Editorial: The sixth horseman of the apocalypse

By Quamrul Haider, Ph.D., Chair of Dept. of Physics at Fordham University,
December 4, 2014

BEFORE a highly complex technology is introduced into the public domain, it is rigorously tested for possible failure. The tests are conducted under real-life conditions without endangering the public and the environment. An exception is a nuclear reactor. The unforeseeable consequences that might arise from the malfunction or accident of a reactor cannot be tested under realistic conditions without jeopardising human lives.

As a substitute for real tests, computer simulations are done to gain more precise ideas about the possibility of reactor accidents and their effects on humans and their surroundings. The fraternity of nuclear scientists who so cheerfully play roulette with nuclear reactors defends the results of the simulations as evidence that reactors are a safe bet. They create the impression in the minds of laymen that their extremely risky projects have been carefully thought out in every detail and are inspired by the spirit of greatest responsibility.

A large section of the scientific community, on the other hand, believes that the predictions spitted out by a computer are “about as reliable as tomorrow’s weather forecast.” They argue that by building nuclear power plants in populated areas, the whole world becomes an experimental laboratory with human beings as guinea pigs.

History shows that even with all the safety features in place, there will be nuclear accidents, and although some may be small in scale, there is always the possibility of a major disaster.

The basic difference between nuclear and other industrial accidents lies in the long-range repercussions. After a foreseeable lapse of time, one could forget about the havoc wrought, for example, by the explosion of a gas pipeline or the breaching of a dam. The wounds and scars from these accidents albeit deep eventually heal in the course of time. But an accident in a nuclear power plant, such as a reactor getting out of control, is capable of doing more than immediate harm.

Examples of the deadly long-term effects of a reactor accident are Chernobyl and Fukushima. At Chernobyl, even 28 years after the accident, people are dying from radiation-related sickness. And almost four years after the disaster, highly radioactive water is leaking from the storage tanks at Fukushima.

Our amorphous fear of a reactor accident contains Hiroshima-like images of extraordinary destruction and grotesque form of collective dying. This fear is heightened by the invisibility of the added lethal component, the ionizing radiation, whose nerve-racking aftereffects will linger on for ages to haunt the future generations. Among the survivors there will be many cases of permanent sterility, increase of genetic mutation in our progenies, and a shortened life span as a result of cancer and other radiogenic diseases. The affected people will also carry a psychological burden that will undermine their creative processes as long as they live.

It is, therefore, irresponsible and misleading to suppress the consequences of radiation escaping from a reactor after an accident. Nevertheless, attempts are made by the roulette players to blind the people by equating nuclear accidents with more familiar hazards, such as an accident at a coal-fired power plant. By doing so, an unlimited risk is falsely portrayed as a limited one and glossed over in a manner that is not only unconscionable, but also unpardonable.

These deceptions are further camouflaged by the way in which they are presented to the public. By appealing to statistics, graphs, charts and diagrams, the far-reaching consequences of lethal radiation are overly simplified. In the post-Chernobyl and post-Fukushima era, these discombobulated data do not hold water.

Critics describe nuclear reactor as one of the most dangerous technological beasts that mankind has devised and nuclear accident as “A Nuclear War without a War.” The consequences of this war can assume dimensions that do not take second place to the consequences of earthquake and pestilence, and in a way actually exceeds them.

In the past, wars, plagues, famines and natural disasters were known as the four horsemen of the apocalypse. In the early twentieth century, they were joined by a fifth — industrial catastrophe. After Chernobyl and Fukushima, nuclear accidents can be added to the list as the sixth horseman of the apocalypse.

The writer is Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.


Re-printed under Fair Use Rules.