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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Friday, April 21, 2006

forbidden zones among the statistics

Last year, the UN’s IAEA along with the WHO published a revisionist account of the Chernobyl disaster. It put the long term death toll estimate at 9,000, gave a much lower estimate of the radiation released from the plant than any previous one, gave a much lower estimate of the number of people involved in the cleanup of the disaster than any previous estimate, and dismissed 20 years of death and health impairment as so much psychosomatic folderol. It should be said that the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency loves atomic energy. It is composed of believers. And the report was written as part of a campaign to de-demonize nuclear power. As Michael Flynn pointed out in a review of the report for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

“But according to other observers, while the report seems to demonstrate that Chernobyl’s devastation is less dramatic than once thought, it can hardly be called “reassuring.” They argue that the report provides little solace to those still suffering from the effects of the accident and fails to accurately portray
its total impact. And they draw a sharp distinction between the actual report— which is composed of two draft studies, one on health consequences and another on the environment—and the report’s summary and press release, which they argue minimize and contradict the report’s findings. Richard Garwin, an internationally renowned physicist and IBM fellow emeritus at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center, calls the report “deliberately misleading,” arguing that it overlooks evidence that contradicts some of its conclusions.”

Greenpeace attacked the report as a whitewash, and has recently published its own report, which estimates 11 times the death load. And the related TORCH report this month does a pretty nice job of sacking the IAEA’s report – which nevertheless will, of course, be quoted as the Bible on Fox news, and other sources of propaganda.

The IAEA report was greeted with hallelujahs by the conservative media and their spokesman in this country last year. As LI has pointed out before, the GOP and the Soviet hardliners converge in their feelings about the environment – whether nature was given to man by God or seized by the revolutionary worker, the main thing is that nature exists as a free resource and dump, a gold mine and a sewer. One of the great things about nuclear power, from this point of view, is that disaster is long term: the land around Chernobyl is contaminated for millennia, and the injuries done to the victims of Chernobyl space out over 20 to 40 years –well, except for the stillbirths and the deformities that die off quickly. In that time, a lot happens, and one can plausibly say, oh, that person died of smoking – never mind the history of fainting, the long stays in the hospital, the anemia, the impotence, the bowel trouble. And then you pick those things off. For instance, by chance, Belarus actually had a record of child birth deformities going back before the accident, so much research was done in the Soviet Union and by Belarussian researchers on the rise in birth defects. Similar studies have shown a brief peak in Downs syndrome in Germany, in the path of the wind driven fallout, and similar studies have shown jumps in spina bifida, for instance, in Turkey. Of course, the IAEA didn't even take into account - in its whole report -- the entire area affected by the fallout -- which by its own epidemiological method makes its figures simply wrong. Further, the IAEA demands a linear causal link which, of course, is very hard to show for accidents like this, that take place over long periods of time. If you set the parameters right, you can wish the disaster away. Time favors the liar -- especially the motivated, wealthy liar. Those who actually believe the IAEA should look at Belarus' fascinating and ongoing demographic disaster and ask what happened between 1987 and the present day. But such a question would be considered very, very vulgar by the physicists who composed the membership of committees like the IAEA, with their mandate to "calm public fears."

There was an interview with a Russian physicist, Yevgeny Velikhov, published by RIA Novosti that typifies this Frozen Belief set – the techno-millenarian belief that fits so well with economic systems based on profit or on a party’s command and control:

“Since the tragic day 20 years ago the physicists have been trying hard to defeat radio phobia, and prove to the people that atomic power engineering brings light and heat to their homes. Have they done all they could? The drawbacks which this industry had, and some of which were revealed by Chernobyl have been largely overcome. Nuclear power engineering has evolved incredible safety measures. I'd call some of them even somewhat excessive. In general, the experience amassed today by the physicists and designers, and the high safety standards of nuclear power engineering guarantee that accidents similar to Chernobyl will never repeat.”
A piece of boilerplate that could easily fit into a speech by Cheney.

Peter Neils of the Los Alamos Study Group cuts to the heart of the recent movement to revive nuclear power in this country:

“Nuclear power has never been economically viable without massive government subsidies. In the case of nuclear power, we have socialized the development, liability and waste disposal expenses while privatizing the profit, an absurd deal for the taxpayer. In fact, the market has already left nuclear power behind.”

However, it isn’t simply a question of the market – Chernobyl posed a question about what the economy is for in the first place. It poses the basic question of the social and planetary cost of our whole system. Just as the arms race in the Cold War presupposed, absurdly, that two systems – the West and the East – at one point in time had suddenly seized the right to defend themselves with the threat to end humanity itself (implying that we had reached a truly utopian moment, for only a utopia could be defended in such an absolute manner), nuclear power is the emblem of a systematic insanity of need which we will either confront or succumb to.

Given LI’s recent lurch to black humor, we’ll end with this bit about James Lovelock, the Gaia person. Lovelock, according to George Dvorsky’s blog, actually advocates more Chernobyls, showing that there is no political ecological niche that isn’t filled by somebody.

“Back in 2001, Lovelock told the Telegraph that we need nuclear power. He also asked the British government to revive atomic energy as an alternative to burning fossil fuels. He went on to downplay the Chernobyl disaster, claiming that it was not the industrial catastrophe that so many people made it out to be
Further, Lovelock noted his delight in the fact that diverse wildlife had once again returned to the 30km area immediately surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear facility. This is the area, of course, that remains off-limits due to radiation. “The wildlife of Chernobyl know nothing about radiation and do not fear it,” he says, “That they might live a little less long is of no great consequence to them.”

Inspired by this shining and radioactive example of passive environmental remediation, Lovelock argues that we should actually recreate similar situations elsewhere: “I have wondered if the small volumes of nuclear waste from power production should be stored in tropical forests and other habitats in need of a reliable guardian against their destruction by greedy developers.”

As Dvorsky says: “that’s a hardcore solution to the global warming problem.”

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