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Avoiding More Predictable Disasters

Posted by Jeff Patterson, DO on May 18, 2010

The current manmade environmental oil disaster of the Deepwater Horizon Oil blowout on April 20, 2010 happens to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the radiation disaster at Chernobyl on April 27, 1986.   This is, therefore, an ideal time to consider the nature and effect of manmade disasters, which should give us guidance as to the direction of our future energy plans.  

Disasters typically have a beginning --sometimes with a warning, a middle, when the disaster occurs, and an end, which can proceed for varying lengths of time, during which we typically recover.  

We generally think of manmade disasters as occurring abruptly with no warning.  However, when we consider the nature of oil and radiation disasters, the warning takes the form of “past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior”.   We can be quite sure that such disasters will happen again and again, despite assurances from the industries involved that this is a remote possibility. (1)  After all, the chance that a space shuttle would fail was a “remote possibility”, and yet this has happened not once, but twice.  In fact, the more complex the technology involved, the greater the chance of catastrophic failure, despite safety redundancies being built into the systems.   

In considering the middle and the end of such disasters, we take into account the immediate effect, such as how many people are killed or injured.  However, with oil and even more so with radiation, the consideration of long term consequences becomes almost immeasurable.  How do we quantify the effects on our fragile environment of the many disastrous oil spills that have occurred during the relatively brief history of the utilization of this form of energy?  We are still measuring the effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill from 1989, and it occurred in a remote area.   How many such disasters can we continue to call “an acceptable price to pay” for our use of oil?  The answer may only come when it is too late. 

For Chernobyl and the other radiation disasters that have occurred and are continuing to occur in the very short nuclear age, the answer is even further into the future and much more likely to be irreparable.  Unlike oil, radiation cannot be seen, smelled, or felt.   The effects are more likely to continue far into the future, and thus are much easier for the nuclear establishment to ignore, cover up, or not examine.    

The products of the nuclear fuel cycle, from the time it is mined to the time it is put into a so far non-existent “repository” must be kept out of the environment essentially forever.  The consequences of such releases of nuclear materials, whether they are being used for weapons or nuclear power, will affect humans and the entire ecosystem on an ongoing basis.   Such leakage occurs in countless ways, from the tailings from mining uranium, to accidental loss in refining, to the blowing up of a tank of high level radioactive waste in Kyshtym, USSR in 1957,  to the intentional and accidental dumping of radioactive waste underground, into lakes, rivers and the oceans of the world, to disasters such as Chernobyl and TMI, and to the ultimate potential disaster of nuclear war.  

The bombs exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki produced essentially no fallout because they were high in the air, and yet the effects in terms of new cancers in the population exposed to a one time dose of radiation are still being measured today.  Far worse are the effects of the continuing exposure to the radiation particles from nuclear testing in the 50’s and 60’s, the massive leakage from the manufacture of radioactive materials, and the effects of Chernobyl.   According to the federal Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation report (BEIR VII) there is no safe dose of radiation.

 Whether slow or rapid, all of the disasters involving radiation, i.e. the release of man made radioactive materials into the environment, produce pollution essentially lasting forever, when measured by any human time frame.   The effects of such pollution cannot be measured now because they will project for many thousands of years into the future.

How many such disasters are an acceptable price to pay for the energy we are now using?  Unfortunately, when it comes to radiation effects, we seem to be comfortable pushing that decision onto future generations who have no say in the issue.   When do we reach the tipping point where we say enough is enough? 

As we observe the ongoing oil disaster and remember the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl, it is a crucial time to raise this question. 
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has pondered these issues and seems to have had an epiphany when he stated that he no longer supports drilling off Santa Barbara.   In this regard he stated, “you turn on the television and see this enormous disaster, you say to yourself, ‘Why would we want to take on that kind of risk?’ ”

We need to heed the prescription put forth by Physicians for Social Responsibility, “There is no cure, only prevention”.     Oil spill disasters and radiation disasters will continue to happen, thus we need to drastically change the direction of our energy future.   This is possible through the use of truly clean, renewable, and sustainable technologies.   The path of burning fossil fuels and using nuclear reactors will only continue to produce irreversible environmental damage.  

Perhaps the Rule of Holes is a good one to reflect upon at this time.  When one has dug oneself into a hole and is struggling to get out,  the first thing to do is stop digging.    This is a crucial time to move toward a positive change in our energy policy which will ensure and protect the environment for future generations.   We did not inherit the earth, we are borrowing it from our descendants. 

Jeffrey J. Patterson, DO
President, Physicians for Social Responsibility
Professor U of WI School of Medicine and Public Health


1  In a discussion between Senator Bill Nelson and BP chairman Tony Hayward (May 4, 2010), Senator Nelson had asked what assurances he (Mr. Hayward) could give that such an explosion and spill would not happen again.  Nelson recalled, "his answer basically was that statistically, the chance of failure was so minimal that it is unlikely this was going to occur in the future."

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