By Nancy Langston
This is the first post in a collaborative series titled “Environmental Historians Debate: Can Nuclear Power Solve Climate Change?” hosted by the Network in Canadian History & Environment, the Historical Climatology and ActiveHistory.ca.
On March 28, 1979, I woke up late and rushed to catch the bus to my suburban high school in Rockville MD. So it wasn’t until I found my friends clustered around the radio in the cafeteria that I learned seventy-seven miles upwind of us, Three Mile Island Reactor Unit 2 was in partial meltdown.
Three Mile Island, Reactor Unit 2. Credit: Rowen’s Photography, (Creative Commons CC BY-ND 2.0).
Two months after the disaster, when the containment of its radioactivity was still in dispute, I was chosen as a finalist for a National Science Foundation (NSF)-sponsored competition to showcase emerging young scientists. The prize was a tour of Australia, where we were expected to promote the stellar safety record and wondrous technology of the U.S. nuclear program. The timing wasn’t perfect, to put it mildly. At the finalists’ interview, I ended up in a lively argument with the NSF judges when they told me that the public’s nuclear anxieties were irrational, and I replied that NSF’s certainties of safety were even more irrational, given the measurable risks of a meltdown and the failure of the U.S. to promote energy conservation as an alternative.
To no one’s surprise, I was not chosen to represent America in that summer’s nuclear wonders tour. Instead, I marched against nuclear power. When the movie China Syndrome came out the following spring, all my worst suspicions about nuclear risks found fictional confirmation.
Four decades later I now teach the problematic history of nuclear power. Students use the emerging field of discard studies to explore the structural context of a society that creates vast volumes of toxic waste, designating certain landscapes as sacrifice zones. We turn to Traci Voyles’ insights in Wastelanding to understand the appalling history of uranium mining, exploring how the Dine (Navaho) were made into disposable peoples by the nuclear mining industry. We watch a few of the “Duck and Cover” movies from 1950s to show how an enormous gap developed between potential nuclear hazards and possible individual responses. When we examine the three major disasters in the history of nuclear energy—Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima—we use Diane Vaughan’s concept of “the normalization of deviance” to explore the ways “disasters are socially organized and systematically produced by social structures” in high risk industries. After glancing at the risks of nuclear proliferation and terrorism, we finally turn to the challenges of high level waste transport and storage.
This is hardly an eco-modernist paean to the promise of nuclear power. I sound less like Robert Stone in his 2013 pro-nuclear documentary Pandora’s Promise and much more like the younger Robert Stone in his 1988 documentary Radio Bikini, which focuses on the horrors of nuclear weapons testing and fallout.
Mushroom cloud, Ivy Mike. U.S. nuclear weapon test MIKE of Operation Ivy, 31 Oct 1952, the first test of a thermonuclear weapon (hydrogen bomb). Credit: National Nuclear Security Administeration Nevada Site Office Photo Library IVY-52-05
By the end of the segments on nuclear, my students fully expect me to call for an end to nuclear power. But I do the opposite: I call for continuing, not shuttering, nuclear power plants. Why? Because the risks of climate change are overwhelmingly greater than the risks of all stages of the nuclear cycle combined. I am convinced that to have a chance of avoiding the existential threat of runaway climate change, we must keep the globe’s clunky, aging, awkwardly designed 451 nuclear reactors limping along for the foreseeable future. Until renewables have replaced all existing fossil fuels, closing aging nuclear plants would mean game over for keeping warming to less than 2º C. To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s comments on democracy: existing forms of nuclear power are the worst form of non-renewable energy—except for all the other forms ever yet tried.