural gas, to slash funding for its small modular reactor. The reactor had been hailed as the next step forward for the industry.

     So here we are. All technologies have their risks and we have hard questions to answer. What do you care about? How do you want to live? What risks are you willing to accept to live the way you want to live? Do you like the lights of New York, Paris, Shanghai and Tokyo? Will you give up dependence on coal and oil? Do you want to enjoy the simple pleasures of the countryside? How important is it to ensure a sense of community, pride and dignity for those affected by technical disasters?

     We are caught in a Faustian bargain: What kind of a deal are you willing to make with technology to have the life you care about?

     We must acknowledge how hard it is to figure this whole thing out -- let alone how we personally feel -- because of the complexity of the problem. All of us must be in this together, in a continual conversation, trying to do the right thing.

  

Woody Epstein serves as manager of risk consulting at Lloyd’s Register Consulting Japan.From 2011 to 2012 he was also a visiting scientist at the Ninokata Laboratory of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, where he was involved in analyzing the Fukushima disaster. The opinions expressed in this regular column do not reflect those of his employers, their affiliates or clients.

 

Dan Epstein contributed to this article.