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Future Hindsight is a weekly podcastthat takes big ideas in civic life and democracy and turns them into action items for everyday citizens.

Apr 24, 2020

Legacy of Secrecy

Nuclear technology has a long history of secrecy, cover-up, and deceit from military officials and government leaders, starting with the creation of nuclear weapons. Secrecy has hampered scientists in conducting rigorous research and data collection. They are often faced with studying the effects of radiation after an accident, which means they lack baseline data for comparison. This is most notable in Chernobyl, where the surrounding exclusion zone is now teeming with wildlife. Scientists disagree whether the detected DNA changes in the animals are due to radiation or to natural evolution, and how harmful it is. A combination of disinformation, a lack of understanding, and fundamental disagreements about the danger posed by radiation feeds public skepticism of nuclear technology.

Dangerous Waste

Nuclear technology's longest-lasting legacy is radioactive waste. It produces plutonium, a highly radioactive isotope that takes thousands of years to decay. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that the world currently has about 550 tons of plutonium. Most of the waste sits in silos designed for temporary storage, which is expensive. We still need to find a way to treat, move, and bury it in a permanent storage space that is deep underground. The immense cost of waste management is one of the main reasons that nuclear reactors are being decommissioned. After deciding to abandon nuclear power, Germany is now struggling with its waste. Some of it is stored in salt mines that are not secure enough in the long term, and some is in the UK for treatment. It’s unclear if Germany will take back the nuclear waste that is overseas. How the world will eventually safely maintain nuclear waste is an open question.

Nuclear Disarmament

The heart of Pearce’s opposition to nuclear energy is the danger of nuclear proliferation. The creation of nuclear weapons is a Faustian pact that poses a vast and unnecessary risk to the world. The hydrogen bombs that were developed after WWII would kill millions of people instantly, which are now in silos all over the world, ready to be deployed. He argues that nuclear weapons are not a security measure, but instead create global insecurity. Every year they lie dormant, the chances they fall into the wrong hands increases. Nuclear weapons disarmament needs to be our highest priority, and should be achievable in the next 30 – 40 years. The only way to do so is by eliminating atomic technology, which also means eliminating nuclear power.

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Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in London. He has reported on the environment, science, and development issues from 88 countries over the past 30 years. Trained as a geographer, he has been an environment consultant of New Scientist magazine since 1992. He writes regularly for The Guardian newspaper, including the weekly Greenwash column, and published a 12-part investigation of the 'Climategate' emails affair at the University of East Anglia. He is also a regular contributor to Yale University's prestigious e360 website.

Fred is the author of numerous books, including Fallout: Disasters, Lies, and the Legacy of the Nuclear Age, and The Last Generation: How Nature Will Take Her Revenge for Climate Change. His books have been translated into at least 14 languages.