One argument often made in support of nuclear energy is that opposition is based on irrational fears of radiation. Because it is impossible to prove a death, illness or genetic mutation was caused by radiation, proponents can claim that objections are based on emotion rather than reason. Stress-induced radiophobia causes most of the health effects, according to this view. They claim that nuclear weapons ensure peace, that nuclear reactors are the safest and cleanest form of energy, and that nuclear disasters have caused very little harm compared with disasters related to other forms of energy. Leaving aside the veracity of these claims, let’s just consider the implications of saying these supposedly irrational fears should be ignored when planning industrial policy. There are many scientific studies and expert voices that have spoken to the dangers of nuclear technologies, but here I leave this point aside and ask this question: Even if a community’s reasons for rejecting nuclear technologies were based on emotions, would it be justifiable to ignore their choice?
In fact, I have a Swiftian modest proposal on this matter. No one knows what to do with the toxic by-products of nuclear fission that have been generated by nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons factories. The original plan was to bury them, though I think the best way to describe this plan is to call it “deep geological suppositories into mother earth” because this term implies the eventual absorption of the inserted material. Regardless of the terminology, burial projects have met with local opposition or have been rejected because the sites were found to be unsuitable for “scientific” reasons. Some burial projects moved ahead, but soon there were disastrous leaks revealed by the projects’ design flaws (Asse in Germany and the WIPP facility in New Mexico, for example).
Disposal projects have to be proven safe, but the only way to do that “scientifically” would be to test them for a thousand years and see what happens. If over that time the containment hoeld up and there were no leaks, explosions or fires spreading contamination to the ecosystem, then the project could move ahead. The alternative is to practice rolling-stewardship—management of the nuclear waste above ground from generation to generation for as long as it takes to resolve the problem. This solution may be preferable, but it has the same problem as burial. No one can guarantee the ability of future generations to properly care for nuclear wastes and keep them isolated from the ecosystem.
My modest proposal for this problem is that nuclear wastes should be kept above ground and kept in the very places we love the most, the ones that are most likely to be attended to by future generations. Since humans put their cities in the locations most favorable for trade, agriculture and industry, and since they love to honor their most traditional and sacred sites over thousands of years, or to study them as mysterious archaeological ruins, these are the places where we should leave our nuclear wastes in order to make sure no one forgets about them. Let’s have above-ground storage sites in lower Manhattan, right in front of the New York Stock Exchange, or in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Elsewhere, secure nuclear waste cannisters could be stored at Canterbury Cathedral, Notre Dame Cathedral, Mecca, Jerusalem, Red Square, and Tiananmen Square.
Now I can hear the shouts of protest. People will protest that these culturally important sites should not be vulgarized this way. These sites are national monuments, national treasures, or the most sacred religious sites for millions of people of religious faith. But to this I have to say, “Hey, settle down now. Aren’t you being too emotional?”
You get the point. If anyone objects to this modest proposal, we must simply ask how a student visiting the Lincoln Memorial is any different than the farmer in Fukushima who wants to live down the street from the cemetery where his ancestors are buried. A rational response to this question has to be that they are no different. They all just have to get over their irrational denial of the science that says nuclear technologies are “safe” and “manageable” in whatever way the sound men of science choose to define these terms. All people who want to cling to sentiments of national pride, religious faith and traditional custom must simply be disabused of their quaint beliefs in order to make way for the technological utopia that will be totally detached from all human-generated emotional biases.
But of course rational planning has always taken account of humanity’s irrational preferences when it was politically expedient to do so. The more successful revolutionaries of history knew they had to accommodate religion and traditions in order to succeed. Military forces have learned the importance of avoiding damage to sacred burial grounds and places of cultural significance. And, of course, everyone from soldiers and engineers up to military and corporate titans have always promoted their own irrational patriotism, preparation for war, and wealth accumulation as a rationale for developing nuclear technologies. Their emotional stake in the game remains unexplored as they fall back on clichés about saving jobs, fighting terrorism, and underpinning the economy.
If you ponder the issue long enough, you realize all supposedly rational planning is based on emotions, on unquestioned common sense assumptions about what makes us feel good. Emotions evolved in certain ways to increase chances of survival and reproduction. Rational thought actually evolved as a subordinate of emotion, a tool to help us obtain what makes us happy. Liberal democracy was founded in the 18th century—in the Age of Reason—on the pursuit of “happiness,” which is itself a term that is ambiguous. What did it mean to people in the 18th century? Individual happiness, selfish satisfaction, or social harmony? In any case, the dichotomy between the rational and irrational just does not exist the way it is commonly conceived by the military, financial and technocratic elite. This is something to bear in mind when we hear talk of “irrational opposition” to nuclear waste burial and the constant denial of what has been taken from nuclear disaster refugees in Fukushima and other sites of industrial contamination.