Some reflections on nuclear costs

Thoughts inspired by the news near the anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hirishoma and Nagasaki

Britain’s estimated nuclear stockpile is estimated to be 225 warheads, of which no more than 160 are available to be operational at any time, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (http://bos.sagepub.com/content/67/5/89.full.pdf+html). The costs of “cleanup” of Sellafield, the site that produced the plutonium for these bombs is now estimated at 67.5 billion pounds, or about 100 billion dollars (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/sellafield-failed-by-private-cleanup-firms-series-of-expensive-mistakes-has-led-to-review-at-nuclear-plant-8735040.html). A modest amount of electricity was produced there, but far short of the cleanup cost, which may yet rise. More than 100 metric tons of plutonium for civilian purposes were produced but have less than zero value. In simple economic terms, the civilian plutonium is a liability not an asset.

Aerial view Sellafield, Cumbria - geograph.org.uk - 50827
(Aerial view Sellafield, Cumbria. Photo credit Simon Ledingham)

So, as a practical matter, most of the $100 billion must be chalked up as the cost of Britain’s nuclear bombs, since that was the only (arguably) “useful” output. That is roughly $600 million dollars per operational bomb in Sellafield clean up costs alone. Then add remediation of all the other bomb-related sites and the costs of setting up and running the nuclear bomb complex.

In the United States cumulative costs to the year 1996 were about $5.5 trillion (1995 dollars), including not only the bombs, but the delivery systems, personnel, etc. incurred until then. It has been increasing by tens of billions each year since. Cleanup will total hundreds of billions of dollars. And, according to current plans, many sites will be left with significant amounts of contamination. (For an accounting of the U.S. program, See Atomic Audit, Brookings Institute, 1998, ed. Stephen Schwartz. I was one of the authors. It’s available from IEER’s website (http://ieer.org/resource/books/atomic-audit/)

In the meantime, Fuksuhima continues to be an emergency without end – vast amounts of radioactivity, including strontium-90 in the groundwater, evidence of leaks into the sea, the prospect of contaminated seafood. Strontium-90, being a calcium analog, bioaccumulates in the food chain. It is likely to be a seaside nightmare for decades. (Listen to Arjun discuss the ongoing radioactivity leaks in an interview with Living on Earth radio: http://www.loe.org/shows/segments.html?programID=13-P13-00030&segmentID=4)

According to the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/27/world/asia/operator-of-fukushima-plant-criticized-for-delaying-disclosures-on-leaks.html), Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of Japan’s new Nuclear Regulation Authority chairman, recently said:

“The difficulties we face at Fukushima Daiichi are on par with the difficulties we faced in the wake of World War II. Tepco [the Tokyo Electric Power Company] needs more assistance from others in Japan, me included. We cannot force everything on Tepco; that’s probably not going to solve the problem.”

So nuclear power has gone from a promise of “too cheap to meter” to a disaster like the horrific post-war rubble in Japan. And the biggest bang for the buck that was supposed to be the bomb has become endless bucks for the bang. A sad reminder as we approach the anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

From Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima

The political temperature between Japan and China is rising again over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Once more oil appears to be a principal issue – as it was in the period leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The road to Pearl Harbor and from there to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that have shaped so much of the world ever needs to be clearly illuminated, now more than at any time since the end of World War II. The question of whether Japan should consider developing its own nuclear weapons is moving into the political discourse and even some acceptability. The former Governor of Tokyo who resigned to run for national office as head of the newly formed right wing Japan Restoration Party won 61 of the 480 seats in the lower house of Japan’s Parliament (the Diet). Mr. Ishihara has “suggested there is a need for Japan to arm itself with nuclear weapons, expand the military and revise the pacifist constitution,” according to new reports. See more: http://www.theprovince.com/news/Nationalists+take+power+Japan+fire+warning+shot+China/7707292/story.html#ixzz2FLjApjLp

On August 4, 2012 I gave a talk in Santa Fe, New Mexico on the history of US-Japanese relations that led up to rising tensions and the bombing of Pearl Harbor and of events from that time till the use of the atom bombs on Japan. More than 67 years after those bombings, few know that Japanese forces were first targeted on May 5, 1943 as the preferred target for those atom bombs, long before the bombs were built and well before anyone knew when the war would be over. In fact, Germany was explicitly de-targeted on that same date by the Military Policy Committee. Watch a video of the talk here.

This speech has a different perspective in many ways than are common in US discourse of the bombings. One side only discusses the evidence that the bombings were unjustified; the other points to Japanese militarism and the intensity of the violence in the Pacific Theater of World War II to justify the use of the bombs. I sought to affirm the truths in both arguments but added much that has been missing. So I would particularly welcome your comments on this speech and blog post. If you think you’ve learned something new, we encourage you to ask radio stations and television stations to use this material. It was broadcast on KEXP in Seattle shortly after the anniversary of Pearl Harbor earlier this month.

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