MARCH 13, 2011 7:52PM

The Nuclear Energy Issue and Other Ill-Fated Policies

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The probable meltdowns that are now occurring at two (now the press says three) nuclear power plants in Japan started me thinking, again about the issue of nuclear power. You would think that as an intelligent people, we've had sufficient warnings of the risks involved in using nuclear power. I remember the Chernobyl meltdown and the Three Mile Island disaster, and know of people that have probably been exposed to nuclear radiation as a result of each.

This situation with nuclear power reminds me of another ill-fated energy issue: the recent recent BP disaster on one of their deep water drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico that spread 205 gallons of crude oil along 280 or so miles of the Louisiana coastline just last year. Not enough redundant safety systems, and those that they had were probably never going to be sufficient.

Where there's money involved, we will apparently find it impossible to err on the side of safety or sanity.

Despite how unlikely an event is judged to be, if the worst case scenario is an unremediable disaster that we can't figure out how to prevent, then it seems to me we shouldn't do it. Economic benefit/cost analyses be damned, particularly where the economists involved have an economic interest in the venture, whether they rely on employment in the oil company or the governmental agency regulating it.

The value they place on things like clean air and water are just made up numbers anyway. Sort of like the valuation of life years involved in the Pinto (Ford) debacle. The "fix" to their fuel system would have cost them $11 per car, but the cost/benefit analysis came out on the side of not fixing the design flaw ($50 million dollars' value placed on deaths versus the $137 million dollars it would have cost them to fix their cars). At least jurors had the right idea, awarding $128 million dollars in damages in the first court case, which was trimmed back by $125 million by the appellate judge, as a "matter of law."

If I had to bet on endeavors of the human race versus acts of nature (or chaos) I'd go with nature/chaos every time.

But I digress:
In pondering, writing, speaking to friends and researching the effects of nuclear radiation, I came across information that led me to believe that my mother, a cancer survivor might be eligible for compensation for living near nuclear testing sites. Apparently if you lived in certain counties in Nevada from 1951 to 1958 for 2 years and you got cancer (from bladder to brain to breast-- there's a list) you're called a "downwinder" and there's a trust set up for you by the US government to compensate you for being exposed to their 200 some nuclear tests --and, bonus, you get $50,000. My mother-- who had  breast breast cancer twice, lived in Reno, NV in the county of Washoe in the early 1950s. Alas, too far to the west.

Here is the website for the Radiation Exposure Compensation Fund:

The "downwinders compensation fund" was only established via an amendment to a federal statute for miners and military employees, in the year 2000.

Here is my family Atlas. The yellow areas are those where the "downwinders" can receive compensation for radiation exposure from nuclear testing 

Another friend just suggested that mom might have been exposed to radiation from nuclear waste from the Hanford Plant that has seeped into the water tables in Oregon and Washington. My mother was raised in Grays River, WA and lived in Portland, OR for most of her life. And it is true that all of our proximate neighbors on 23rd Street in Portland had cancers, mostly breast cancers that weren't fatal. However, our neighbors to the rear of us were stricken with breast cancer (the mom) and a lymphoma (the son, my age) that caused both of their deaths.

Post Script:

Now the Japanese press is saying that the wind is blowing toward the ocean and not toward the populace in the vicitinities involved. That's supposed to be good news. What a consolation.

What about my people on the West Coast?

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"Now the Japanese press is saying that the wind is blowing toward the ocean and not toward the populace in the vicitinities involved. That's supposed to be good news. What a consolation. "

i would mention that the CNN Weather actress continually uses the word 'good' for the predicted wind direction flow; she did not give reasons for why that is 'good' and was probably told not to give reasons.

Remember why Hanford was built (no escape from irony)
I've been working for some time on a post called Externalities. That's a technical term for things that can't or don't get figured into the cost of products. Whether it's coal, oil or nuclear, the companies that profit from these forms of energy have long ignored the true costs of their products -- as has society as a whole.

While it can be difficult to determine all externalities -- as the cancers you describe above would seem to suggest -- it is simply ludicrous to talk about the cost of nuclear energy when no one has the slightest idea of the cost of containment of spent fuels for waste with a half-life of at least 100,000 years.

The tragic events at Chernobyl could be dismissed as somehow the fault of the Soviet Union's brute technology. But events in Japan are not so easily dismissed -- and the same thing could happen anywhere. Now at least, no one will be able to reasonably proclaim the "absolute" safety of nuclear power any longer.

Right. Good for whom? Aren't journalists supposed to elaborate on the who, what, where, when and why?


Thanks for commenting. Right. Externalities: imagined consequences valued with imagination. The legal system tries to factor those in, but as we saw with the Pinto case, they undervalue or don't value externalities (treble damages) that should be used to discourage companies like Pinto from making calculations that would value, weigh and dismiss a human life. Even if we enact legislation that calculates these factors/costs, I don't think they're ever really valued correctly.