Michael Bywater: Awe and incomprehension blind us to the beauty of nuclear energy

Anyone who tries to contain such monstrosity must be mad, evil. Soon there will be the terrible flash, as we see our bones through our hands and the world ends
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The Independent Online

The very word "nuclear" casts a terrible spell. The eerie blue glow of the reactor's core, the colour of nightmares and migraine. Shrouded men, dehumanised in respirators, manipulating tiny rods, no bigger than builders' rebar, through massive gauntlets with steel, robotic claws, as they gaze through foot-thick lead glass. Plumes of smoke: innocent? Or deadly? And how can we tell? Quenching ponds, burning piles, recriticality, and things we never see. William Blake comes to mind: The invisible worm /That flies in the night / In the howling storm. The terrible harbingers: a scent of ozone, a metallic taste in the mouth, sudden weakness, exhaustion. Plutonium, brighter than the sun. Metre-thick stainless-steel containment vessels: anything that needs that degree of containment must be wild, grave and terrible; not just lethal but somehow possessed of a diabolical intent of lethality. Even Homer Simpson flinging his cartoon plutonium out of the car window, even Mr Burns... this is what it's like. A gruesome death-dealing horror cartoon.

Nuclear power lies on a continuum of intentional catastrophe. The reactor's innocence is merely a pose, which could be dropped at any moment to reveal the mushroom-cloud. Anyone who tries to contain such monstrosity must be mad, evil, delusional. Soon there will be the terrible flash, the microsecond's horrific realization as we see our bones through our hands and the world ends.Like Frankenstein, a nuclear man is the New Prometheus, meddling with the invisible stuff of the universe. Nuclear men try to bend the hand of God to human ends, but God is not mocked and from our mortal hubris divine Nemesis will follow.

And look. Northern Japan has been laid waste by an earthquake at the very limit of local magnitude measurement on the Richter scale: ten times more severe than the one-in-a-thousand-years probability (of a force 8 earthquake) the Japanese used as their model. People have died in their thousands. More will die as medicines run out, heating fuel runs out, and the snow falls. The high-tech and electronics economy of Fukushima province has taken a dreadful blow. And what do we hear about? Nuclear power. Meltdown. Explosions. Isotopes. Cancer, and monsters, and a thin green glow after dark.

From bloggers and instapundits, in mainstream media, the casualties of the last week seem now to have been entirely racked up by some nuclear catastrophe. Yet the (unconfirmed) toll attributable to the problems at Daiichi represent less than one tenth of a percent. Japan has not had a nuclear disaster. Japan has suffered a massive earthquake followed by a tsunami on a terrible scale.

For some years I worked with one of the world's leading incident investigation companies, the Scottish firm of Kelvin TOP-SET -- the name being a mnemonic for the factors to be considered in any investigation. I taught investigative methodology to people from engineering, shipping, aviation, health services, petrochemicals, explosives: you name it, we taught them how to work out what had gone wrong and, more importantly, how to get to the root causes of the incident. Only that way could they prevent similar things happening in the future.

Almost invariably, the root causes of incidents were generically the same: human and organisational. A company drags its heels on upgrading, skimps on routine maintenance in hard times, is lax over training, fails to get safety procedures in place. David Ramsay, managing director of Kelvin TOP-SET, coined a phrase that can apply to even apparently well-run companies: "organisational rust". You start off with everything neatly in place. Over months or years, things slip imperceptibly. But after a while, you're no longer in the safety zone. Then things go wrong. And sometimes, "wrong" is a force 8.9 earthquake and a tsunami.

"All incidents," says Ramsay, "have their roots, not in technology or environmental factors" -- like, say, an earthquake -- "but in people and organisations." High-level decision-making, he says, takes account of the fact that things go wrong (especially in a big way. Yet "building nuclear plants in major earthquake zones is expecting a level of reliability that is simply not possible." You can build in statistical models but that doesn't prevent the Big One happening. And like the Lottery, every event is independent, and not based on a predictable pattern. "So in some ways," Ramsay notes, "the statistics are meaningless, especially when the stakes are catastrophic failure."

What actually went wrong at Fukushima Daiichi will need a full-scale, proper, root-cause investigation. Hopefully it will get one, though -- from personal observation, having worked with them -- I'd say the nuclear industry in general has a tendency to favour exhaustive fact-gathering and box-ticking over rigorous investigative methodology.

But at first sight, it looks as if the underlying causes of the problems at Fukushima Daiichi are nothing to do with nuclear anything. They were to do with simple, old-fashioned pumps. The pumps in place were too low down at got flooded. The mobile pumps couldn't get there because debris blocked the road. Everything else -- at first sight -- stemmed from that.

And yet we focus on the nuclear aspect. One paper asked "Can we ever trust nuclear power again?", as if there were an agency called "nuclear power" which had done something untrustworthy, bad, and silly. The journalist went on to say "Japan faces the prospect of closing down Tokyo and everything that surrounds it" (no it doesn't) and continues: "What’s a milisievert? No, I hadn’t heard the word before, either. It’s a measure of radiation that is compatible with either survival or destruction." While not having heard of a milisievert might make one wary of the author's qualifications to write about them, the rest of it is a sort of ghoulish flesh-creeping which beautifully epitomizes our attitude to nuclear matters.

But truth doesn't come into it when we are dealing with such atavistic responses. You can argue that nuclear power is clean, efficient and safe. You can add that, leaving aside environmental consequences, coal, oil and gas claim more lives and destroy more health. I'd also add that nuclear power is also, if you're lucky enough to see it close up (as I have been) extraordinarily beautiful. The engineering and the science are as lovely and elegant as a Mozart symphony. More than that, mixed-oxide (MOX) reactors, for example -- like Fukushima Daiichi 3 -- burn weapons-grade plutonium. And so they do something of spine-tingling moral elegance: they beat swords into ploughshares.

But the nuclear industry never says that. The nuclear industry never says anything. That's partly because of political sensitivity, partly because of public ignorance and suspicion (and how could the public be otherwise, in the face of such obfuscation?), and partly because when they do make mistakes, the cost, even in money, is astronomical. I personally walked around one major nuclear project which they were just about to set running when someone said "oops" and and observed that it would quite possibly irradiate much of northern Europe. $1 billion dollars were lost there, and the news never got out. Sometimes it pays to be tight-lipped.

The imagery, of nuclear power: that's the problem. It creates awe and incomprehension in equal measure. Invisible death. Sterile children. Cancer with no appeal. Mutant births. Steam and the mushroom cloud on the same continuum. A profound silence and sealed "nuclear caves", the inaudible hum of the music of the spheres, glowing radioactive waste vitrified in great glass blocks for all time... it's the iconography of Revelations, of doomsday, of the sci-fi comic. No wonder we focus on it given the slightest chance.

Some years ago, I was taken to Fukushima Daiichi plant to see the #3 reactor, designed by GE and supplied by Toshiba. It was then ten years old. Now it's 33 years old. A reactor built today would be a very different creature. To turn against nuclear power because an event more improbable than one-in-a-millenium damaged some elderly reactors, and to publish endless scare stories ignoring the far graver plight of Japanese people dispossessed by a literal freak of nature is certainly foolish.

But to demand more openness from nuclear managers and from politicians: that is a case worth fighting. Perhaps if we understood more, the beauty of nuclear power might seem less terrible, and its great benefits to humanity more clear.