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Los Alamos and Fort Calhoun: lessons in the precautionary principle

Posted by Morgan Pinnell and Ashish Sinha on June 30, 2011

precautionary principle: The precautionary principle states that if an action or policy has suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action.

The nuclear catastrophe that occurred on March 11 at Fukushima in Japan alerted many countries around the world to the grave concerns that can arise from complex nuclear reactors. Already we have seen a few countries’ governments taken action to stop and, in some cases, close down their nuclear programs. One notable example of this comes from Germany’s decision to end their reliance on nuclear energy by 2022 (read more about Germanys decision in Morgan Pinnells piece).

The United States is in the middle of a national debate on the role of nuclear technology in meeting our energy and defense needs. In debates over medicine and food, regulators will often apply the precautionary principle. On something as potentially devastating and far reaching as nuclear technology, we have a duty to do the same.

Within the past week, we have witnessed two separate nuclear threats in the United States as a consequence of a forest fire and flooding. The Los Alamos National Laboratory is the birthplace of the nuclear bomb and continues to be a center for nuclear weapons’ development and a place for storage of radioactive waste. A forest fire that has already consumed 61,000 acres of forest is now at the edge of Los Alamos. The Fort Calhoun Nuclear Reactor is imperiled by flood waters from the Missouri River.

At Los Alamos, fire embers can travel great distances (especially under Tuesday’s 60 mph winds) and have the potential of reaching the plutonium disposal areas that are covered with only a fabric tent. Fort Calhoun’s flood berm was breached this weekend. It appears that some water is seeping into the turbine buildings, though officials insist this isn’t a safety threat.  Employees have been using elevated catwalks to maneuver around the plant. 

In both of these cases, the nuclear facilities rely on the reliability of safeguards and internal processes to be secure. The enemy of reliability is complexity and nuclear technology is nothing if not complex. We have witnessed the catastrophic results when safeguards for nuclear technology failed at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima. B-2 Bombers carrying nuclear weapons have crashed, several times, in the US with at least one instance leading to all but one safeguard failing. Droughts can lead to the necessary shut down of nuclear reactors when there isn’t enough water to cool the reactor or the water is to hot. What happens when we get something on the scale of the Japanese tsunami? What will we do when an earthquake, on the scale of the 1906 west coast quake, hits dozens of our nuclear facilities simultaneously?

It’s already apparent that the US Government has not learned the lessons of Fukushima. There is a current project, called the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR), which will create a new plutonium pit facility for expanded nuclear weapons production at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. This $6 billion project harms our ability to stop other countries from developing nuclear weapons’ programs, is being built in an area with many severe natural hazards, and is costly during a time of significant cuts to basic services like the fire fighters who are currently trying to save the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Let’s not wait for yet another disaster to teach us that the consequences of some things are too risky for us to take on. There is clear empirical evidence and rational reasons to see the dire harm that can result as a consequence of nuclear technology. The European Union adopted the precautionary principle for beef and milk - it does not seem a radical step for the United States to adopt the precautionary principle for something as pervasive and potentially devastating as nuclear energy, nuclear weapons, and storage of nuclear waste. 


Dave said ..

Your alarmist sensationalism is completely off base. At no time was the Plant in OK in any danger from the flood waters, and cannot even remotely be compared to the devestation in Japan. You should be ashamed of yourself for taking advantage of the public trust in your position as a physician and not comment on matters for which you have no practical experience. For the record,I am a medical practitioner in critical care and was a nuclear power plant operator in the US Navy.

July 12, 2011

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