"Your father was a participant in some military experiments to determine the effects of exposure of nuclear explosions on humans," my mother, Anna Burak, told me many years ago when my dad was stationed at an Air Force base in Neveda. “Don't say anything to him about my telling you this. He might get mad."
Many years later, I was fortunate enough to do a local access tv interview with Cornell Prof. (Emeritus) Hans Bethe, after he went public about his opposition to the nuclear arms race between the west & the Soviet Union. M.A.D. (Mutually Assured Destruction) was one of the descriptive acronyms used by Bethe and his allies to characterize the buildup of nuclear arsenals. Among the details we discussed re: preparation for nuclear was the cycle of continual reinforcement - i.e. enhancing the thickness of the concrete silos which protected nuclear missiles from "first strike" destruction. This had the result that each side would then amp up the destructive power of its next round of missiles.
As laudable (& significant) as Bethe's criticisms were, he still maintained a positive outlook on the possibilities of using nuclear energy for the generation of power for domestic usage. As this ongoing debate has been amplified by Bill Gates’ current efforts to approach the issues from the perspectives "of an engineer, not a political scientist," let us reflect on whether Gates has presented a viable paradigm in his new book on how to save the environment.
Considering the dire consequences of nuclear power plant dysfunctions, let's examine a scene described by Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexsevich, a Nobel laureate (2015) for what she describes as "documentary literature." Here's a segment of an interview she did for “A Prayer for Chernobyl.” I've transcribed a segment of the statements shared by Ludmilla Ignate, wife of a now-deceased Ukrainian fireman, Vasily Ignate.
"You have to understand," a voice said," this isn't your husband anymore... but a radioactive object with a strong density of poisoning... get ahold of yourself." Ms. Ignate continues, "I was like someone who lost her mind ... But I love him... He's sleeping and I'm whimpering I love you."
Even though the official death toll figures from the Chernobyl tragedy are small (31), the worldwide spread of radioactive particles is still causing serious problems. A recent study conducted by Anton Korsakov, et. al., indicates that children born in contaminated areas near Chernobyl suffer from a higher degree of birth defects than those living in areas considered uncontaminated.
The significance of these findings, as noted by Cindy Folker's recent assessment in Beyond Nuclear.org, provide a stark contrast to the Japanese government's current push to get evacuees, many of whom are elderly, to return to Fukushima. Officials contend that "there are no discernible health impacts" expected from returning to contaminated land.
The worldwide spread of radioactive particles from both the Fukushima and Chernobyl tragedies continues to cause serious problems. A recent study, led by Anton Korsakov, indicates that children born in contaminated areas near Chernobyl experience a higher degree of birth defects than those living in areas considered uncontaminated.
Meanwhile, back in America, this winter's Texas freeze-up and widespread energy grid failures can be substantially attributed to bad economic and political decisions rather than a reliance on renewable energy technology. For example, the South Texas Nuclear Power Plant contributed significantly to grid collapse, arising from its failure to winterize its steam turbines. Apparently, the decision makers felt they could save money that way. Instead, frozen feedwater pumps caused major reactor malfunctions.
Given the propensity for human error, particularly in the development and maintenance of nuclear energy facilities, including Indian Point and Diablo Canyon, it's compelling to raise the question, why spend billions on these potentially lethal endeavors when safer and more reliable long term outcomes can be achieved by creating, investing in and enhancing inter-related renewable energy systems, such as wind, solar and large batteries. These modes of delivery provide much safer, and, upon scrutiny, reliable methods of energy development and delivery - despite the attempts of some mainstream media efforts, such as that by the Wall Street Journal's Editorial Board, which contended that frozen wind turbines were at fault for the Texas grid failures.
In his NYT Book Review piece, environmentalist Bill McKibbon points out that Bill Gates overlooks the ongoing contributions of fossil fuel industries to politicians who support legislation favorable to the dominance of the gas, coal and oil giants. In criticizing Gates' attempt to present an apolitical approach to avoiding the climate crisis, McKibbon notes that the lion's share of Microsoft's campaign contributions go to politicians who support the fossil fuel industry.
So where do we go from here? It's appropriate to suggest that it's incumbent upon our educational systems to provide students, faculty and, insofar as possible, the surrounding community with the knowledge and impetus to develop energy sources like wind, solar and batteries.
At the same time, governmental bodies and independent foundations should encourage corporate entities which are based on nuclear or fossil fuel energy sources to enhance efforts to develop energy systems which don't create or rely upon toxic substances like radioactive waste.
A cross section of scientists and environmental activists with whom I've discussed these matters, including Ferris Kawar, Roald Hoffmann and educator Billy Pruz, tend to concur that wind, solar and battery generated systems, if effectively developed, can provide us with enough electricity in the foreseeable future. However, this positive outcome is contingent upon our refraining from significant escalation of energy wasting activities.
Meanwhile, environmental education efforts by dedicated people like Allison Dunham, a third-grade teacher at Cesar Chavez elementary school in California, are very important. She includes instructional field trips with her classes, helping her students develop an understanding and appreciation of the oceans, beaches, forests and other ecological entities which we need to protect, to the fullest extent possible.