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Truthdig Radio: Osama bin Laden and Nuclear Meltdown
Posted on Mar 16, 2011
Peter Scheer: This is Peter Scheer with Robert Scheer, and we are joined by Frank von Hippel, a theoretical physicist and a professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University. He is an expert on nuclear arms control and nonproliferation with decades and decades of experience, and we’re really honored to have him. Thanks for being here.
Frank von Hippel: My pleasure.
Peter Scheer: So, we have a major crisis in Japan, obviously, that has the whole world in a state of concern about nuclear energy, nuclear technology in general. The EU energy commissioner says it may be the worst nuclear disaster ever, which is really saying something. They’re going to review all of their, I don’t know, something like 140 plants. And the Japanese emperor came out recently, said he’s deeply worried; 13,000 people already dead and missing as a result of the tsunami, but even larger concerns, perhaps, about the radiation leaking out of the reactors in Japan. How scared should we be?
Frank von Hippel: Whatever happens, it will not be on the scale of, in terms of deaths, of what was caused by the tsunami and the earthquake. But psychologically, there seems to be something special about radiation, and so I think there is a tremendous amount of fear. We could have a Chernobyl-scale release; I don’t think we’ve had one so far, and I think most of what has been released has been blown out to sea, fortunately, by the prevailing winds. But it’s a very serious, very serious … and I think it was very prudent for them to evacuate out to 12 miles and suggest additional precautions beyond that.
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Frank von Hippel: Yeah.
Robert Scheer: And so why don’t we get your take on it?
Frank von Hippel: The main dangers are, in the region, long-term land contamination. There’s a thousand square miles of land which has been contaminated and considered uninhabitable as a result of the Chernobyl accident 25 years later… due to a 30-year half-life isotope called Caesium-137. The other major danger, which is … and the first danger I was talking about was … could be contributed to mostly by the spent-fuel pools, which are now becoming the focus of concern. These are pools where the fuel which has been previously discharged from the reactors is stored and, as the water evaporates, it’s suffering damage and starting to release radioactivity. The other concern is a shorter-life isotope called Iodine-131, which from Chernobyl caused detectable increases of thyroid cancers as much as 500 miles downwind. There, fortunately, there’s a protection; if people take non-radioactive iodine before they’re exposed, they can saturate their thyroids and the radioactive iodine will bypass the thyroids. But I don’t think yet that there’s really … that’s being distributed to people beyond the 12-mile zone. So that’s sort of a summary on the potential consequences. If you’d like to talk about the future of nuclear power, I could.
Robert Scheer: I think so, yes.
Frank von Hippel: There’s been much talk about nuclear renaissance. Of course, to the extent it exists, it’ll be severely set back by this event. But in fact, what we’ve seen so far is most of the nuclear power plants being built, certainly the ones that have started within the last few years, are being built in China. There, there really has been something happening, and I think the future of nuclear power, to the extent there is a future, looks as if it was going to be China-driven. There was a lot of concern expressed in China, especially by the chief nuclear regulators, that they were going too fast, they didn’t have enough trained people, quality-control problems. And I think now, after this accident, that will be listened to and they will slow down somewhat.
The situation globally is, at the moment, nuclear power provides about 14 percent of electricity globally. The electricity demand of the world has been, in recent years, growing much faster than nuclear capacity, so that percentage has been going down. The hopes of the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] Nuclear Energy Agency and the IEA [International Energy Agency] were that, for their high scenario, was that nuclear could in fact catch up and grow, and sort of preserve its share, and might even slightly increase its share of global electricity. So nuclear power, even in the proponents’ view, you know, wouldn’t be the solution to global warming, because electricity is of course only a portion of our energy use, and we’re talking about 15 percent of our electricity use. So there was very little happening in the United States or Europe as far as building new nuclear power plants. They’ve turned out to be very costly in the U.S., and not competitive, and the same in Europe. And, also in the U.S. and Europe, the electricity demand hasn’t been going up like it has been going up in China and East Asia more … well, South Korea, for example.
Peter Scheer: Although the president has been a big proponent of nuclear energy, and has received lots of money, we should say, from Exelon Corp., a nuclear energy outfit from Chicago. Are you concerned about future building here even now?
Frank von Hippel: It’s really been quite bizarre. You know, the Republicans are even more in favor of nuclear power than the president and, I think, the Democrats generally. And I think they’ve really held hostage the energy program, the Obama administration’s energy program … loan guarantees, which is for building nuclear power plants in the United States. Even that, though, hasn’t been sufficient, really, to overcome the very high costs that the constructors are charging for building new plants.
Robert Scheer: If I could take you back a ways, you’re a specialist in arms control, and I recall being at a conference in Moscow in, I guess it was the mid-’80s; it was around the time of Chernobyl. And even though there’s a world of difference, by design, of a nuclear power plant and a nuclear weapon—one is designed to kill—I remember people like Roald Sagdeev and Yevgeni Velikov and other Soviet scientists using Chernobyl as an example of the danger of nuclear war. And should this be a reminder of what nuclear weapons can do and the amount of damage they can cause?
Frank von Hippel: That’s right. I mean, people have said that Chernobyl was one of the things that destabilized the Soviet Union. You know, the loss of confidence in the central government as a result of that. But on a scale of nuclear war, Chernobyl is a tiny event. The estimates of the number of people killed by Chernobyl is about 10,000 extra people dying from cancer over the rest of their lifetimes. That’s a major event. But we’re talking, in a nuclear war, hundreds of millions of people being killed. But somehow there’s something special about radiation: the invisibility, the fear factor, that somehow makes it especially traumatic. You know, the coal plants are killing thousands of people a year just as invisibly as the Chernobyl accident did once. So my main concern about nuclear power is actually the fact that the barrier between the spread of nuclear power and the spread of nuclear weapons is not being maintained effectively.
Peter Scheer: But you could … I could understand why, you know, even though the threat of nuclear weapons is much greater than the threat of nuclear power—when we’ve actually had these thousands of deaths in our lifetimes from nuclear-power disasters, and there have been other disasters that have scared us, while we’ve had relative calm with nuclear weapons since they were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the great build-up. I mean, I can understand why that’s in everyone’s consciousness, a greater concern about nuclear energy. And now with, also, you know, the threat of terrorists grabbing this nuclear fuel, this spent fuel, or this irradiated byproduct of nuclear power. There seem to be very real threats.
Frank von Hippel: That’s right. I’m very concerned, in fact, that the danger of nuclear war has receded so much in people’s consciousness.
Peter Scheer: You’re an expert in nonproliferation. What are the stockpiles like? What is the threat of nuclear war at this time?
Frank von Hippel: Well, the U.S. and Russia still have most of the nuclear weapons—about 10,000 each, going down toward 5,000 each. But we’re talking about weapons which, on average, have maybe 10 times, 20 times the power of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. So a huge, huge destructive power. And even more concerning to me is the fact that the U.S. and Russia still, even though the Cold War’s over more than 20 years now, have about 1,000 each ready to launch within 15 minutes at each other. It’s just crazy. And I think that reflects the fact that the anti-nuclear weapon movement demobilized so quickly at the end of the Cold War. You know, they thought that it was all over, that somehow the nuclear weapons had gone away, the threat had gone away. And then that coupled with the inertia of the nuclear, what I call the doomsday machine, you know, it’s a crazy logic that supports keeping these weapons on alert even though the danger of unauthorized or accidental or hacked launch is overwhelmingly huger than either the U.S. or Russia attacking each other deliberately.
Robert Scheer: Well, I’d like to conclude on that, because to my mind there’s something valid about being alarmed about the Chernobyls and what’s happening in Japan. And it’s a reminder of … that nukes are different. And you’re absolutely right, there’s no comparison between a peaceful power plant and a weapon, but we have grown indifferent to the damage that can occur, and the fear. And I just wondered, now when you have a country like Pakistan having weapons, when others might be getting it, the human error—everybody keeps saying there was human error, or human error was in Chernobyl—well, human error in the handling of nuclear weapons, in the proliferation issue, and the possibility of an attack even on a peaceful power plant. I mean, does this alarm you?
Frank von Hippel: Oh, yes. Very much. My concerns with regard to nuclear power plants in the United States are sort of more dominated by the possibility of terrorism. One paradoxical thing about this is that when I talk about nuclear disarmament, and is it feasible, or would it make the world safer, conventional war … you know, World War II kind of wars again, I say it wouldn’t. Because, in fact, countries can still keep each other hostage by virtue of the fact that we’ve built nuclear power plants near our cities, and another country with a non-nuclear weapon could unleash multiple Chernobyls if they wanted to.
Peter Scheer: On that uplifting note, I think we have to end, but thank you very much for joining us.
Frank von Hippel: OK, my pleasure. Thank you.
Peter Scheer: He is Frank von Hippel, a theoretical physicist and a professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University.
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