12Jan Sean McDonagh’s account of nuclear dangers is ‘truly shocking’

Sean McDonagh has done it again. This time he has given us a truly shocking account of the dangers of the nuclear industry on a worldwide basis. Having devoted the first 50 pages, comprising two of his nine chapters, to the 2011 nuclear accident at Fukushima in Japan, he uses this as a launching-pad to survey the problems associated with the use of nuclear energy on a global basis. In doing so he refers to a quite astonishing number of studies which throw light on inherent difficulties, significant accidents, and widespread cover-ups in a whole range of countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

Among the more striking not-widely-known figures which he gives are the fact that it may take up to 150 years to decommission a nuclear power-station when its lifespan has come to an end; and the fact that the cost of the decommissioning may be perhaps €40 billion. Even more scary is the fact that no really safe place has yet been found to store the hundreds of thousands of tons of nuclear fuel and waste products which are lying around at present. He reminds us that it takes 24,000 years for plutonium 239 to lose even half of its toxicity. And he notes that even a tiny particle, the size of a grain of sand, of some nuclear material can kill a person. One further frightening point is the close link between civilian use of nuclear power and the development of nuclear weapons: it is estimated that, of the 60 countries which currently have civilian nuclear power plants, 20 have used these facilities to undertake covert research on a weapons programme.

Sean points out the danger of the ‘light-touch regulation’ which has come into vogue in recent years in the Western world, and the further risks of developing a nuclear industry in countries where many of the contract-employees have little education or training in this kind of work. He documents the extent to which the nuclear industry is supported by government subsidies and by failure to take account of its full costs, particularly the long-term cost of environmental pollution. He puts forward quite strong arguments to show that, if these overt and hidden subsidies were not available, alternative environmentally-friendly energy sources such as solar or wind power would turn out to be much less costly, even within the next few years, not to mention the long-term benefits.

In his final chapter Sean provides us with an interesting survey of the objections to nuclear power put forward by Catholic Church authorities in six different countries. He contrasts this with the favourable attitude taken by the Vatican until very recently. Then he notes the apparent change of attitude in a movement towards disapproval evident in a speech of the Vatican representative to the International Atomic Energy Association a few months after the Fukushima accident.

Sean’s treatment of the Fukushima accident is very thorough, but I would have preferred if he had tightened it up somewhat to avoid repetition. However, this is a very minor reservation compared with the overall value of this important book.

BOOK DETAILS: Sean McDonagh, FUKUSHIMA: The End of Nuclear Energy? Dublin (Columba Press: 2012), 165 pages.

This review was first published in the January 2013 edition of The Furrow.

5 Responses

  1. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    I’m not an expert on all things nuclear but I know what my heart tells me. I recommend that everyone in Ireland show support for their local Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and also to go to the Global Zero website and sign their treaty.

    Please visit the following site and watch a very poignant video entitled “Turn the Tide” by a two young artists: Mark Boutilier is a vocalist from my home town on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia and Raphael Chicha is a young videographer based in Paris, France. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1B0f6CmGFs

    The single, Turn the Tide was written by me – was uploaded to Youtube one month prior to the Fukushima disaster. I am sure you can’t post this but here are the lyrics to the song :

    Standing in a different place, I can’t see but a reflected fate.
    These four walls can’t surround me
    Looking for a different race can we really keep this pace
    And has the norm…has it drowned me?
    Survivors of consequence, this ain’t our deliverance
    Did you recieve it? I don’t think I got it man, and I don’t want it until it’s time.
    Victims of circumstance, we don’t get a second chance…
    Do you believe this, would you have conceived this?
    I think it’s time to turn the tide.
    Staring down the same abyss a desperate chance was missed, and now the time has come again.
    Realize that it’s within your mind, this animal called humankind,
    We are begging, begging to be saved.
    Endlessly drifting, timelessly shifting – it’s time to turn the tide.

    What the story tells us is that we are only as helpless as our courage permits. Are we ever truly delivered from evil or is it a constant battle that is waged and depending the reality, swings from one side to the other? Where does that place us now? In the same place we were 2000 years ago. We have, just as we have always had, an ongoing opportunity to enact the changes we want to see in the world. All it takes is a little courage and the right strategy. This has a direct link to what the Assocations are trying to accomplish. I believe that if the Associations can force a world wide vote of parishioners on items that require immediate attention in the Roman Catholic Church, this will create a snowball effect on modern democratic activity that the world has not seen. The things we have “willed” into existence can not be forced away through normal political channels anymore. We now need world wide votes to settle a few important items that affect the entire population. Agreed?

  2. Mary O Vallely

    Sean McDonagh has my total respect and admiration for continually pointing out what we are doing to our world – like another prophet, 82year-old anti-nuclear activist, Sr Megan Rice, who is facing charges again of breaching security at a nuclear plant (she never gives up – what a woman!)
    I haven’t read Sean’s book and admit to having an ostrich-like tendency to bury my head in the sand when it comes to environmental issues – despite Sean’s warning that even a tiny grain-sized particle of nuclear material can kill a person. Yet still I bury my head, afraid to lift it up and face reality.
    However, I do not want to be plagued with despair and Lear-like guilt at the end of my life with a: “Oh, I have ta’en too little care of this” .
    I must read this book.

  3. George Reynolds

    Fr McDonagh should stick to religion. The book is so full of inaccuracies that it is difficult to sum them up here. The Japanese authorities estimate 40 years to decommission the damaged reactor, not 150 years; an undamaged one can be decommissioned in 30 years – there is one currently being decommissioned in Brittany if anyone wants to go and have a look. The cost of decommissioning is built into the electricity price. Fr. McDonagh uses physical units incorrectly e.g. millisieverts are written mSv and not “ms” as in the book – even a leaving cert student should know that, and “ms” means metres-seconds, which has nothing to do with radiation! With regard to safe storage of nuclear waste, it might interest the author and his readers to know that there was a nuclear reactor in operation by bacteria (incredible, but true!) 2 billion years ago at Oklo in Gabon. Hot water and bacterial action managed to enrich U-235 to the point where fission took place naturally – don’t worry, can’t happen today as the U-235 in the planet has decayed faster than the non-fissile U-238. The waste products from this natural reactor have not moved more than 150 metres from the core in 2000 million years, so clearly ONE safe place – and there are plenty more in stable geological formations. So a tiny particle of polonium can kill someone? – big deal! – so can the Ebola virus and many chemicals and even natural substances. In fact, the most virulent poison is natural – ricin, extracted from the castor bean plant. This was used to poison the Bulgarian journalist Georgy Markov in London with a metal ball from a ballpoint pen with a tiny hole drilled into it and filled with ricin. Unlike polonium ricon is not radioactive and could not be easily detected. Polonium is highly radioactive and can at least be detected and traced. Usually administered by the KGB because it decays rapidly its storage life is very poor. Finally, he talks about subsidies to nuclear power companies, well take a look at the “public service levy” on your electricity bill – this is paid to the operators of windmills and Bord na Mona. If that isn’t a subsidy, then I’m a theologian!

  4. Andrew Creed

    What about the 19000 people who died in the tsunami? At least the evacuees are alive and have their families with them. About 30% have returned to their homes and community-based clean-up and decontamination projects are in progress under strict supervision.

    Those who lost families, homes and even cherished possessions like photo albums and personal items are devastated financially and mentally. The Japanese have had to learn to grieve and express their feelings. The real danger was and still is, to those who live near the sea in a tsunami-prone region.

    Contrast this with the fact that only eight people died at Fukushima, two from falling masonry, one from a heart attack and five disabled were left behind in the confusion and died of starvation.

    Japan is now importing fossil fuel oil and gas while the debate about re-opening their 50 nuclear power plants continues.

  5. mjt

    The UK. Government will be delighted to hear from Mr George Reynolds that the costs of decommissioning nuclear power stations have been built into the process.
    However, in its first report, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, a body which could be trusted to know the figures if not indeed to understate them, estimates that £56bn, at least £8bn. more than was forecast, will have to be spent cleaning up 20 sites, and that inadequate historic records mean that the precise contents of Sellafield and Dounreay are unknown. “Consequently, we have yet to choose the best way to retrieve the materials safely and without endangering the environment. Current plans assume that after initial work for 10 or 15 years, the `more difficult pieces` are dealt with some 70 years later. That’s leaving the problem for future generations and throughout that period you’ve got the problem of storage, safety, security,” Sir Anthony Cleaver, NDA chairman Sir Anthony said, who is pushing for an accelerated clean-up, with, it is suspected, hopes and plans for new generation reactors to come, despite widespread and well-informed opposition.
    But if we believe Mr George Reynolds, there`s nothing to worry about, and it`s already all paid for. He should contact the NDA and explain it all to them, as obviously they don`t know.
    As for his preposterous example of the naturalness and indeed safety of fission reactions, the bacterial nuclear reactor in Gabon, that too will be most welcome news to the NDA. They–and we-don’t have to worry about a thing. If we just wait long enough, it will all go away. Commentators on Chernoble and Fukushima exaggerated the effects, and as Andrew Creed points out, not too many people died. We should all be more worried about the cost of wind-generation.