The Castle Bravo incident

In my previous discussion of the disasters of the nuclear age, there was one that I probably should have mentioned. To be honest, I had never heard of it. That itself speaks volumes about the influence of certain mindsets on the nuclear debate. The incident I’m talking about came to be known as the ‘Castle Bravo’ incident, and it remains the worst example of US caused nuclear contamination ever.

You may never have heard of Castle Bravo, but you probably heard of its flow on effects. Ever heard of Godzilla?

Early in the morning of March 1, 1954, the USA detonated the most powerful weapon it has yet detonated. The ‘Bravo’ test of Operation Castle, this bomb was designed to study the efficacy of ‘dry fuel’ fusion nuclear weapons (hydrogen bombs). Originally planned to be around 5 megatons in power, the actual blast was on the order of 15 megatons.

Photo of the Castle Bravo test fireball, an immense fireball seen from a great distance, the sky is dark because of how bright it is.

The Castle Bravo explosion from 30 miles away. Los Alamos National Laboratory.

This highlights some of the problems in the scientific culture at the time (and to a lesser extent, today), as the scientists involved were completely sure that what they had planned would happen. A vast miscalculation about the behaviour of the fuel resulted in the enormous blast, but this miscalculation had further effects as the safety protocols developed for the test underestimated the strength of the explosion. In the ensuing chaos, many military personnel were exposed to high levels of radioactive fallout.

In addition to the size of the explosion, there was also a meteorological miscalculation, that resulted in the fallout cloud drifting towards the Marshall Islands, instead of away from them. The populations of the effected islands are still unable to return. A Japanese fishing vessel was also hit hard, with one man dying, which caused a significant political issue with the US.

Because they messed it up so much, the US government was forced to go public about the test, in one moment revealing the extent of their nuclear research to the USSR, but also revealing to the world the terrifying strength of nuclear weapons (especially the effects of radiation and fallout).

The Castle Bravo test is said by some to be the first incident to spark ‘radiophobia‘ around the world, with the dangers being made visible through the suffering of the Japanese and Pacific Islander bystanders and the members of the military who were inadvertently exposed.

In terms of the nuclear power debate, as I said in my previous post, these events have the power to impact the public in a way that cannot simply be undone by presenting facts. Too often, such as in the case of the Chernobyl or Sellafield, the public (or the government) is assured of the safety of a particular scenario, and it is only after problems have developed that the scientists critically evaluate their work (if ever). To combat radiophobia and the negative impacts of these sort of events, much more needs to be done than just reiterating facts at people.

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The ‘Trinity’ video and above ground testing

I want to take this post to show and discuss a video I found while doing research for this blog.

This video is probably the best example I have seen of a video that really shows the largely undiscussed issue of above ground testing. It also goes a long way to explain the issues that many people have with nuclear power, and it also shows the responsibility that people have to ensure that their government abides by rules that the rest of the world will be comfortable with.

In the US alone, ‘Operation Plumbbob’, which only ran from May to October 1957, resulted in 29 above ground nuclear detonations in the Nevada desert, and is predicted to have increased the rate of thyroid cancer in the US by 1-20 thousand cases per year since (1).

All of the detonations you see in the middle of the Pacific Ocean are from the so called ‘Pacific Proving Ground’, an area of around 360,000 km² in which the US set off 105 atmospheric detonations, including many that dropped fallout on inhabited islands (5).

The largest human made explosion ever set off, the Tsar Bomba (Царь-бомба), was a nuclear bomb detonated by the USSR in far norther Russia. It was an above ground detonation and the blast wave is thought to have circled the world more than three times, and broke windows as far away as Norway (6). (It was the large detonation at about 3 minutes 30 into the video.)

Between 1954–1992, 520 atmospheric test detonations have been conducted by states around the world. It was only with the introduction of the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, that the US and the USSR (the two biggest contributors) stopped detonating above ground (4). (Of course many countries kept testing after this, and the US and USSR kept testing underground.)

The US EPA has a great page detailing the levels of contamination around the world, as well as the effects of the contamination on human populations, here.

When talking about issues that involve nuclear physics, it is important to remember this type of information. Even if you are trying to win your arguement based solely on a factual basis, it is imperative that you take in to consideration the vast amounts of pain and suffering many different groups of people aroudn the world have been through, before you attempt to dismiss the worries of safety. If people don’t feel safe, then it is probably because you have not explain it well enough. Of course there will always be people who are opposed, but you still cannot disregard their (legitimate) feelings on the subject.

Many countries have paid out monetary compensation to those people who have suffered because of this kind of testing, but money (while helpful) probably does little to assuage their trauma.

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The pro-nuclear movement: an introduction

So far, when discussing the major players in this field, I have looked at the anti-nuclear movement, in an earlier post which charted their history, development and current status. This blog will be a bit different to that, as the pro-nuclear movement is much harder to define. Not only is there not a singular ‘pro-nuclear’ movement as there is with anti-s, there are also a lot more vested interests in nuclear technology, which confound the definition slightly.

One of the most blatant (but probably not demonstrative) differences between those that support and those that oppose nuclear is the fact that the former has a dedicated Wikipedia page:

while the latter has merely a list of environmentalists that support it:

I suppose, besides those with commercial interests, it’s hard to pin down the pro-nuclear movement because for a long time the anti-nuclear movement was the minority. There was no-need for the ‘establishment’ to directly interact with the protesters, because the majority of the public supported them. With rhetoric like Eisenhower’s ‘Atoms for Peace’ speech, most in the West were probably ambivalent or directly in support of nuclear power.

But then let’s go back to that Wikipedia page, “List of pro-nuclear environmentalists”. Now those with pro-nuclear leanings are in the opposite situation, they are the other, with the anti’s being the norm. Slate has a good article (here) that has a good discussion about the changing nature of the nuclear debate, and the problems faced by those environmentalists who take a pragmatic approach to fighting climate change [I may do a whole post on it in the future actually].

Brave New Climate has a really good blog about this very issue (here), and in it, the author talks about the fact that there is a ‘movement’ associated with the anti-nuclear position. This sense of a distinct identity and collective will is missing from the pro-nuclear side, and it seems that because of this, there will always be a louder anti-nuclear voice drowning them out. As the author notes, the pro-nuclear side is reduced to individuals talking on their soapbox and calls to reason and to ‘just run the numbers’.

The biggest difference seems to be the language used by the two groups. People who are pro-nuclear seem to be much more likely to use fact and reason-based arguments, whereas the anti-nuclear people seem to be more likely to engage in emotional arguments. I’ve put a video below of a debate hosted by TED around nuclear power. If you watch it you will see that both of the speakers start off talking calmly and attempting to use facts to persuade people. However, the anti-nuclear speaker starts to weave a bit of emotion into his presentation when talking about the threat of nuclear disaster, and when given the chance to speak again on the rebuttal of his opponent, he seems visibly emotional and he resorts to sarcastic comments and unfounded statements that don’t actually address his opponents arguments. This is not to say that pro-nuclear speakers never get emotional, it just seems that it is a much more common tactic in the anti-nuclear movement.

However, there are some similarities between these two opposing viewpoints. Like Greenpeace for the anti-nuclear movement, there are organisations like the World Nuclear Association and the Nuclear Energy Institute in the US. These bodies however, are much more corporatised than the anti-nuclear movement (probably a vestige of their activist past) and are much more involved with governmental lobbying activities rather than trying to influence public opinion. The other big similarity is that both sides have the planet’s best interests in mind, both camps are championed by environmentalists, mostly concerned with climate change.

The problem seems to be now that there is no action on either front. If either side were to “win”, at least something would change. Perhaps the best option for these two camps is for them to team up against those who would argue that nothing needs to be done.

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Nuclear vs. GMO, similar controversies?

Last night I went to an event to promote the release of a book about scientific controversies and the interaction between the scientific community and the broader public sphere.

During his speech (and I checked, it’s the same in his book), this author compared the controversies and public debates on nuclear power with the more recent controversy surround the introduction of GMOs into the food supply.

I must admit, I have a bit of a personal interest in the GMO debate, as my undergraduate degree was in plant biotechnology. So, while I am always willing to talk to and debate about GMOs, I must admit it was a little bit interesting to hear this author make such a comparison.

On the surface, the debates can look quite similar. The proponents of both industries use similar points to argue in favour of their technology: that their technology is about making a cleaner, more productive and more efficient world, with less damaging effects on the environment (controversial, I know). The opponents of both of these technologies also campaign in a similar vein, with common frames between them: ‘science gone mad’, public health risks, ‘the benefits don’t outweigh the risk’, and that science is ‘playing “God”‘. They are also both mainly public controversies, as the scientists behind the technologies have mostly resolved any doubts over the safety and efficacy of their respective technologies.

However, I think that these debates are not as similar as it might seem. While both use technologies that are seen as extremely complex and dangerous, but when you compare where they came from, they’re really different. GMO technology is just a small, logical progression from advanced breeding techniques developed over the last century, which in turn are based on breeding techniques developed since humans started farming. Contrast this with nuclear power, whose closest technological relative is probably high explosives; they are not even in the same ballpark as nuclear power, technology-wise or danger-wise.

Also, I think the most important distinction between nuclear and GMO is the fact that there has never been any documented harm to humans from GMO technologies. As previously discussed, the anti-nuclear movement has every right to play upon the danger of nuclear power, given the damage done by the few nuclear accidents there have been (not to mention all the damage done by intentional bombings and above-ground testing). To conflate Chernobyl and Hiroshima with the imagined potential harms of GMOs not only minimises the suffering of those involved in those incidents, but also negatively effects the campaign to promote GMOs, which are trying to solve many of the problems that we face in the world today.

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Also, just because it’s my pet topic, if you have any doubts about GMOs, please watch this video of Mark Lynas, a former anti-GMO activist, speaking to the Oxford Farming Conference in 2013: