Three years after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant melted down in Japan, officials are still grappling with the structural and ecological fallout from the disaster. Meanwhile, the ripple effects from Fukushima have forced other countries to rethink or shutter altogether their nuclear power programs. It’s a response that follows a historical love-hate relationship with the power, potential and peril of nuclear energy. Kojo and author Craig Nelson explore the history and legacy of nuclear science and its future for the planet.

Guests

  • Craig Nelson Biographer; Author of "The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era" and "Rocket Men"

Read An Excerpt

Excerpted from THE AGE OF RADIANCE: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era. Copyright © 2014 by Craig Nelson. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Transcript

  • 13:32:34

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIOn November 20, 1983 nearly half of U.S. households gathered around their televisions for the ABC movie "The Day After." It was the height of the Cold War. And for many viewers the movie's images of a nuclear attack and its horrific aftermath only reinforced the fear of a power that had already caused a partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. Three decades later those fears have largely diminished but the legacy of nuclear power remains. From the meltdown at Fukushima to high-powered medical scans and even your kitchen appliances, the promise and the peril of nuclear science is a daily reality.

  • 13:33:10

    MR. KOJO NNAMDISo why are we still so conflicted about nuclear power? Can we live with it or can we not live without it? And what does the future hold for nuclear science? Joining us to help answer all of these questions is Craig Nelson. He's a biographer and author of the book "The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era." He's also the author of "Rocket Men." Craig Nelson joins us from NPR studios at Brian Park. Craig, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:33:37

    MR. CRAIG NELSONThank you, Kojo. It's so great to be with you again.

  • 13:33:40

    NNAMDIYour book comes out during an inauspicious month in nuclear history. March marks the third anniversary of the disaster at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant and the 35th anniversary of Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. Fukushima is still frequently in the headlines. And now we're starting to hear reports of radioactive cesium reaching the west coast. With all the information we have now about what happened at Fukushima, how does that disaster compare with Three Mile Island and Chernobyl?

  • 13:34:11

    NELSONWell, for starters, they're all in fact very different kinds of accidents. I like to say that Americans first learned about nuclear power when the Three Mile Island catastrophe happened simultaneously with the movie that -- "The China Syndrome" coming out. So what we learned about nuclear power was from Jane Fonda's introduction to power plants melting down all the way to China at the same time it appeared to be happening in Pennsylvania.

  • 13:34:39

    NNAMDITrue.

  • 13:34:39

    NELSONBut, in fact, the mishandling of government and industry in that instance was the fact that they could never explain to people that even though there were these catastrophic things that happened, a series of operator errors, a series of management mistakes, a series of terrible public comments by industry and government, the safety effects of Fukushima -- I mean, I'm sorry, of Three Mile Island helped. And that's what was missing there.

  • 13:35:07

    NELSONAs far as Fukushima goes, the worries about the water coming over on the Pacific are wildly exaggerated, especially in comparison to the fact that right now China is exporting its air pollution to California. And the Midwest is exporting its air pollution to us on the east coast because of coal. So those two crises are more pressing than anything happening in the Pacific Ocean.

  • 13:35:35

    NNAMDICraig, Tokyo Electric Power, TEPCO, is still struggling to store radioactive water that's being continually pumped out of the plant. But what is life like now for the residents and communities around Fukushima? Is it essentially a no man's land?

  • 13:35:50

    NELSONIt is a giant -- essentially a giant waste dump. They are trying to clean it up entirely, which means washing down every structure, digging up the topsoil, removing all leaves. So they have all of this stuff in these giant garbage bags, massive pristine garbage bags everywhere. But I can't believe that the same thing that happened at Chernobyl is going to happen at Fukushima, that the meltdown is going to enter their water supply and that they're going to have to abandon the territory.

  • 13:36:23

    NELSONSo the Pacific fear is wildly overreaction but we're not hearing about the groundwater issue. And I'm quite sure that's going to happen.

  • 13:36:31

    NNAMDIJudging from history, Craig, is rehabilitating the area around a contamination zone a good idea?

  • 13:36:39

    NELSONNo, because what happens is that we're used to being afraid of fallout. But in fact, fallout is pretty easy to protect yourself from. As long you don't inhale it or swallow it you can go take a shower and the dangers from fallout are completely taken away. That's why in the movie "Silkwood" Meryl Streep is always being scrubbed down by men in showers because she was contaminated -- had airborne contamination.

  • 13:37:08

    NELSONThe frightening part is when it melts through the floor and then comes up through the ground, which did not happen at Three Mile Island but did happen in Chernobyl. And as far as what they're saying about leaks going on, as far as I can tell, will be happening at Fukushima. And in that case you cannot kick up the dust and breathe it. Even thought they have tourist operations going to the Chernobyl site so you can see a post apocalyptic era circa 1979, they have a -- you have to be very careful where you step. And I certainly wouldn't eat any locally grown produce.

  • 13:37:46

    NNAMDICraig Nelson. He's a biographer and author of the book "The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era." We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Has nuclear energy been a blessing for humanity, a curse, both? What do you remember from the Cold War days? Did you do duck and cover drills at school? Did the physicists and engineers who created nuclear bombs create the ultimate tool also for peace or the ultimate weapon of war, 800-433-8850? Craig, the Ukrainians turned Chernobyl into a zone of alienation. What is it like today?

  • 13:38:22

    NELSONIsn't that a fantastic word, the zone of alienation? I hope Jonathan Franzen will call his next book "The Zone of Alienation." Anyway, so what's going on there is fascinating because on the one hand because almost all the people have moved out, there actually are still quite a few people living there secretly, sort of like smugglers living under the government's nose. But because so many people have moved out, all of the wildlife have moved back in. And it's actually become almost like protected forest land. And it's one of the most thriving bio environments in all of Europe.

  • 13:39:00

    NELSONThat said, it's also a scientific laboratory for people who want to discover the effects of radiation on biology. And the tests that they're coming back with are very conflicted. For example, they're able to find that they'll find a pile of moose bones and they'll realize that was a wolf meal. And they'll test the bones and the bones will be wildly radioactive. But it doesn't seem to be effecting the wolf population negatively.

  • 13:39:28

    NELSONAnd the same thing is true, they've been testing the population of barn swallows. And the barn swallows have an increased rate of -- albino is an albinism and they have a reduced brain size. But that also doesn't seem to be affecting the overall population. The most interesting thing -- and this just came out to me -- the most interesting thing is that the radiation has so decimated the bacteria in the soil that the dead matter from the trees and the plants is not decomposing like it would normally. So you're having this very slow motion decomposition because of the lack of bacteria in the mulch.

  • 13:40:07

    NNAMDIIn "The Age of Radiance," you write a gripping account of the Fukushima 50, the workers who stayed in the plant to control the meltdown. Can you tell us a little bit about Fukushima's first responders and what happened to them?

  • 13:40:20

    NELSONWell, the story there that Americans don't really understand is that the combination of the earthquake and the tsunami made it impossible for people to get there. There were -- all the roads were destroyed. And then they -- all they needed, actually, was to get one big water pump to the site to pump water. They have these fantastic water pumps for firefighting against aviation disasters. But they couldn't get those pumps into the site from Tokyo, because the transportation infrastructure had just been collapsed.

  • 13:40:52

    NELSONSo what they were doing was really going in blind to try and fix these various things. The inspectors, the onsite agency inspectors, had all fled. So they couldn't offer any judgment. And almost all of the tools they would use -- the instruments they would use to measure the radiation, they were all busted. So these guys -- many of whom actually used to be Yakuza, they were from the Japanese mafia, and many of them were day laborers from the slums of Tokyo and Kobe -- they would go in and they were sort of -- there were actually 400 all-told of the Fukushima 50...

  • 13:41:29

    NNAMDIMm-hmm.

  • 13:41:29

    NELSON...and they would cycle in and out of the plant to try and keep anyone from being too radioactive. But these guys took such chances, they got exposed severely anyway.

  • 13:41:39

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Craig Nelson. His latest book is called "The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era." He's also the author of "Rocket Men." You can call us at 800-433-8850. Can the world, in your view, do without nuclear power? 800-433-8850. Or send email to kojo@wamu.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:43:49

    NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Craig Nelson. He's the author of "The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era." He's also author of "Rocket Men." He joins us from NPR studios at Bryant Park. Craig, reports about whether the plume of radioactive particles leaked in the Pacific from Fukushima, whether it will be harmful to beachgoers on the West Coast remains a big question mark, which you addressed a little earlier. But I wonder if you could put this in perspective for us in terms of what our daily exposure to radiation is like, and how much is too much?

  • 13:44:22

    NELSONWell, Kojo, five years ago, before I started working on this book, I probably thought what many people do, that radiation is rare and extremely dangerous. If you said the word radioactivity to me, I would think danger, cancer, sinister, infestation, all these kinds of words. And then I started working on this and I found out that radioactivity is all around us. It's bubbling up at us from the uranium decaying in our bedrock. It's falling down at us from cosmic rays. It's in your microwave oven, in your smoke detector. It's in your kitty litter and your brick and your adobe and your granite.

  • 13:45:01

    NELSONThe capitol, in Washington D.C., is so radioactive it could not be licensed as a nuclear site. And, in fact, all human beings are radioactive. And when we gather together, we irradiate each other. So I'm wondering -- and this is one thing I could not find out in my research -- does the combination of us irradiating each other and our sparkling personalities and our pheromones create human chemistry. So if any listener could call in with the answer to that, I would really appreciate it.

  • 13:45:28

    NELSONWell, the Fukushima disaster only reinforces one of the overriding points in your book, which I can summarize by reading just a part from page 367 where you say, "Today, especially in the United States, nuclear is synonymous with evil. From Meryl Streep scrubbed raw and naked and then murdered in 'Silkwood,' to supernaturally incompetent Homer, working for the villainous owner of a nuclear power plant on 'The Simpsons,' atomic power is ominous and ever-threatening." Are you basically saying, Craig, that no matter how beneficial nuclear power and even radiation can be, the bomb will always negatively color our view of it?

  • 13:46:11

    NELSONWell, in my opinion, nuclear is better than coal -- and anything's better than coal -- it's better than oil and, because of fracking, it's better than natural gas. But what has happened is that it is -- every time we have one of these accidents, they are so grossly mishandled by both the government and the industry that no one feels comfortable trusting these people any more.

  • 13:46:33

    NELSONAnd, for example, you know, if the government of Japan insisted that they had done everything to clean up Fukushima, and I went there and I had young children and I'd cleaned my house and saw the dust -- even I, who knows how rare it is to actually have a cancer from radiation, even I would find that nerve wracking. So I just feel that they've blown their chance, unless, of course, there's a technological advance. I pray that China, who is working with something called pebble beds, can find an answer to that, because China and Southeast Asia need to give up coal for nuclear, frankly, at this point.

  • 13:47:10

    NELSONBut, on the other hand, if anyone knows how to have an ecological disaster, it's China.

  • 13:47:15

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. Has nuclear energy been a blessing for humanity, a curse, or both? Let's start with Mike in Dickerson, Md. Mike, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:47:27

    MIKEThank you, Kojo. Interesting conversation. I think your guest -- although he's trying to be very even-handed about this and I commend him for that -- I think it's dangerous to paint nuclear power with the same brush -- all nuclear power. Nuclear fusion had some significant breakthroughs in the past year. This is, as you know, is basically the power of the sun and the stars. And we may need a hybrid method of getting there, either with nuclear fission or high-energy lasers to make it happen. And the other comment I wanted to make is about all our native radioactivity, which is around us all the time, which has been with us for a long, long time.

  • 13:48:10

    MIKEThat low-level radiation that we pick up every day, so to speak, is probably a factor in causing random mutations in our genome, some of which are beneficial, some of which aren't. And it's probably a factor in evolution, along with many, many other things -- the selective forces of the environment. So, but my main point is that, if we shut down the nuclear age, we do not want to shut down research on nuclear fusion. Thank you.

  • 13:48:42

    NNAMDICraig Nelson?

  • 13:48:43

    NELSONI couldn't agree more with you, Mike. I talk about all of the different technologies that are in development to replace the fission process as we use now, which is both -- includes fusion. There's some work being done with ITER and with the labs here that are promising. You were right about that. There are also breeder reactors, which might eventually work. There's a pebble bed being developed in China. There's the modular units that Bill Gates is supporting.

  • 13:49:12

    NELSONSo there are various things on the waterfront that, if nuclear power is able become financial feasible, which it isn't at the moment, and generally agreed to be safe, we'll be saved. And I hope that happens.

  • 13:49:27

    NNAMDIWe've got an email from Jonathan who says, "One of the biggest problems with nuclear energy, I think, is the radioactive waste and what to do with it. In the decades since we started harnessing this fuel, there still isn't an acceptable solution. Fukushima's issues are primarily related to the fuel rods, aren't they?" says S. Jonathan.

  • 13:49:47

    NELSONWell, he's half right. And, in fact, the most frightening aspect for Americans from the Fukushima disaster is that they did have all these used fuel rods sitting in pools, not under the containment domes that are protecting the neighbors from the reactor melting down. And the same thing is true at 12 sites in the United States. So that's absolutely true. But, in fact, only in the United States is dealing with this waste such a terrible problem. In other countries, they reuse their fuel and get it down to -- until it's pretty much wasted away. And then they have waste-disposal sites where they keep it.

  • 13:50:23

    NELSONSo, France just opened a new one and China has three I believe now. So it's -- this is much more of a political football in the United States than it is anywhere else.

  • 13:50:34

    NNAMDINow on to Jim in Severna Park, Md. Jim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:50:39

    JIMWell, I thank you for having me. Nuclear power is a spinoff from the weapons industry. And it's had over 65 years of massive subsidies for fuel construction, decommissioning, waste disposal and insurance -- right now, accounting for over -- well over $1 trillion. And most of that's been paid by the taxpayers. Nuclear power can't compete with solar, wind, geothermal, ocean thermal, without tremendous subsidies. It never has. These subsidies just hide the real cost of and impede the development of any of the non-carbon, non-nuclear energy sources.

  • 13:51:16

    JIMWe absolutely have to eliminate carbon-based fuels in the next few years or we face possible extermination. I mean, that's fact. Nuclear, especially fusion -- I mean, fission nuclear is not the answer. Fusion has a good possibility, but it isn't here yet. And, anyway, we're sitting on a powder keg of methane in the Arctic, amounting to close to a quadrillion tons of methane, and that's melting and being released into the atmosphere right now. And the rate of increase in the release is going up at 20 to 30 times a year, which is just outrageous.

  • 13:51:55

    JIMAnyway, off the point there.

  • 13:51:57

    NNAMDICraig Nelson, Jim makes the point that nuclear is not the answer.

  • 13:52:01

    NELSONWell, Jim, the subtitle of my book is the fall of the atomic age. And I believe we are in the twilight years of atomic age, for exactly the point you mentioned. It takes taxpayer money to build atomic plants. It takes taxpayer money to subsidize the rates for electrical charge. And then it takes taxpayer money to decommission or when something goes wrong. And I just don't think it's politically feasible unless there is this technological breakthrough.

  • 13:52:26

    NNAMDIIn the email we got from Jonathan, he said, "Also, just to confirm, does your guest receive any funding from groups, organizations that are either pro- or anti-nuclear energy?" Craig Nelson?

  • 13:52:36

    NELSONNeither.

  • 13:52:37

    NNAMDIThank you. I'd like to go back in time for a bit to explore the stories of the scientists who uncovered this immense power. And I'll start with the tabloid-worthy story of Marie Curie. Craig, Marie Curie did pioneering research on radioactivity and she discovered polonium and radium. She's the only woman to have won two Nobel Prizes in separate fields. But you found out that her personal life was as fascinating as her scientific life. Tell us a bit about Madame Curie.

  • 13:53:07

    NELSONWell, this is actually the part of the book that I enjoy the most, because the people who -- we all have heard their names, you know, Einstein and Oppenheimer and Fermi and Curie -- when you get down to learning about, researching them from scratch and you find all this stuff you didn't know, it's just so fantastic to learn about. And every single one of these people -- they were nobodies working in the middle of nowhere, when they made these fantastic discoveries in between them -- heroes of science.

  • 13:53:34

    NELSONWhen Marie and Pierre made their discoveries, they were working in a hut that had been used to dissect cadavers by the community college medical school. And that's where they found that radiation could be used against tumors and that -- they came up with the term radioactivity, added two elements to the periodic table, and eventually would die of radioactivity. But one of the most amazing turns of events is the story of -- six years after Pierre died, Marie fell madly in love with one of his students, a guy by the name of Paul Langevin.

  • 13:54:05

    NELSONAnd Paul was such a significant physicist in and of himself that one of the pictures in my book is a gathering of the greatest names in the history of physics in 1927, and Paul is sitting next to Einstein. That's what a figure he was at this time. So Marie and Paul are just having a fantastic affair. They rent a house together. They were physicists together. It's really perfect, perfect union, except that Paul is married. And his wife is fine with him having a mistress, but she's not fine with him having a mistress who's the most famous woman in France.

  • 13:54:38

    NELSONAnd the wife's brother runs a tabloid newspaper. And she launches a giant campaign against Marie as being this home wrecker in the public to such an extent that when Marie gets ready to go to Stockholm to get her second prize, the Nobel Committee says, you know, maybe you can wait and come another time and pick up that prize.

  • 13:54:56

    NELSONBut the unbelievable twist to this story is that their affair breaks up. Paul goes back to his wife. But before that happens, he tells Marie, you know, I've got this real hotshot named Fred you should hire for your lab. And she hires Fred. And after a year, Fred tells her, your daughter, Irene and I have fallen in love and we're going to get married. And Marie says, no, which in her entire biography is a fantastic story because she had been turned down by the parents of the guy she wanted to marry when she was 19.

  • 13:55:29

    NELSONAnd she's so upset by this thing with Fred and Irene that she makes him sign one of the first pre-nups in history, saying that if anything happens with the marriage, all the money and all the radium will stay with the Curies. But Marie was wrong. Fred and Irene had such a good partnership that they almost eclipsed the fame of Pierre and Marie. And, in fact, they're more important to us...

  • 13:55:49

    NNAMDIThey eventually won the Nobel for their discovery of artificial radiation.

  • 13:55:53

    NELSONYes, because artificial radiation is a fundamental aspect of nuclear medicine, which is as important to us today as the microscope. And because of that, Marie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and her own daughter, Irene, was the second.

  • 13:56:06

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones, again. Her is Ivan in Washington D.C. Ivan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:56:13

    IVANWell, hi, Kojo. Thank you for allowing me on your program. I just wanted to comment and maybe your guest will acknowledge the facts of the first-team responders in Chernobyl, who sacrificed their lives, you know, in first days of the catastrophe handling. Most of them know that they will die, but they still go and did the job.

  • 13:56:35

    NNAMDICraig Nelson?

  • 13:56:37

    NELSONYes, it was quite a lot of heroism at Chernobyl, which was an atomic fire that could not be quenched for two weeks. It sent a cloud of radioactivity the size of 400 Hiroshimas over all of Europe. And 58 men died in trying to stop that -- either atomic plant workers or firefighters. There's a very beautiful memorial to them in Pripyat, the city next door. And then part of the story is that another 18 people died who were teenagers of families who refused to leave the zone and drank the milk of contaminated cows. So as far as we know, the total human death from Chernobyl was 75, compared to 8,000 at Bhopal, the fertilizer disaster.

  • 13:57:25

    NNAMDIAlmost out of time, Craig. But after Fukushima, many countries said they would curtail or end their nuclear power programs. And many of them have, indeed, done so, especially in Europe and Japan. What do you think the legacy of Fukushima will ultimately be for nuclear power and how it's managed in the future? Will this phase-out stick? You have about 30 seconds.

  • 13:57:44

    NELSONWell, you know, Fukushima survived the earthquake, and then failed only because the batteries were kept in the basement. And when you see that that kind of tiny little human error can cause such a catastrophe, you can see why people are afraid of this power source. And, again, I believe that we might have a great revolution in technology that might make nuclear politically feasible and economically possible. But unless that happens...

  • 13:58:10

    NNAMDICraig Nelson, he is the author of "The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era." Craig, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:58:19

    NELSONThank you so much.

  • 13:58:20

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. Coming up tomorrow on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." It's not April fools. The computer guys and gal are back to tackle your questions and talk Facebook's foray into virtual reality gaming and wage fixing at seven tech giants. Then at 1:00, from silly puns to sophisticated standup, the alchemy and neuroscience behind what makes us laugh. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," Noon till 2:00 tomorrow on WAMU 88.5 and streaming at kojoshow.org.

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