Power corrupts; Nuclear power corrupts absolutely
by C. Douglas Lummis
IN THE EARLY 1970s I HELPED ORGANISE A TOUR OF STUDENTS FROM JAPAN TO THE HANFORD NUCLEAR FACILITY in central Washington State. We timed it so that our guided tour of the site would be on the anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki. This knocked the official guide a bit off balance; when we came to the big photograph of the Hanford workers cheering when they learned that it was the plutonium they had made that went into the Nagasaki bomb, his words got a little mumbly and hard to hear.
But he was very energetic when it came to explaining how safe the Hanford Facility was. Waste plutonium, he said, was buried in pits dug deep into the ground, and then carefully monitored to make sure there was no leakage. I asked him, “But didn’t you tell us just now that plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years? Who is going to monitor it for that long?” “The US Government, of course.” “In all of human history, has there ever been a government that lasted for 24,000 years?” He did not answer, but only looked at me with contempt. Evidently he thought I was lacking in patriotism.
This was the moment I realized that a very intelligent, highly trained nuclear engineer can be a fool.
My field, political science, has produced probably only one scientific law: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But few political scientists have noticed that the closest thing we have to absolute power is nuclear power. Nuclear power corrupts the thinking of its believers in a peculiar way. It seems to tempt them to imagine that they have been raised to a higher level, where common sense judgments don’t apply. Common sense judgments like, it’s very dumb to produce a substance that will continue to radiate death, and will therefore require “monitoring”, for tens of thousands of years.
And then there’s the problem of accidents. As my common-sense grandmother used to say, “Accidents do happen”. An “accident” means something unexpected, something you hadn’t planned for. In the case of some dangerous activities, we seem to be willing to take the risk. We (we who are not the direct victims, that is) are satisfied if the probability of auto accidents or airplane crashes is kept fairly low. But in the case of nuclear reactors, a low accident rate is not enough. The consequences of a full-scale meltdown are so horrifying that, to justify building a nuclear reactor, the promoters must guarantee that there will be no accidents at all.
The problem with this is not just that it is impossible, but that it carries the nuclear engineers and nuke-promoting politicians away from the real world and off into a fantasy world that exists only in their heads, and on charts and graphs. A world where the trite, common-sense saying, ” Accidents do happen” doesn’t apply.
The trouble is, they happen. The engineers in charge of the Fukushima Power Plants said that for a tsunami to climb all the way up from the sea and engulf their reactors was “beyond their imagination.” Yes, that is what is meant by an “accident”. It was probably beyond their imagination that no one would remember to put gasoline in the emergency pump, which apparently was one of the big factors in the meltdown. It was probably beyond their imagination that someone would “accidentally” cut the telephone wire between the plant and company headquarters.
When they started squirting seawater over their delicate machinery – a measure which it seems they thought of on the spot – it apparently didn’t occur to them what effect the salt would have on all those gauges and valves and pumps and switches. And it seems that it’s only in the last few days that they are beginning to notice that the sea water that they pump in comes flowing back out again, carrying radiation with it.
This is not to blame the workers. They are only human, and there is no such thing as a human being who makes no mistakes – especially when frantic. And there is no such thing as a machine that never breaks. And there is no such thing as a world without accidents. Common sense people have been saying these things for decades, until everyone got bored hearing it. But boring or not, it was true.
I used to have a kind of black humor joke that I thought was pretty clever. People would say to me, the anti-nuclear movement seems to be dwindling. Do you think it can last? I would say, Oh, you don’t have to worry about that. A big accident is sure to happen some day, and the movement will rise again.
It isn’t funny after all.