Ethics and Nuclear Power

We are facing a serious issue of intergenerational ethics when it comes to the proliferation of nuclear power. For the value of power today, we pass on the problems of nuclear waste to future generations.

Yesterday, I was invited to attend a talk by Daniel Hirsch, Lecturer on Nuclear Policy at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Considering the recent disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plants, the talk was both timely and powerful.

Hirsch serves as President of The Committee to Bridge the Gap, a 40-year-old non-profit organization working to reduce nuclear risks. During the Chernobyl accident, he was asked by a subcommittee of the House Interior Committee to chair the first independent team of experts to review the safety of the similar N-reactor at the Department of Energy’s Hanford reservation facility. The problems identified in that review led to the closure of that reactor and the cessation of U.S. plutonium production for nuclear weapons.

Hirsch’s work has also been instrumental in the establishment of the international ban on disposal of radioactive waste in the ocean and the adoption by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission of regulations to require protection of atomic power plants against truck bombs and the phase-out of the use of weapons-grade uranium in research reactors.

During the Japanese nuclear tragedy Hirsch was asked to testify before the California Senate Select Committee on Earthquake Preparedness and Disaster Planning regarding the implications of the Japanese accident for California’s nuclear plants. He also appeared in numerous television interviews about the Fukushima accident, including on the NBC’s Nightly News, NBC’s Dateline, and MSNBC’s The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, and was quoted in numerous news articles in publications such as the Los Angeles Times,Associated PressChristian Science Monitor, the Sacramento Bee, and the San Jose Mercury News.

While the talk I heard is not yet online, what follows is an article that appeared in the Mercury News on a lecture Hirsch gave on Fukuskima.

“The meltdown at a Japanese nuclear power plant after a large earthquake and tsunami rocked the island nation last month drew more than 100 people to a lecture Wednesday by UC Santa Cruz lecturer Daniel Hirsch.

Hirsch, a renowned expert on nuclear policy often quoted by major media outlets, spoke at the Stevenson College Event Center on the tragedy at the Fukushima plant and how the U.S. can prevent a similar meltdown at its 104 nuclear reactors, including the two in California.

Hirsch emphasized the constant need to keep nuclear fuel cool, and said cooling systems can go awry when the proper back-up safety measures aren’t in place.

‘A nuclear reactor is an absolutely extraordinary machine that actually can’t be turned off,’ he said. ‘If you lose cooling, there’s no way to extract the heat, and radioactivity is released. As long as the reactor is cool and the fuel stays solid, things are relatively safe.’

“The lecture included detailed descriptions of how a nuclear reactor works and how fuel is cooled and stored. Pictures and diagrams aided his talk.

“The disaster that destroyed three of Fukushima’s reactors and four spent fuel pools was a result of the March 11 earthquake that knocked out the plant’s electrical power.

The plant resorted to its diesel-run generators for power when the electricity went out, however, the tsunami that came on the heels of the earthquake demolished the generators, leaving the plant scrambling for another power source, Hirsch said.

Batteries did little to keep the fuel cool, he said.

“ ‘It’s an accident all of us in the nuclear field have been worried about for decades – losing power to the station and the pumps stop working,’ Hirsch said.

“Hirsch warned that a decades-old study estimated that a meltdown at the Southern California nuclear plant in Onofre could release enough radiation to immediately kill 130,000 people, cause cancer to 300,000 and genetic defects in 600,000 more.

‘Every amount of radiation exposure increases your risk of cancer. There is no safe level of radiation.’

“As far as radiation released from Fukushima, Hirsch said experts ‘do not have a good handle on the amount,’ though the ocean water nearby has shown elevated levels.

Speaking with Dan over dinner I asked, “What is the greatest obstacle to change with regards to the policies surrounding nuclear power?”

“In spite of public polls in support of serious change in the standards and policies,” Hirsch said, “the nuclear energy lobby is strong, and those representatives who have their ear (and their contributions) will continue to vote in their favor against public opinion.

Click here to listen to Dan Hirsch speaking to the California state senate on the serious issues surrounding the safety of nuclear power in general and California’s Diablo Canyon in particular.

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