Was the hidden cost of developing nuclear weapons 340,000 to 690,000 American deaths?

The National Science Foundation has published details of a government award for doctoral dissertation research in economics: Investigating the Economic Consequences of Atmospheric Nuclear Testing undertaken by Price Fishback (Principal Investigator) and Keith Meyers (Co-Principal Investigator)

The United States conducted scores of atmospheric nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site northwest of Las Vegas between 1951 and 1958 (1963 according to Fernholz below) when fears about radiation poisoning and peace protests in later decades (poster below), put pressure on the military to end the tests. Millions of people were exposed to radioactive material as a result of these tests, but the full extent of the health and welfare effects are unknown.

From the abstract we learn that, using radiation deposition data for the United States, the investigator studied the effects fallout had on American agriculture and human health. Current work by the National Cancer Institute had not combined radiation exposure estimates with publicly available U.S. Vital Statistics and public health data. The project fills this research gap and has provided important insights into the direct effect of these tests upon American health.

This research has been highlighted by Tim Fernholz in Quartz.

He opens:

When the US entered the nuclear age, it did so recklessly. New research suggests that the hidden cost of developing nuclear weapons were far larger than previous estimates, with radioactive fallout responsible for 340,000 to 690,000 American deaths from 1951 to 1973.

The study, performed by University of Arizona economist Keith Meyersuses a novel method to trace the deadly effects of this radiation, which was often consumed by Americans drinking milk far from the site of atomic tests.

From 1951 to 1963, the US tested nuclear weapons above ground in Nevada. Weapons researchers, not understanding the risks—or simply ignoring them—exposed thousands of workers to radioactive fallout. The emissions from nuclear reactions are deadly to humans in high doses, and can cause cancer even in low doses. At one point, researchers had volunteers stand underneath an airburst nuclear weapon to prove how safe it was:

The emissions, however, did not just stay at the test site, and drifted in the atmosphere. Cancer rates spiked in nearby communities, and the US government could no longer pretend that fallout was anything but a silent killer.

Congress eventually paid more than $2 billion to residents of nearby areas that were particularly exposed to radiation, as well as uranium miners. But attempts to measure the full extent of the test fallout were very uncertain, since they relied on extrapolating effects from the hardest-hit communities to the national level. One national estimate found the testing caused 49,000 cancer deaths.

Those measurements, however, did not capture the full range of effects over time and geography. Meyers created a broader picture by way of a macabre insight:

When cows consumed radioactive fallout spread by atmospheric winds, their milk became a key channel to transmit radiation sickness to humans. Most milk production during this time was local, with cows eating at pasture and their milk being delivered to nearby communities, giving Meyers a way to trace radioactivity across the country.

The National Cancer Institute has records of the amount of Iodine 131—a dangerous isotope released in the Nevada tests—in milk, as well as broader data about radiation exposure. By comparing this data with county-level mortality records, Meyers came across a significant finding: “Exposure to fallout through milk leads to immediate and sustained increases in the crude death rate.” What’s more, these results were sustained over time. US nuclear testing likely killed seven to 14 times more people than we had thought, mostly in the midwest and northeast.

When the US used nuclear weapons during World War II, bombing the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, conservative estimates suggest 250,000 people died in immediate aftermath. Even those horrified by the bombing didn’t realize that the US would deploy similar weapons against its own people, accidentally, and on a comparable scale . . .

There have been other reports of the impact of exposure (1997, 2016, and Fradkin (2004) did refer to thyroid cancer caused by iodine ingested via milk and vegetables), but Meyers’ paper reveals that there are more casualties of the nuclear weapons race than was previously thought and the extent to which society is still bearing the costs of the tests remains an open question.

The lingering effects remain, ‘as silent and as troublesome as the isotopes themselves’, Fernholz writes. Millions of Americans who were exposed to fallout are likely to be suffering illnesses related to these tests today, as they retire and rely on the US government to fund their health care.





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Further problems with the European Pressurised Nuclear Reactor

The Times reports that the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) designed by the French company Areva and constructed by China General Nuclear Power Corporation (GCN) with EDF in southern China, has had another setback. The deaerator in Taishan1’s reactor, which removes oxygen and other gases from boiler feedwater circuits, cracked during performance testing due to defective welding.

The $8.7 billion Taishan 1, which will be the world’s first functioning example of the European reactor, was due to be finished last year but has been delayed by safety concerns.

According to Power Engineering International the defects found this week had been known to the manufacturer since 2012.  The welding defects in a deaerator used in unit 1 of China CGN’s 3.5 GW Taishan plant had been flagged up in 2012 by an engineer at manufacturer Harbin Boiler, according to a report in the Hong Kong Free Press, The technical report in the Chinese journal Guolu zhizao (Boiler Manufacturing) said that because Chinese welding techniques do not follow the procedures required by European-designed deaerators, gaps are left between deaerator parts which need additional work before on-site assembly.

Work on a similar EPR reactor at Olkiluoto in Finland began in 2005 and it was supposed to be operational in 2009. It is now expected to be finished 2019. EDF is also building a reactor at Flamanville in Normandy which was due to begin operating in 2012. Jean-Bernard Lévy, EDF’s chief executive, now predicts that the reactor will be working by the end of 2018.

Though CGN said the deaerator has now been replaced, this is yet another concern about the two EPR reactors for Hinkley Point C in Somerset, also designed by Areva and to be built by EDF and GNC at a cost of £19.5 billion. They were expected to be operational in 2025 but EDF said this summer that they were likely to be 15 months late.

In October the Times reported that after inspectors found problems with concrete foundations laid on the Somerset coast part of the nuclear plant under construction at Hinkley Point will have to be demolished and rebuilt, commenting “the latest setback for the £20bn project”.

The problems were found in the foundations of the first of the site’s 5 miles of “galleries” — a series of deep trenches that will house the plant’s pipes and electric cables. French state-owned EDF, the owner, insisted the problem is isolated to 150 cubic metres and will not delay construction, but in July admitted that the project is now at least £1.5bn over budget and 15 months behind schedule.

A growing number will share the suspicion voiced by Jonathan Bartley, co-leader of the Green Party, that faith in the construction of Britain’s first new nuclear power plant in more than 20 years has been grossly misplaced: “If you look at the money that’s being spent on Hinkley, some £30bn, it’s just totally uneconomic. We can create a centralised, job-poor nuclear option, which locks us into an expensive deal for decades, or we can invest in a decentralised, job-rich, clean energy renewables revolution.”




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Will the government opt for small ‘new-style’ nuclear reactors – an unproven technology?

Andrew Ward and Peggy Hollinger (Financial Times) report that the government is preparing to build a number of small ‘new-style’ nuclear reactors – in spite of doubts about the economic viability of this technology. Greg Clark, business secretary, sees this as a more affordable alternative to large-scale nuclear reactors such as the £20bn Hinkley Point C plant.

Though the nuclear industry is now not competitive with the renewable wind and solar power, where costs are falling rapidly (below) British ministers are said to be preparing to revive the UK’s ‘faltering effort’ to create a new generation of small-scale nuclear power plants (small modular reactors – SMRs).

However, a technology assessment carried out by Ernst and Young ‘reached a negative verdict’ on the cost-effectiveness of SMRs:

“SMRs still require additional research and development to make them an economically viable alternative — with the caveat that further R&D creates a complex case to argue, in that it can be seen as both a help and a hindrance to making more economic sense. Indeed, as SMRs are unproven the same steep learning curve is required, combined with the regulatory requirements of each design change and complex mapping of the impacts and cost estimating for contractors if the client does not have an integrated cost model and design (BIM) for civil engineers.”

During the last two months The Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy are said to have held a series of meetings with SMR developers, including Rolls-Royce which is, according to The Engineer, “one of the only companies in the world to both build and operate nuclear reactors”. (RR image below).

The findings are expected to be published in the coming weeks and will confront the government with awkward questions about why public money should be used to help to commercialise the unproven technology.

Advocates for SMRs say:

  • the technology can help the UK to bolster energy security
  • and to tackle climate change.
  • It will use Britain’s huge stockpile of weapon-grade plutonium, spent nuclear fuel and nuclear waste as fuel.
  • The cost-overruns and construction delays that have plagued conventional nuclear projects will be overcome.
  • A multibillion pound export market will be created for British engineering companies.

Rolls-Royce has portrayed its project as a “national endeavour,” involving UK supply chain partners such as Laing O’Rourke and Arup, in keeping with the government’s industrial strategy to bolster domestic manufacturing and engineering. Rolls-Royce claims that its SMR consortium would create some 40,000 jobs at the peak of any build programme between 2030 and 2050. Its main competitior, NuScale also says that more than 85% of work on its SMR programme would be carried out by UK companies and that its first reactor could be operational by the late 2020s.

Nuclear Engineering International reports that advanced SMRs are currently being built in Russia, China and Argentina, and more than 45 SMR designs are at various stages of development.

As yet, therefore, this is a costly and unproven technology.

Note relevant article: https://nuclearindustries.wordpress.com/small-modular-reactors-the-nuclear-industrys-latest-pipe-dream-jonathon-porritt/








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Nuclear power: misjudgements and mismanagement

It is reported that more than 300,000 tonnes of “radioactive” mud, some of it the toxic by-product of Britain’s atomic weapons programme, will be dredged at Cardiff Grounds, a sandbank in the Bristol Channel, to make way for England’s newest nuclear power station at Hinkley Point. The government granted a dredging licence to EDF, the company building the new plant, in 2013.

An independent marine pollution researcher, Tim Deere-Jones, said that studies of north Wales tidal surges reveal that the mud and sand deposited from the Sellafield nuclear fuel reprocessing site were heavily contaminated with radioactivity. He has warned that the dumped sediment could re-concentrate into more powerful radioactive material and be washed ashore in storm surges. “We know sediment in mudflats can dry out and blow ashore and that fine sediment with radioactivity attached can transfer to the land in marine aerosols and sea spray.”

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, a government agency took control of Sellafield in 2016 after stripping a US-led private consortium, Nuclear Management Partners, of a £9bn contract. Two large and strategically important nuclear decommissioning contracts in the space of two years have ‘failed’.

The Financial Times reports that in March, Greg Clark, business secretary, cancelled a deal with Cavendish Fluor Partnership, which was responsible for decommissioning 12 Magnox nuclear plants and research sites, at a cost of £122m to British taxpayers. Two reports – one by the National Audit Office and one separately commissioned by government – raised “serious questions” about the NDA’s “ability to manage large, complex procurements. Problems included:

  • a shortage of experienced staff,
  • poor record-keeping — including the inappropriate shredding of documents
  • and overly complex criteria that required NDA officials to evaluate bidders on 700 separate criteria.

The former Cavendish Fluor Magnox nuclear plants and research sites are ‘set’ to be brought back “in-house” by the after the collapse of the £6.2bn outsourcing contract that exposed “fundamental failures” at the organisation.

People with knowledge of the process said taking Magnox “in-house” would give NDA “more levers” to control costs, in contrast to an outsourced deal which created incentives for the contractor to expand the scope of work. The FT comments, however, that the ‘botched’ Magnox deal appears to indicate that any economic benefits will be outweighed by the costs and risks associated with cleaning up the radioactive waste.





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Nuclear attack? We must support Corbyn’s refusal to murder millions: Oliver Tickell

Another unpublished article found in archives – extracts set out Jeremy Corbyn’s position on nuclear weapons.   

“There are five declared nuclear weapon states in the world. There are three others that have nuclear weapons. That is eight countries out of 192; 187 countries do not feel the need to have nuclear weapons to protect their security. Why should those five need them to protect their security? We are not in the cold war any more.

Some highlights from this article by Oliver Tickell (right) published on1st October 2015.

Jeremy Corbyn’s first Labour Conference as party leader and Leader of the Opposition was looking like an overwhelming success – the best in many years.

Even more important, opinion polls were showing that Corbyn popularity in the country was on the rise. In a Sky poll, more than half thought he would make a credible prime minister, 66% liked his leadership style, and 59% felt more likely to vote Labour in a General Election. Disaster!

In an interview with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg he was asked about nuclear weapons:

LC: “Would you ever push the nuclear button if you were prime minister?”

JC: “I am opposed to nuclear weapons, I am opposed to the holding and usage of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are the ultimate weapons of mass destruction that can only kill millions of civilians if ever used. I am totally and morally opposed to nuclear weapons. I do not see them as a defence and do not see the use of them as a credible way to do things”

LC: “So yes or no you would never push the nuclear button?”

JC: “I have told you perfectly clearly its immoral to have or use nuclear weapons, I have made that clear all my life.”

LK: “But Jeremy Corbyn do you acknowledge there is a risk that you would put your own principles before the protection of this country?”

JC: “It looks to the voters I hope that I am someone who is absolutely committed to the spread of international law, spreading international human rights, bringing a nuclear free world nearer.”

LK: “And that is more important to you than the protection of this country? Some voters might think that.”

JC: “We are not under threat from any nuclear power. We are under threat from instability, yes, there is a terrorist issue around the world. Listen, the nuclear weapons that the United States hold, all the hundreds if not thousands of warheads they’ve got, were no help to them on 9/11.”

In other BBC interviews he referred to the UK’s legal duties to pursue nuclear disarmament under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, adding:

“I want to see a nuclear-free world. I believe it is possible. I do not think we should be renewing Trident … I think we should be promoting an international nuclear weapons convention which would lead to a nuclear-free world.

“There are five declared nuclear weapon states in the world. There are three others that have nuclear weapons. That is eight countries out of 192; 187 countries do not feel the need to have nuclear weapons to protect their security. Why should those five need them to protect their security? We are not in the cold war any more.

“I don’t think we should be spending £100bn on renewing Trident. That is a quarter of our defence budget. There are many in the military that do not want Trident renewed because they see it as an obsolete thing they don’t need. They would much rather see it spent on conventional weapons.”

And as he pointed out in his own speech to the conference, this is the position that he took in the leadership election, on which he was elected with a massive popular mandate.

Corbyn’s principled refusal to make himself a mass murderer and war criminal is legally, strategically and militarily correct, and in accordance with the UK’s international treaty obligations to pursue nuclear disarmament. We should give him our unconditional support in his quest for a nuclear-free world.

Oliver Tickell studied physics at Oxford University and is a founding fellow of the Green Economic Institute. He is a British journalist, author and campaigner on health and environment issues, and author of the book Kyoto2 which sets out a blueprint for effective global climate governance. His articles have been published in all the broadsheet newspapers and numerous magazines including New Scientist, New Statesman and The Economist. He is an experienced broadcaster on the BBC home and world services including “Today”, “PM”, “Costing the Earth”, “Farming World” and “Farming Today”.






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2017 Nobel Peace Prize for nuclear disarmament group ICAN

Nuclear disarmament group ICAN won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for its decade-long campaign to rid the world of the atomic bomb

Holding the banner: Lesley Docksey (left) and  Sharon Dolev from Israel 

“The organisation is receiving the award for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons,” said Norway’s Nobel committee president Berit Reiss-Andersen.

A coalition of more than 300 NGOs founded in Vienna in 2007 on the fringes of an international conference on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, ICAN has tirelessly mobilised campaigners and celebrities alike in its cause. It was a key player in the adoption of a historic nuclear weapons ban treaty, signed by 122 countries in July.

The organisation will receive the prize, consisting of a gold medal, a diploma, and a cheque for nine million Swedish kronor (US$1.1 million), at a ceremony in Oslo on December 10, the anniversary of the death in 1896 of the prize’s creator, Swedish philanthropist and dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel.

The Nobel prize seeks to bolster the case of disarmament amid nuclear tensions between the United States and North Korea and uncertainty over the fate of a 2015 deal between Iran and major powers to limit Tehran’s nuclear programme.





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NATO denounces UN nuclear weapon ban treaty

In a September Press Release NATO Watch reported that NATO has denounced a UN treaty banning nuclear weapons as unrealistic and claimed that it risked undermining the international response to North Korea’s nuclear arms programme.

The Allliance meeting

The NATO statement was timed to coincide with the opening day for signatories to the first legally-binding treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. Despite the NATO intervention, 51 countries attached their names to the treaty, which will enter into force 90 days after 50 states have ratified the treaty (3 of the 51 signatories have so far done so).

The Treaty —adopted on 7 July this year at a UN conference in New York by a vote of 122 in favour to one against (Netherland), with one abstention (Singapore)— requires all countries that eventually ratify it not to develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons “under any circumstances”. However, no nuclear armed state participated in the treaty negotiations and none have shown any willingness to sign it. The United States pressed other NATO member states and partners to boycott the discussions, and since the treaty was adopted Washington has continued to lean on partners, for example, threatening Sweden that defence industrial cooperation between the two nations could be endangered if it signs the treaty.

“The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is the product of increasing concerns over the risk posed by the continued existence of nuclear weapons, including the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences of their use,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said at the signing ceremony, held on the margins of the General Assembly’s high-level debate. “The Treaty is an important step towards the universally-held goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. It is my hope that it will reinvigorate global efforts to achieve it”, he added.

In contrast, however, the NATO statement said, “At a time when the world needs to remain united in the face of growing threats, in particular the grave threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear programme, the treaty fails to take into account these urgent security challenges”. It added: “Seeking to ban nuclear weapons through a treaty that will not engage any state actually possessing nuclear weapons will not be effective, will not reduce nuclear arsenals, and will neither enhance any country’s security, nor international peace and stability. Indeed it risks doing the opposite by creating divisions and divergences at a time when a unified approach to proliferation and security threats is required more than ever”.

The disruptive intervention from NATO came a day after US President Donald Trump told the UN General Assembly in New York he was ready to “totally destroy” North Korea, mocking its leader Kim Jong-Un as “Rocket Man… on a suicide mission”.

Further reading: Ian Davis, NATO’s opposition to the treaty banning nuclear weapons: Or why the Netherlands attempted to plug the nuclear deterrence dyke by voting against the treaty, NATO Watch Briefing No. 57, 18 August 2017




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