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 (readmoreaboutGermany’sdecisioninMorganPinnell’spiece).
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
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.
Dr. Ira Helfand spoke before the United Nations General Assembly on September 10, 2015 as part of a panel addressing the pursuit of a nuclear weapons free world. Read more »
In the Spotlight
March 25, 2016
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