Thursday April 23rd, 2015, The Environmental Arts and Humanities Program held a public, interdisciplinary panel discussion on nuclear power and the environment in remembrance of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki nearly three quarters of a century ago. Students and faculty gathered in the Special Collections and Archives Research Center on the fifth floor of the Valley Library, and after an introduction by program director Jacob Hamblin, panelists shared their own perspectives on nuclear power, and opened the floor for public questions and discussion.
Panelists were Laurel Kincl of the College of Public Health and Human Sciences, Andy Klein of the Department of Nuclear Radiation and Health Physics, political science specialist Keith Baker from the School of Public Policy, and historian of science Linda Richards from the School of History, Philosophy, and Religion.
Dr. Mark Mills testifies before the Congressional Joint Atomic Energy Committee on the effects of radioactive fallout (Photo courtesy the Library of Congress)
Dr. Kincl opened the panel with an emphasis on environmental and occupational health. Today, we are constantly surrounded in electromagnetic, non-ionizing radiation. This radiation- which is produced by cell phones and other electrical devices that we use almost every moment of our day to day lives- is of a much lower frequency than forms of ionizing radiation known to be harmful, yet we still know little about the exact long term health effects that our current technology dependent lifestyles will have.
Following with an appeal to the importance of SCARC’s nuclear history collection, Dr. Klein discussed Ted Rockwell’s book “The Rickover Effect”. As a professor of health physics who teaches a class on nuclear history, Klein lamented the lack of work done on the history of nuclear power and engineering, which Rickover was largely responsible for initiating as an industrial practice and a discipline.
Dr. Baker then summed up six years of his own research on nuclear reactors in the following sentence: “They’re too expensive to build, too expensive to run, and too expensive to dismantle.” Baker detailed his impressions of the lack of financial backing for a large scale transition to nuclear power as an issue of risk assessment for potential investors. Investors are able to quantify the start up capital (around ten billion) and construction risks, as well as the long term contract (a minimum of sixty years). They cannot easily quantify the global risks of fossil fuel reliance, though they are aware of this issue. Thus, without changes in government regulation or increased subsidies for nuclear power plant production, atomic energy remains financially implausible in the United States.
Coming full circle to return the panel discussion to the human element of nuclear environments, Dr. Richards read a poem entitled The Day the Train Stopped, in which she described a thoughtful journey from the Kyoto Museum for World Peace interrupted by a suicide on the tracks. Linking the ennui of postmodernity to the hopelessness of such deaths as this railway suicide, American atomic soldiers, and the victims of the 1945 atomic bombings in Japan, Richards painted a picture of a world in which nuclear waste continues to pile up, weapons remain armed, and we are all still waiting for the bomb to drop.
In discussion, issues were raised such as the effects of the Fukushima meltdown, the potential for designing and implementing small modular nuclear reactors, the proper way to deal with nuclear waste, and how to best accomplish outreach to exposed communities when exposure levels themselves are contested ‘facts’.
Through the discussion among panelists and audience members, more questions on the relationship between nuclear power and the environment are perhaps raised than answered. What this dialogue accomplished, though, went beyond a memorial to the nuclear tragedies of our conflicted past. By fostering interdisciplinary discussion on these important topics, first steps are taken here at Oregon State toward a constructive conversation across potentially divisive academic lines to find areas of agreement concerning our shared future. As nuclear talks in Iran are weakened by policy decisions on both sides of the Atlantic, and as the United States prepares to modernize its nuclear arsenal, this dialogue is important as ever: We can only hope that 70 years from now we’re celebrating what good comes out of it.