The documentary film Pandora’s Promise (2013, 86 minutes, $4) explores nuclear power as it interviews prominent environmentalists who switched from being against it to being in favor. I’d like to highlight some of the features of the transition these environmentalists went through. There are surprising parallels with the transition people make when leaving Christianity, and there are parallels between a dogmatic anti-nuclear attitude and a dogmatic religious attitude.
The charges against nuclear power
Dr. Hellen Caldicott (a medical doctor) is used in the film as the representative of anti-nuclear environmentalism. She has been called “the world’s foremost anti-nuclear campaigner.” She has received many prizes, 21 honorary doctorates, and a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize by Linus Pauling and has been called by the Smithsonian Institution “one of the most influential women of the 20th Century.”
Caldicott uses nuclear accidents to make her case and claims that 985,000 people died as a result of the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl (Ukraine). She says that the aftermath from the 2011 Fukushima (Japan) power plant accident will be even worse. Seven million will die prematurely in the next two decades, and tens of millions more will suffer from “debilitating radiation-induced chronic illnesses.”
And the rebuttals
The World Health Organization disagrees. About Fukushima, it concluded in 2013, “The increases in the incidence of human disease attributable to the additional radiation exposure from the Fukushima Daiichi NPP accident are likely to remain below detectable levels.” No deaths due to radiation have been attributed to the accident.
Caldicott’s source for the nearly one million deaths due to Chernobyl has been widely discredited. A consortium of United Nations organizations and others gave this summary of the mortality due to the Chernobyl disaster:
According to [the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation] (2000), [Acute Radiation Syndrome] was diagnosed in 134 emergency workers. . . . Among these workers, 28 persons died in 1986 due to ARS. . . . Nineteen more have died in 1987–2004 of various causes; however their deaths are not necessarily—and in some cases are certainly not—directly attributable to radiation exposure.
There were no radiation deaths in the general population, though there have been close to 7000 cases of thyroid cancer among children. These would have been “almost entirely” prevented had the Soviet Union followed simple measures afterwards.
The report estimates an increase in cancer mortality due to radiation exposure of “a few per cent” in the 100,000 fatal cancers that would be expected in this population. In other words, Caldicott is about as wrong as it is possible to be.
This is not to dismiss the problem—the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear accidents were indeed disasters—but it doesn’t help to see them incorrectly. The Fukushima earthquake and tsunami caused 16,000 deaths, while the power plant accident caused none.
Not seeing the problem correctly causes its own problems. The World Health Organization concluded twenty years after Chernobyl that “its psychological impacts did more health damage than radiation exposure did,” and childhood obesity in the Fukushima area is now the worst in Japan because children are not allowed to play outside, in most cases without any valid reason.
Environmentalists—aren’t they the ones who should be following the science?
One critic compared environmentalists with climate change deniers.
Failing to provide sources, refuting data with anecdote, cherry-picking studies, scorning the scientific consensus, invoking a cover-up to explain it: all this is horribly familiar. These are the habits of climate change deniers, against which the green movement has struggled valiantly, calling science to its aid. It is distressing to discover that when the facts don’t suit them, members of this movement resort to the follies they have denounced.
I find this topic revealing because anti-nuclear attitudes are typically held by liberals. Instead of using science and technology to find solutions to the problems of nuclear power, some liberals simply want it to go away. But these problems have solutions. For example, the Integral Fast Reactor was an experimental fourth-generation reactor program begun in the U.S. in 1984. It was cancelled ten years later by Democratic pressure, after it had proven that it was failsafe (it survived a loss of electrical power and loss of all coolant) and shown that it could reduce the waste leaving the facility to less than one percent that of conventional reactors.
The mothballing of the reactor cost more than letting the project conclude. Democrats can be as mindlessly ideological and anti-science as Republicans.While the U.S. civilian nuclear power industry has caused no deaths, the U.S. health burden from fossil fuel power generation is 30,000 to 52,000 premature deaths per year. Worldwide, the total is millions per year.
Some of the interviewees spoke of their change of mind. Mark Lynas said, “I was under no doubt that my whole career and my whole reputation as an environmental activist, communicator was at risk if I talked publicly about having changed my mind about nuclear power.”
Richard Rhodes said, “I came to realize [journalists] basically avoided looking at the whole picture. They only looked at the questions that seemed to prove to them that nuclear power was dangerous, as I had, too.”
I was most shocked at how little some of these environmentalists knew about nuclear power. They had their standard line—nuclear power of any type was bad—and they stuck with it. One career environmentalist admitted that he hadn’t known about natural background radiation from the ground, from space, and even from bananas. Natural potassium, of which bananas are a good source, is 0.012% potassium-40 (a radioactive isotope), and humans are more radioactive because of potassium than because of carbon-14.
Comparison with Christianity
Dr. Hellen Caldicott, the strident anti-nuclear activist, has a lot in common with Christian leaders. (Obviously, her opinion of religion isn’t the issue. I’m simply paralleling her actions with those of Christian leaders.)
- Dogmatic. Caldicott is a charismatic speaker, and she has a ready audience eager to hear her message. She’s “the world’s foremost anti-nuclear campaigner” for a reason. She says that nuclear power is wicked just like a televangelist might say that same-sex marriage in America is wicked. She says that nuclear power of any type is bad, just like a preacher might say abortion of any type is bad.
- Confident and unchanging. Caldicott is well aware of this controversy and the fact that her figures are orders of magnitude greater than the most widely accepted data. Her position is grossly out of touch with reality and could even be called hysterical. But she uses this notoriety to her advantage, and I imagine her façade is as confident as ever.
- Reputation. This is her livelihood and her identity, and she’s not likely to change. Like Harold Camping or John Hagee in the Christian domain, she can’t admit a big mistake. Some career environmentalists do change, though, as the film documents, and the soul-searching crisis that individual environmentalists go through parallels that of ex-Christians like Dan Barker, Bart Ehrman, or Matt Dillahunty. Leaving one’s identity in either domain means reinventing or even re-finding oneself, and former allies may ridicule or shun.
- Embrace of science. Caldicott is like William Lane Craig and other apologists in that neither feels bound by science. They use science as it suits them and ignore it when it doesn’t. Caldicott is outraged that climate change deniers dismiss environmental dangers by ignoring or selecting their science, but then she does it herself. In the same way, William Lane Craig quotes cosmologists to defend the Big Bang (because he likes a beginning to the universe), but he ignores quantum physics when it says that quantum events needn’t have causes (he’s desperate to find a cause for the universe).
It’s tempting to pick and choose (or invent) your science when you’re on the losing side of the evidence. Christian apologists do it, and seeing it within the anti-nuclear movement, a completely different domain, can illustrate that it’s not just dogmatic Christians who are guilty of it. This bias is a human problem. Seeing nuclear power incorrectly prevents seeing it as an important way to address climate change, and seeing the supernatural incorrectly diverts us from solving society’s problems. No, God isn’t going to ride into town to save the day.
— Sam Harris
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 11/10/15.)
Image from Idaho National Laboratory, CC license