Russ Wellen

In the United States, military and civilian strategists have long found nuclear weapons an endless source of fascination. They mull over concepts such as "deterrence," "first strike," "counterforce," and "countervalue." Disarmament activists, though, are more likely to puzzle over why, seventy years after our last world war, military commanders and policymakers still place their faith in weapons liable to result in widespread devastation if not outright mutual destruction with the flip of a switch (or, more accurately, the input of a launch code).

Unlike its cousin, The Bomb, nuclear power is much less sexy to protest. Part of this may have to do with the fact that nuclear power hasn't traditionally been associated with the potential for apocalypse.

Yet more and more, the risks a state undertakes by turning to nuclear power to help meet its energy needs are approaching those of relying on nuclear weapons to shore up its national security. Nuclear-power-plant accidents, such as those at Fukushima and Chernobyl, may not be capable of destroying the civilized world like nuclear weapons are, with their initial blast, radiation, and nuclear-winter-induced famine. But they can turn a vast swath of a nation into a cesium-scorched landscape.

Fear-mongering hawks once claimed that Russia buried “suitcase” nuclear bombs in the United States designated for future detonation. Arguably, nuclear-power plants can be viewed in the same light: as time bombs embedded in our own nation, where they await a signal employee error, structural stress, a storm to set them off. Except it’s not the enemy which has embedded them. It’s us.

Suddenly, the devastating potential of nuclear power seems hardly innocuous. The similarities between nuclear-power accidents and limited nuclear war can be demonstrated by tabulating the casualties, clean-up cost, and time frame of nuclear-power accidents.

During the first three decades of nuclear power, an assortment of minor accidents occurred in the United States, Russia, and Europe. But it was the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979 that put nuclear-energy accidents on the map. The number of casualties was difficult to ascertain due to politicians blocking investigations as well as a lack of radiation monitors both near the plant and in the countryside. Still, as Joseph Mangano wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, between 1979 and 2001, 120 residents in the closest counties to the north and northeast had died of cancer in their teens, almost 50 percent more than in the rest of Pennsylvania.

Three Mile Island’s clean-up cost, adjusted for inflation, was about $1.6 billion. Perhaps even more than the casualties and cost, the thirty-year timeline of aftereffects was an unsettling reminder that, like nuclear weapons, relying on nuclear power to ensure the national interest was playing with fire. But it was with the next serious accident seven years later that nuclear-power made a quantum leap into the realm of nuclear weapons. We’re speaking, of course, of Chernobyl.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), 400 times more radioactive material was released by the explosions and fire at Chernobyl than by the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The radius of the infamous “exclusion zone” first extended more than eighteen miles from the plant, but eventually spread out to over 1,600 miles square miles of Ukraine and Belarus. Approximately fifty deaths were directly tied to the event. Due to different approaches to epidemiology and—as with the Three-Mile Island meltdown—because of politics, estimates of later deaths from cancer vary widely.

In 2006, however, Greenpeace issued a comprehensive report that estimated 93,000 cancer fatalities as a result of the Chernobyl accident. It might be argued that a more accurate comparison with nuclear weapons would weigh eventual cancer deaths from a detonation against those from Chernobyl. Still, if we simply compare this number to the 70,000 to 80,000 killed within the first week of the Hiroshima blast and firestorm, exclusive of later cancer fatalities, we get a good sense of how casualties from a nuclear-power accident can approximate those following a nuclear blast.

The resemblance between nuclear power and nuclear weapons grows even more striking when we consider the clean-up cost associated with the Chernobyl disaster. First, the destroyed reactor was encased in a “sarcophagus.” The massive steel and concrete “shelter object” as it is referred to by its an only slightly less dystopian name, was was designed to contain radiation. Only temporary, it’s now being replaced by something called the New Safe Confinement (NSC), also steel and concrete. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which is helping to finance it, describes the NSC as a “design and construction project unprecedented in the history of engineering…an extraordinary landmark, tall enough to house London’s St Paul’s or Paris’s Notre Dame cathedrals.”

Chernobyl hospital. Image originally appeared here:

In light of the tragic disaster that necessitated it, bragging about the NSC seems strikingly tone-deaf. In fact, far too much ingenuity, sweat equity, and, of course, money, all of which could have been put to better use, have been and still are being diverted to the Chernobyl clean-up. What kind of money are we talking about? For the NSC and a nuclear waste site: over two billion dollars. Meanwhile, the IAEA reports that, in the nineties, the then-Soviet Union and, later, the Russian Federation, Belarus, and Ukraine estimated the cost of the entire accident at hundreds of billions of dollars and the clean-up time frame at two decades.

And then there is Fukushima, which is giving Chernobyl a run for its money as the mother of all nuclear accidents. Both are rated Level Seven, the most catastrophic on the International Nuclear Event Scale. But, because the Japanese reactors were contained by concrete and fewer of the most dangerous radioisotopes escaped, it may prove less costly to human life. Still, while the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that no measurable increase in cancer risk was to be expected, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, using the exact same data and assumptions as the WHO, reported that 20,000 to 80,000 cases of cancer could be expected.

Cost of clean-up for Fukushima? Like Chernobyl, in the hundreds of billions of dollars with over seven hundred subcontractors involved. The time frame involved is an estimated forty years. Though in light of the waste to which much of Ukraine was laid, that seems wildly optimistic, especially considering that Fukushima is contaminating the Pacific Ocean, as well as the land around the plant.

If an accident like this can happen in a country such as Japan, long synonymous with efficiency, what about in the developing world? Recently, physicists A.H. Nayyar, Pervez Hoodbhoy, and Zia Mann sounded the alarm about reactors in Pakistan. Turns out, though, that the highly developed nation building them, China (via the China National Nuclear Corporation), is proving more troublesome than the reactors’ location. It seems that Pakistan bought them on the basis of their design alone and no model has been built in China.

“Since the new Karachi reactors will be the first of a kind,” the authors explain, “no one knows how safe they will be or how well they will work.” In other words, “The twenty million people of Karachi are being used as subjects in a giant nuclear safety experiment.” Adding insult to injury, if any emergency and evacuation plans have been drawn up, their existence has not been made public.

Speaking of lack of evacuation plans, in 2012, Omid for Iran, a nonprofit founded by an Iranian-American businessman, issued a lengthy report on the effects of U.S. and/or Israeli conventional air strikes on Iran’s facilities for nuclear research, uranium enrichment, and isotope separation, as well as on its one operating reactor at Bushehr. As with Pakistan, the authors write, “Despite the obvious threats of accidents, earthquakes, terrorism, sabotage, and strikes to Iran’s nuclear program, the Iranian government has not publicly demonstrated that it has a manual for organizing a coordinated national response to a nuclear catastrophe.” Local populations have not been “been notified or trained to react to an early warning system and would not know how to follow evacuation plans.”

Alarmingly, Omid reports that air strikes “can be far more devastating than nuclear and industrial accidents such as Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island or Bhopal.” In other words, bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities is roughly analogous to setting off small nuclear weapons on the ground.

Just as those who believe in nuclear deterrence fail to factor risk from accidents into the national-security equation, those who cast their lots with nuclear power fail to factor risk from accidents into the equally complex equation that comprises US energy needs. To a certain extent, it’s understandable that the Pentagon, much of Congress, and many policymakers remain bullish on nuclear weapons. Despite all the close calls (in fact, very close, according to Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control), not a single nuclear weapon has yet to accidentally detonate in their seventy years of existence. To them, it’s evidence that nuclear weapons are safe and just need continued funding toward that end instead of drawing the obvious conclusion that we’re living on borrowed time.

What’s less understandable is how advocates of nuclear power can continue to block out its risks when a major accident? Fukushima has just occurred before the world has gotten over the last one, Chernobyl. What if another accident occurs while we’re still knee-deep in cleaning up and bearing the costs of Fukushima, and maybe even still Chernobyl? Casualties and damage to the environment aside for the moment, how can nations afford this? Come to think of it, how do nuclear-power companies afford it, yet continue to forge ahead?

Not many people understand the extent to which nuclear power, including waste disposal, is subsidized by national governments. Not only that, but, as reported in 2013 by nuclear physicist Yousaf Butt in Foreign Policy, US nuclear power companies “receive enormous insurance bail-outs under the ancient 1957 Price-Anderson Act, which limits the liability of the nuclear industry in case of a major nuclear accident and artificially cheapens the price it pays for insurance.”

As a result, since the public winds up bailing it out as if it were an investment bank, the industry has trouble resisting the temptation to loosen safety standards. This applies to Japan as well, where, Bloomberg reports, the government recently announced that it would assume the costs estimated at $24 billion of decontamination caused by Fukushima, leaving TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Co.) to concentrate on the compensation claims.

But, however counterintuitively, nuclear-reactor accidents may also contaminate for the better. By previewing the effects of nuclear war, they likely taint public opinion about nuclear weapons and turn more of us against them. Nuclear-reactor accidents are like blockbuster disaster films about the aftermath of a nuclear war. We need to shut down the franchise before another sequel, with its inevitable escalation in effects, is unleashed on the public.

Russ Wellen is a nuclear-weapons researcher and analyst. He also serves as the editor of the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.