The Twenty Thousand Year Poison: Nuclear Safety and Our Long Future

日本語訳 | français 

By Akio Matsumura

It has been 25 years since the worst nuclear power accident in history at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine, and we still aren’t certain what health damage it may ultimately cause. That gap needs to be filled by a vigorous research program — both to improve readiness to cope with another bad nuclear accident and to enhance understanding of the long-term effects of low doses of radiation. (New York Times Editorial, May 9)

Chernobyl’s explosion and ensuing fire spread radiation across the Western Soviet Union and Europe. The disaster released four hundred times more radioactive material than the Hiroshima bomb. My old friend Dr. Evgeny Velikhov, the Soviet Union’s top nuclear scientist, oversaw the delegation that investigated and cleaned up the disaster.

Dr Velikhov spoke of his first hand investigation at the 1988 Oxford Global Forum and impressed upon participants the scale of the disaster. At the same conference, renowned American scientist Carl Sagan appealed to both the United States and the Soviet Union to reduce their nuclear weapons. Carl probed further, asking participants from India and Pakistan why their countries were clandestinely producing nuclear weapons.  The Indian and Pakistani diplomats both denied they had a nuclear weapon program, and stuck with the official narrative: their countries were building nuclear power plants for peaceful energy production.

Ten years later, on May 11, 1998, the Indian government announced it had conducted three nuclear test explosions at the Pokharan site in Rajashan.  Later that month, on May 28, the Pakistani government announced it had conducted five nuclear tests. Because of these actions, the geopolitical balance in the Afghanistan-Pakistan-India region became fragile and its international importance is obvious in today’s wars and power struggles.  But this region is only one part of a tough neighborhood. Next door, the world cautiously eyes Iran and its nuclear program, which might destabilize the long, violent struggle for state security in the Middle East. Overall, nuclear issues and related terrorist issues dominate the international security agenda. Although last week Americans hailed the death of Osama bin Laden, we know his death does not mark the end of al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks. The balance of powers, centering around nuclear proliferation, will continue. The nuclear issue may lead to vast and varied consequences, but always begins with the construction of a nuclear power plant.

Hans-Peter Durr and Akio at Claus Biegert’s home

In January 2007, I traveled to Munich to meet with my friends Dr. Hans-Peter Durr and Mr. Claus Biegert. Hans-Peter is one of the world’s most respected nuclear physicists and the former executive director of  Germany’s prestigious Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, and Claus is the director of the Nuclear-Free Future Award. We discussed for hours nuclear energy, which Hans-Peter strongly opposes. I explained the position of the eminent environmental scientists I have known who support nuclear energy for its low carbon emissions. Hans-Peter is a very passionate and patient man and tried with great earnest to explain the myriad technical issues involved, but I fear I was too much of a layman to grasp his points. I stood with the environmental scientists and our planet, on the assumption that nuclear power plants have multiple safeguards to protect against human error and natural disasters. I admit that I did not fully understand the technical problems and scale of the disaster Hans-Peter was trying to convey.

On March 11, a 9.0-scale earthquake and subsequent tsunami damaged Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant. The natural disaster disabled the reactor cooling systems, which led to nuclear radiation leaks and triggered a 30 km evacuation zone surrounding the plant. Japan is still struggling to control the damages.  On this day, the myth of safe nuclear power plant completely collapsed.

Recently, Prime Minister Kan asked Chubu Electric Power to halt operations at its plant in Hamaoka in central Japan due to the prediction by geologists that, with 80 percent probability, another major earthquake will occur in the area within 30 years.

These news and incidents brought me back to my conversation with Hans-Peter in Munich. He spoke adamantly against nuclear power plants because they create the following risks:

  1. A larger number of nations with nuclear weapons (increasing)
  2. Proliferation leading to terrorist attack or dirty bombs (likely)
  3. Radiation disaster due to mishandling or natural disasters (already happened)
  4. Unknown effects of the highly-irradiated spent fuel rods for twenty thousand years (ongoing)

When I look at these four cases and the 438 nuclear power plants in the world, the probability of a disaster seems close to certain.

We continue to construct nuclear power plants to boost energy production and maintain economic growth. In the US, 104 nuclear plants produce 20 percent of total electricity, and in Japan 54 nuclear plants produce 30 percent of total electricity. France draws 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power plants. It may not be possible to replace nuclear energy with other new, clean energy sources in the short term without slowing growth. Yet, if many nations build nuclear power plants to meet their energy demands, they run a high risk of an even larger disaster than that at Fukushima.

We have learned that even one mistake from any of the hundreds of nuclear power plants would cause a tremendous human and environmental loss for many years. Any loss incurred from nuclear war or a dirty bomb will be incalculable. We have to remember that our technology is powerless before the power of nature. The relationship between nuclear risks, terrorism, and continuing war might cost us far more in the end than would the development of alternative energy sources.

Looking forward, a larger concern is how we will safely store highly-irradiated spent fuel rods, whose plutonium has a half life of twenty four thousand years, and how we will indicate the location of the deposit to our descendants. What Pyramid-like structure can we leave as a long-term waste depository?

If poisons produced by people in the Stone Age still affect our life, people in the year 22,000 might be more than troubled by the poisons of our nuclear waste buried throughout the planet. “We did not have enough energy” may not be an adequate explanation of our actions.

This issue is not one for political leaders to quickly decide, but one which all people must consider carefully for the sake of our descendants.


May 16: Certain terms and the title of this article were updated to be more technically accurate.

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