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Sierra Club’s Nukespeak Revives the Nuclear Debate

Bill DiBenedetto | Friday November 11th, 2011 | 2 Comments

It was nearly 30 years ago, in the wake of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, when the classic Nukespeak from Sierra Club Books was published and immediately shaped public debate on the immense risks of nuclear technology.

Now an extensively revised and updated edition promises to continue to fuel that debate in the aftermath of the March earthquake and tsunami that struck the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan.

According to the Club, the original 1982 edition broke through the “linguistic filter of the nuclear mindset,” by documenting how nuclear developers confused their hopes (remember the dream of energy too cheap to meter?) with reality, covered up damaging information, harassed and dismissed scientists who disagreed with official policy, and generated false or misleading statistics to bolster their assertions about the benefits and safety of nuclear power.

“Sadly, these developers also failed to learn from their mistakes-as this updated 30th anniversary edition of the book makes abundantly clear,” authors Richard C. Bell, Rory O’Connor and  Stephen Hilgartner write. The new edition examines the critical events of the last three decades—including Chernobyl; nuclear proliferation thanks to the fiction of  “Atoms for Peace;” the campaign to re-brand nuclear power as a clean, green solution to global warming; and the still-unfolding disaster at Japan’s Fukushima power plant. The updated edition argues that “nukespeak” and the nuclear mindset continue to dominate public debate about nuclear weapons and nuclear power “in a continuing attempt to seduce us into accepting the unthinkable.”

Looking at the turbulent history of nuclear power, “we human beings have often struggled to see the big picture. Perhaps it’s the sheer enormity of the risks that makes them hard to comprehend,” says Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club in the book’s preface. He concludes, “Even an imperfect glimpse of the big picture should be enough for us to see that those kinds of risks are just not worth it. Not when we have technologies like wind, solar, and geothermal that can deliver energy without the threat of a cataclysm beyond our ability to comprehend.”

A main message from the book is that the “more things have changed in the nuclear field since 1979,  it’s also true  that the more they have remained the same. Nuclear developers worldwide maintain the same culture and ways of thinking, and the same lack of transparency, as they did thirty years ago. The same sloppy mix of public relations and industry dominated regulatory bodies is still a hallmark of the nuclear power industry.”

Yes, there are pros and cons when it comes to nuclear power. For one thing the conventional wisdom is that demand for alternatives to fossil-fuel energy options means that nuclear energy is likely to remain part of that mix, at least as an intermediate solution until clean energy sources fully emerge. For another, compared to conventional fossil fuel-based power plants, nuclear plants are more efficient and produce almost carbon-free clean electricity.

But is the risk embedded in nuclear power really worth it?

Here’s Nukespeak: “The accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima remind us again that, in spite of their allegedly redundant defense-in-depth design safety features, nuclear power plants can indeed fail, with extremely costly and deadly consequences. Attempts to correct past errors have led to huge increases in the price tags of new plants, making them so expensive that only massive government subsidies keep the nuclear industry afloat.”

Meanwhile the costs of renewable energy sources are continuing to fall and “investments in energy efficiency provide far higher rates of return than those in nuclear plants.”

Nukespeak provides profound reminders and fresh ammunition for those seeking to overcome the nuclear mindset. It re-frames the nuclear debate for the twenty-fist century.

[Image Credit: Nukespeak 2nd Edition Cover, Sierra Club]


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  • http://RadDecision.blogspot.com James Aach

    Nuclear is full of a lot of jargon, no doubt. I’ve worked in the US nuclear industry for 25 years. My novel “Rad Decision” culminates in an event very similar to the Fukushima (same reactor type, same initial problem) and is an excellent source of perspective for the lay person. “Rad Decision” is free online at the moment – just google the title. (No adverts, no corporate sponsors, nobody makes money off this site) Reader reviews are in the homepage comments. My media presence consists of this little-known book and website, so I’m not an acknowledged “expert”. I just do the nuclear stuff for a living. (Not many of the experts can say that.) I think I have explained it well in a non-yawn-producing manner. But it’s a bit of a tree falling in a forest……… While this is a “promotional” email, hopefully it will pass muster since this is a good and unique source of free information.

    I believe there isn’t a perfect energy solution – just options – each with their good and bad points. And we’ll make better choices about our future if we first understand our energy present.

  • Matt Schnackenberg

    I think that nuclear power is very viable still, and safer than coal. The problem is that aging reactors that have not received maintenance and upgrades to generation 4 or 5 reactors due regulations making the process expensive and not viable currently which is what will cause issues down the line.