Apocalypse now?

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
March 29, 2008

To most of us, the consequences of a meltdown or some other catastrophic accident at a nuclear reactor are unimaginable.

To the companies in the worldwide nuclear industry, and to insurance companies, the consequences are all too imaginable – they would be wiped out if held responsible for a malfunction that caused hundreds of billions of dollars in damage. Because reactors were not a commercial proposition, decades ago, the corporate world refused to back nuclear power.

If this was the end of the story, commercial nuclear reactors would not be built and no one – not shareholders, not members of the public – would be threatened by runaway reactors. This was not the end of the story. Neither was it the beginning.

The story begins with former U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower and his attempt in the early days of the Cold War to deal with the greatest threat that mankind had ever faced, that of “the atomic armaments race which overshadows not only the peace, but the very life, of the world.”

“Today, the United States stockpile of atomic weapons, which, of course, increases daily, exceeds by many times the total equivalent of the total of all bombs and all shells that came from every plane and every gun in every theatre of war in all the years of the Second World War,” he stated in his historic “Atoms for Peace” address to the United Nations General Assembly in 1953.

Eisenhower wrestled with the bleak spectre of an arms race between the U.S. and the USSR, in which the only strategy was the threat of overwhelming retaliation, and in which the secret of atomic weaponry will “eventually be shared by others, possibly all others.” He hoped to avoid “the probability of civilization destroyed, the annihilation of the irreplaceable heritage of mankind handed down to us from generation to generation, and the condemnation of mankind to begin all over again the age-old struggle upward from savagery towards decency, and right, and justice.”

To avoid this unimaginable outcome, Eisenhower had a bold proposal for the nations of the world. “The United States knows that if the fearful trend of atomic military build-up can be reversed, this greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind. The United States knows that peaceful power from atomic energy is no dream of the future. The capability, already proved, is here today. Who can doubt that if the entire body of the world’s scientists and engineers had adequate amounts of fissionable material with which to test and develop their ideas, this capability would rapidly be transformed into universal, efficient and economic usage?”

Eisenhower dreamed of creating, under the UN auspices, an atomic energy agency that would spread peaceful nuclear technology “to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world [and] serve the needs rather than the fears of mankind.” Somehow, he intimated, giving nations peaceful nuclear capabilities would diminish the chance that the atom would be put to evil uses.

The speech was not as naive as might appear. It marked the launch of a U.S. propaganda effort to win allies in its great ideological battle against the USSR and communism. While the speech was disseminated through agencies such as Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, the U.S. was embarking on a massive nuclear-weapons buildup. Atoms for Peace, in the end, was a foreign-policy gambit in the Cold War struggle between the world’s two superpowers.

To lay the groundwork for a commercial nuclear industry, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission investigated the consequences of nuclear accidents. Its 1957 Brookhaven Report found that property damages could reach the then-staggering sum of $7-billion, assuming a medium-sized nuclear reactor contaminated a medium-sized city. Property damage aside, it estimated thousands of deaths and harm to large numbers of babies.

When insurance companies told the U.S. Congress that risks of that magnitude were uninsurable, Congress relieved the nuclear industry of responsibility.

The decision to make possible a nuclear industry was a no-brainer: The risk of losing $7-billion, and thousands of deaths, per nuclear accident was as nothing compared to the nuclear holocaust that could envelope the globe in the event of all-out nuclear war. And without the peaceful atom to sate the demand for nuclear technology, they thought, what chance would there be of halting the proliferation of nuclear weapons?

Other Western countries would soon follow the U.S. lead and absolve the new nuclear industry of the risks that would otherwise prevent its entry into society.

The commercial nuclear industry was thus created by governments and sustained by them throughout the Cold War with the USSR. Though unsafe and uneconomic throughout, except in comparison with Armageddon, it at least had a rationale.

With the industry as uneconomic and uninsurable as ever, and with estimates of potential damage now reaching hundreds of billions of dollars, this rationale has gone the way of the Cold War.

This is part three of a series by Lawrence Solomon, executive director of Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute, and author of The Deniers.

Related articles:
The limits to nuclear: McCain shouldn’t try to follow French disaster

Burning in the dark
Warmed-over nukes

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