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Mox Populi… Hubris and Plutonium Don’t Mix

Mox Populi… Hubris and Plutonium Don’t Mix

The sight of Japan’s Fukushima #3 nuclear reactor exploding is chilling (Youtube video pasted below.) When the remaining best-case scenario involves pumping seawater into a nuclear reactor and venting off the radioactive steam in a highly populated area, you have to wonder “how the hell did we get here?”

Critics have long contended that Japan high level of seismic activity makes it a poor place for nuclear power, while nuclear proponents have been equally confident that it is safe. Judging from the island nation’s dependency on nuclear energy (roughly 1/3 of power generation), it seems clear that the optimists’ arguments have (until now) carried the day.

The same confidence in the safety of Japan’s nuclear plants led to the loading last fall of a new fuel type called MOX (mixed-oxide) into the core of the Fukushima #3 reactor. In contrast to the Uranium that powers most reactors, MOX is basically a Uranium cocktail spiked with Plutonium. Greenpeace reports that using MOX in a reactor is less safe because “plutonium is more reactive and this hotter fuel can cause increased localised melting of fuel in the reactor.” A release or accident is also more severe, since plutonium is one of the nastiest and most toxic substances around, and MOX reactors have a lot more of it.

So what would have prompted officials to make an already risky proposition even riskier? The answer of course is that they don’t (or at least didn’t) believe that the risk exists. Overconfidence leads to poor decision making.

Malcom Gladwell wrote a piece on this topic for the New Yorker in 2009, in which he said,

“As we get older and more experienced, we overestimate the accuracy of our judgments, especially when the task before us is difficult and when we’re involved with something of great personal importance. The British were overconfident at Gallipoli not because Gallipoli didn’t matter but, paradoxically, because it did; it was a high-stakes contest, of daunting complexity, and it is often in those circumstances that overconfidence takes root.”

With energy demand rising, and the risks of climate change growing, it may turn out that we need nuclear power as one option, as some prominent environmentalists have concluded. But here’s an idea…rather than continuing to claim that nucelar power is safe, let’s start with the assumption that it isn’t, and make decisions accordingly. We need to start thinking about the unthinkable, rather than making unsubstantiatable and occasionally pollyanna-ish safety claims.

As was said after the Exxon Valdez spill, and is being demonstrated again in Japan, even million to one shots come in every now and then.

For more Care2 coverage on the earthquake and tsunami, click here.



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3:23AM PDT on Jul 10, 2011

thanks for the great article

8:01AM PDT on Apr 25, 2011

I wonder if the gap between people like me who see the risk as too high and those who insist it is negligible and well worth taking, is unbridgeable. We don't seem to be looking at the same reality.

10:22PM PDT on Apr 24, 2011

WooHoo!! Charles took the words straight out of my mouth & I could NOT have articulated it better. You know what it is: People here in this country think, 'Oh, that could never happen HERE.' Yeah, it's with faulty feeling of false security that leads to our downfall & the consequences last for many, many generations to come. Truly, truly, wind & solar are the way to go to ensure our survival as a human species.

8:26AM PDT on Apr 23, 2011

Time to wake up, all of us. Time to say, No. Loud and clear. How do we move our activisim beyond clicking for butterfly points into real and tangible protest? I don't have answers but wish I did.

2:05PM PDT on Mar 20, 2011

@Mary Swan: "This is never really considered "acceptable" risk and yet it is, just as dying in an airplane or car accident is considered acceptable risk. There really is little difference, ..."

When there's a plane or car wreck, huge areas of land are not rendered uninhabitable for 100,000 years or more. This is a BIG difference, and that's why the risks of nuclear power are unacceptable. Private investors recognize this. That's why, as pointed out earlier, no nuclear plant will ever be privately financed. They all require some government entity to finance them, and assume all the risks.

1:54PM PDT on Mar 20, 2011

@Sue Horwood: "If nuclear power was ended today or in ten years most of North America would be in the dark! "

No, it wouldn't, Sue. North America wasn't in the dark before nuclear power plants were built, and it won't be after they're gone. Nuclear power only supplies 20% of our power now.

"The air would be clogged with fumes from coal fired plants."

Again, no it wouldn't. Nukes and coal are NOT the only two options here. There are other clean alternatives (wind, solar, tidal, etc.) available to us. We just have to be smart enough to use them.

1:44PM PDT on Mar 20, 2011

@Julia P: "This is truly a tragedy, but one to which we should not over react."
"The point is that we need to make rational decisions not emotional fear based ones."

Refusing to continue using nuclear power plants IS the rational decision here, Julia. The human race has been playing Russian Roulette with nuclear power for 50 years. It was only a matter of time before something like Chernobyl, 3 Mile Island, and now Japan's Fukushima would happen. Someday, a complete meltdown WILL occur, killing hundreds of thousands of people in a single incident. It's just a matter of when, not if. The more nuclear plants we build, the sooner it will happen.

Refusing to play Russian Roulette is not "over-reacting out of emotional fear". It's acting rationally. Even though nothing bad happens 83% of the time (for a six-shooter), the excitement one gets out of playing it is not worth the devastion (one's head being blown off) when that bad thing DOES happen. The same is true for nuclear power. And that doesn't even include the hazards of nuclear waste, which we still have no safe way of dealing with. How "rational" is it to keep doing something that produces deadly poison that we have no way of safe disposal?

12:32PM PDT on Mar 15, 2011

it was just the matter of time

6:34AM PDT on Mar 15, 2011

Thanks for the info.

6:01AM PDT on Mar 15, 2011

Depleting natural resources has led to choices about "clean, safe" energy sources. Nuclear power has too many problems, even in quiet times. What about solar power and wind power? Still there and available. Where are our priorities?

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