Nuclear Power and the Collapse of Society
On March 1 1954, on Bikini Atoll, in the Marshall Islands, the US military detonated the world’s first lithium-deuteride hydrogen bomb, a thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. The radiation blew downwind, to the southeast, and irradiated the residents of Rongelap and Utirik atolls, and the crew of tuna boat Fukuryu Maru, “Lucky Dragon.”
The islanders and fishing crew suffered radiation sickness, hair loss, and peeling skin. Crew member, Aikichi Kuboyama, died six months later in a Hiroshima hospital. Island children, suffered lifelong health effects, including cancers, and most died prematurely. The Lucky Dragon sailors were exposed to 3-5 sieverts of radiation.
One sievert will cause severe radiation sickness leading to cancer and death. Five sieverts will kill half those exposed within a month (like the workers who died at Chernobyl within the first few week). Ten sieverts will kill any human being. Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims received 150 Sieverts. Even microorganisms perished.
Today, inside the crippled Fukushima nuclear reactor-2, the melting core releases 530 sieverts per hour, enough to kill a human instantly and melt steel robotic equipment within two hours.
The meaning of “collapse”
When we hear the term “collapse of industrial society,” some may picture a doomsday or a Hollywood apocalypse film. But the collapse of societies – like in Rome, Mesopotamia, or the Rapa Nui on Easter Island – doesn’t work like that. The “collapse” of a complex society usually involves ecological habitat degradation that can take centuries. So, what does “social collapse” really look like?
James Kunstler calls the collapse of industrial society a “long emergency” - a process that unfolds in fits and starts over generations. Some social conflicts we witness in the world today – banking crises, war, refugees, racism - can be understood as symptoms of this long, ecologically-triggered collapse. Russian author Dmitry Orlov describes the five stages of collapse: Financial, commercial, political, social, and, finally, cultural. When business-as-usual becomes impossible, communities seek alternatives to currency trading; markets fail, faith in government disappears, trust of neighbours erodes, and people lose faith in common decency.
Dr. Joseph Tainter, professor of Environment and Society at Utah State University describes collapse as a “simplification” of society, a reversal of the process by which the society became increasingly complex. “To understand collapse,” he explains, “we have to understand complexity.”
Societies evolve complex solutions to solve social problems that arise, generally from environmental limits. Eventually, the marginal benefits of these alleged solutions decline. Consider oil, military aggression, or nuclear power as solutions to problems, that later manifest unintended consequences. As technical solutions meet bio-physical limits, added investment leads to less benefit, until the society grows vulnerable to catastrophe, such as global warming, war, or radiation.
Societies collapse, according to Tainter, when technical complexities cost more than they return as benefits. This understanding of social collapse fits the state of chaos now unfolding at the nuclear plant at Fukushima.
Socialise the cost
TEPCO, the company that owns the Fukushima reactors, ignored early warnings of risk, from both inside and outside the company, because the safeguards were too expensive. Thus, the 2011 earthquake and tsunami destroyed the plant’s cooling systems and led to a core meltdown in all three reactors.
Today, six years later, the reactor cores are melting down through the rock, and radiation levels are so intense that even robots can’t survive long enough to locate the burning fuel rods. Removal of the rods, originally scheduled for 2015, then delayed until 2017, has been delayed again, with no end in sight. Meanwhile, 300 tons of radioactive water floods into the Pacific Ocean every day.
Cleanup cost estimates have risen to several billion Euros per year and decommissioning is now expected to take about 40 years. In December, 2016, the Japanese government announced that the estimated cost of decommissioning the plant and storing radioactive waste, if they can achieve this at all, would reach over 21 trillion yen (€180 billion; US$ 200 billion). This scenario is based on no major earthquakes occurring before the 2050s.
TEPCO will likely go bankrupt before it will pay these costs, so the government has stepped in, which means the citizens pay the costs, just as they bailed out the banks after the last economic collapse. This is a core policy for large, modern corporations: Privatise the profits, socialise the costs.
The nuclear “solution” to growing energy demand - now a massive technical and financial black hole, with negative marginal returns, draining scarce resources from struggling communities - is what industrial collapse looks like in the real world.
The wealthy may not notice collapse in the early stages, as the first victims are the poorest and most vulnerable. The nuclear meltdown at Fukushima displaced over 150,000 people. Some 1,600 died during evacuation, and the survivors live in makeshift camps on meagre allotments of food and supplies. As families abandoned their homes, lifelong dreams shattered, childhoods were disrupted, families broke apart, and modest enterprises lost forever.
Women and children suffered the greatest challenges and risks due to “a yawning gender gap” in Japanese society, as Kendra Ulrich writes in “Unequal Impact.” Among the 34 highly developed countries, ranked for gender wage gap, Japan stands at the bottom with South Korea and Estonia. After the nuclear meltdown, single mothers faced financial and social barriers to recovery. Radiation puts fetuses and young children at the greatest risk for future health effects.
Last year, Ichiro Tagawa, 77, returned to his village of Namie and reopened the bicycle repair shop that had been in his family for 80 years. “I am so old,” he told a New York Times reporter, “I don’t really care about the radiation levels.”
To save money, the Japanese government has declared some towns near Fukushima “safe,” by increasing the radiation limits and then cancelling evacuee housing and insisting that citizens return to those “safe” villages. Sending people back to that environment could amount to random murder, since some will attract cancer and die from the radiation.
Corruption and cover-up have become a way of life inside TEPCO and the nuclear industry. The Japanese government and TEPCO also increased “safe” radiation limits for plant workers by about 700-times, and then ordered scientists to stop monitoring radiation levels in some areas of the plants that exceed even these new, dangerous regulations. According to Tomohiko Suzuki’s book, Yakuza to Genpatsu (The Yakuza and Nuclear Power), TEPCO subcontractors pay bribes to Japanese crime gangs, the Yakuza, to obtain construction contracts, and the Yakuza pay politicians and media to keep quiet. Workers lured into the plant include the homeless, the mentally ill, illegal immigrants, and former Yakuza debtors.
The deadly industry
The story of how nuclear generated power came to be starts in the 1950s. After WWII, the US, UK, France, Russia, and China set out to build arsenals, but required more plutonium than could be furnished by their respective military programs. A US Atomic Energy Commission study concluded that commercial nuclear reactors for power were not economically feasible because of costs and risks. Dr. Charles Thomas, an executive at Monsanto, suggested a solution: A “dual purpose” reactor that would produce plutonium for the military and electric power for commercial use.
Companies profited from these dual markets, while leaving the public to assume responsibility for research, infrastructure, and risk: Privatise the profits, socialise the costs. The real purpose of a “nuclear power” industry was to provide plutonium for weapons and profit for a few corporations.
This deadly industry has now left dead zones and ghost towns around the world. The Hanford nuclear storage site in the US, Acerinox Processing Plant in Spain, The Polygon weapons test site in Kazakhstan, the Zapadnyi uranium mine in Kyrgyzstan, and countless other uranium mines, decommissioned plants, nuclear waste dumps, and catastrophes like Fukushima and Chernobyl.
No one knows exactly how many people have died due to the Chernobyl meltdown. The Russian academy of sciences estimates 200,000 and a Ukrainian national commission estimated 500,000 deaths from radiation’s health effects.
In 1983, a Yorkshire television station uncovered evidence that child leukemia had increased ten-times in the village of Seascale, near the Sellafield/Windscale nuclear site. It has become a deadly radioactive blotch on the landscape, leaking radioactive plutonium-24, americium-241, and caesium-137 into the surrounding environment, and sending bomb grade plutonium into the world's political environment. According to the BBC, the cost of cleaning up the mess is now estimated at £70-billion, and rising annually, as one corporation or consortium after another fails to make progress, but always makes money. These cleanup costs now consume most of the UK’s “climate change” budget since nuclear power was once considered a solution to carbon emissions.
In February, the EDF Flamanville nuclear plant in France - three-times over budget and years behind schedule - closed after an explosion and fire. France faces a €200 billion cost to decommission 58 reactors at the end of their life. Germany set aside €38 billion to decommission 17 nuclear reactors, and the UK estimates a cost between €109‒250 billion to decommission UK’s nuclear sites.
This is the face of industrial collapse, when alleged solutions become bigger problems. Nuclear power has now become a massive liability, draining resources from communities that need schools, hospitals, and the essentials of life. Joseph Tainter, Jared Diamond, and other researchers point out that some societies – Tikopia island, Byzantine society in the 1300s - avoided collapse, not by increasing complexity with better technology, but by down-sizing intentionally, learning to thrive on a lower level of complexity.
This is now the challenge of industrial society. Can we, and especially the rich and powerful, change our habits of consumption and growth? Can we come back to Earth?
Rex Weyler is an author, journalist and co-founder of Greenpeace International.
References and Links
James Kunstler: “The Long Emergency”
The Dynamics of Complex Civilisations, David Korowicz, Oil Drum, 2010
Gail Tverberg: Energy Flow, Emergent Complexity, and Collapse, Oil Drum
“The Collapse of Civilization,” New Scientist, April, 2008
“Les civilisations sont-elles vouées à disparaître?”: Les Cahiers de Science & Vie, (n. 109).
Jared Diamond: “Ecological Collapses of Pre-industrial Societies,” Tanner Lecture, University of Utah, 2000
“Culture and the Environment on Easter Island and Tikopia,” Ben Ewen-Campen, Swarthmore, 2003).
“Nuclear refugees tell of distrust, pressure to return to Fukushima,” Japan Times, March, 2016.
Tomohiko Suzuki, “Yakuza to genpatsu: Fukushima Daiichi sennyuki,” The Yakuza and Nuclear Power: Undercover Report from Fukushima Daiichi), Bungeishunju Ltd., Japan
“Energy/War: Breaking the Nuclear Link,” Amory Lovins, 1981; and Annual Report, Commonwealth Edison Company, 1952; at Nuclear Energy Information Service.
Sellafield, UK, £70bn clean-up costs, BBC, 2014.
Nuclear Power as a false solution, Rex Weyler, Deep Green: Atomic Renaissance Interrupted, R. Weyler, Deep Green, 2008. Nuclear Delusions, R. Weyler, Deep Green, 2011. Precaution and Common Sense, R. Weyler, EcoReport, 2013