Nuclear Power: How Do We Decide What is True?

In Friends Journal of August 2011, Karen Street provided us a needed reminder of the human cost of the continuing reliance on coal and petroleum products. Her rosy account of the Fukushima disaster and the safety of nuclear energy, however, is full of highly questionable claims.

Evidence uncovered by scientists, not disaster-seeking journalists, has established that the radiation releases were much larger, more widespread, and more dangerous than the Japanese government or the officials of the plant initially revealed. The reactors were damaged by the quake itself, not merely from the tsunami. Their cores experienced meltdown and fuel pools were damaged. Bits of plutonium were found 45 miles from Fukushima. Radiation rates were far above acceptable levels miles beyond the 12-mile evacuation zone. Children outside the evacuation zone have received dosages above those acceptable for nuclear workers. Food and water are contaminated. Ocean radiation is triple what we were told. Even if workers are able to cool the reactors by next January, as the owners hope, the cost of the disaster will be astronomical.

Quite simply, I challenge the factual validity of Street’s account of the nuclear disaster. Why do I trust the data I have collected and not hers? In a world with competing claims, how do we know what to believe what is true? Quakers have a long tradition of caring about truth and honesty, and I believe we need to address the question of how we decide what is true.

Friends have always considered truth as experiential, to be known as individuals and to be considered in community. Today many of the facts of the world come from outside our individual or community experience. When we turn to experts, we find they disagree. Rejecting all experts and depending only on our own emotional inclinations only cuts us off from any reality beyond ourselves. Like many people today, we become boxed in by our own prejudices and misguided anger.

Truth exists and we lose sight of it at our peril, but we need to find ways to chose between the conflicting accounts we are given.

As a first step we need to consider the sources and the evidence of those who ask us to believe their claims of factual truths. We do not need to "demonize" someone to decide their version of events is wrong. We do need to realize that corporations and governments have a stake in minimizing risks rather than acknowledging they occur. Their power depends on our believing we are safe. Knowing their stake in their downplaying risk, we should be aware of their possible bias and be skeptical of them. We have a need and a right to question them and to know the worst case scenarios, not simply the best, that may occur.

In the case of Fukushima, press reports and the statements from authorities responsible for dealing with the disaster were not our only options for information. Not all nuclear experts work for nuclear corporations. Some scientists who have worked in nuclear industry in the past have left and now work for organizations seeking to end our reliance on nuclear energy or to minimize its risks. Yes, they have their own biases, but they give us a point of view and evidence with which we can evaluate statements for the nuclear industry.

When I compare what independent scientists say about Fukushima with the information given by plant representatives, I am first struck by how official statements are often vague and contradictory. In contrast, independent scientists present evidence and explain what it means in precise terms. They explain why they disagree with official versions. The officials usually brush this evidence aside rather than give credible explanations or evidence for their position.

The same pattern is true for the nuclear industry as a whole. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and other industry speakers just tell us to trust them. Those who challenge them give detailed evidence for their positions. The critics of nuclear energy would like to end reliance on nuclear energy, but they usually focus on specific risks which they believe are not being adequately addressed. The questions they raise make sense. Why haven’t nuclear power plants been assessed regularly for their vulnerability to earthquakes as other types of buildings are? Why aren’t plants inspected more regularly and thoroughly, and why aren’t the problems which are found resolved? Why do we assume normal traffic flows would continue if a plant on the outskirts of New York City were to melt down?

Life was easier when we had authorities we could trust. But today we simply don’t. One of the lessons of Fukushima is that accurate knowledge is sometimes hard to establish. We have to learn to critically examine issues and choose carefully which accounts to believe. At the same time we must not let ourselves be caught by the false choice of nuclear power versus costly energy from petroleum and coal.

Information for this article was taken from the Union of Concerned Scientists, Beyond Nuclear, and Arnie Gunderson of Fairewinds.

Marilyn Dell Brady
Alpine, Tex.