Friday, December 16, 2016

 Nuclear is Not the Answer

George M. Woodwell

December 2016

            The remains of the Chernobyl reactor in the Ukraine have been sealed  recently with a giant steel cap constructed at a distance and moved into position over the still highly radioactive reactor core. The reactor exploded on April 26, 1986, more than 30 years ago.  The site and its environs, many square miles, were heavily contaminated at the time. The remains of the reactor are still a festering hazard and will be dangerous substantially forever. The site, now expensively covered to contain the radioactive debris, constitutes yet another segment of a finite and already densely occupied Earth, sacrificed to a failed industrial venture.   

            Ionizing radiation is a biological hazard because it breaks up molecules and makes them chemically active. Chromosomes are large and especially vulnerable. Human exposures of any intensity at all puts the integrity of the genetic structure at hazard. It increases the frequency of mutations, not an attractive or even acceptable circumstance. Exposures can be external as from an xray machine or from a segment of a reactor core after an accident, or from radioactive particles incorporated into tissues. Both routes are of continuing concern at Chernobyl and the giant cover is designed to contain all the hazards of the reactor site.  It does nothing of course to restore the vast areas contaminated with radioactive debris at the time of the explosion.

            Meanwhile, global industries struggle with the necessity for replacing fossil fuels as the principal source of energy driving an energy –dependent industrial world.  Nuclear power is attractive to some because it appears to offer large sources of electrical energy without releasing carbon dioxide or methane, both heat trapping gases and the cause of the climatic disruption. The industry also appears to be a mature in that there are now about 400 reactors operating in the world, presumably safely, despite the inherent dangers of radioactivity.  Those dangers, especially the hazards to the human genome, make the fuel cycle and operation of the reactors necessarily “closed” systems that, at least nominally, contain all wastes and other radiation hazards.

 “Closing” the system, while necessary, is difficult to the point of impossibility. There is leakage and a series of  hazards at virtually every stage starting with the open-air mining of the uranium ore, its transportation, refinement, and  continuing through to the disposal and storage of used reactor  fuel rods and associated equipment. Accidents are inevitable at every stage and the wastes accumulate and must be accommodated. The system, carefully monitored as it is, cannot be perfect.  Although it is the model of a closed industrial system, it is not closed and cannot be made so.

 Despite major efforts, the United States has not been able to establish a long-term burial site or other safe disposal for radioactive wastes.   Used fuel rods, highly radioactive, are now cooled continuously in special water-cooled tanks at each reactor, a “temporary” solution used for decades.  The long-term burial site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada has proven unsatisfactory because of potential leaks and political objections.

While we do make compromises as a matter of necessity, we assume correctly that low exposures are safer than high exposures and carefully limit all exposures.  And we aspire to keeping the industry as a closed system, in fact the model of a closed system, thereby protecting the integrity of the human genetic system.

Closure must be perfect, but it cannot be so. Even containment is difficult. Worse, there is no way to avoid the possibility of using the enriched uranium designed for reactor use as the basis for developing bombs of various types ranging from a simple rain of radioactive debris in a ‘dirty’ bomb to a nuclear weapon.  There is no way of policing an increasingly crowded world of 7-10 billion people to keep the highly toxic wastes of a proliferating nuclear power industry safely contained.

            The attractiveness of large reactors is understandable, especially if one takes the perspective of an industry that generates and sells electricity.  A large central source of electricity distributed over extensive power lines to thousands of users is an attractive investment.  If fossil fueled plants are to be avoided, as is now clearly necessary, a nuclear-powered plant might confer some of the same advantages and feed the same delivery system.  So the arguments in favor of nuclear power emerge repeatedly despite the complexities of the industry. 

            One of the possibilities often advanced is the development of small “fail-safe” reactors that can be scattered over the landscape close to points of major demand. These reactors present the same set of issue, if smaller scale than large reactors.  Both, when operated, mark a spot on the earth that is from that moment on irrevocably committed to continuous care in protecting the public from radioactive debris, a very expensive “sacrifice zone” not available for any other use.

            Economic gradients favor common sense in this instance. Nuclear power plants are  expensive to build and require years for construction as well as extraordinary efforts in assuring safety. The energy involved in the mining, transport and refining of fuels, and  in virtually all other aspects of construction and maintenance, is fossil fuels, not a trifling matter   By comparison with rapidly emerging renewable energy sources that can be widely dispersed and require little maintenance, nuclear fails again.   As techniques for storage of electricity improve and the efficiency and variety of renewable sources of energy increase, the interest in and viability of nuclear energy will drop rapidly away.

            The nuclear power industry is an excellent model of a closed industrial system that is “clean by design” but can never be clean enough or even reliably safe. As a model for other industries that must also conform to closed-system standards, it stands alone, rich with experience and insights and endowed with more than 400 special sites globally that are sacrifice zones,  areas of an increasingly crowded earth available now for no other purpose. Nuclear energy is fascinating and rich in lessons, but it has no potential in resolving the crisis of climate. 

  Adapted from: G.M. Woodwell 2016. AWorld to Live In: An Ecologist’s Vision for a Plundered Planet. MIT, Cambridge               

Friday, October 21, 2016

George M. Woodwell

Building the NEW WORLD
Lessons from our Own Time

This election makes it very clear that it is time for a new hard look at objectives in government and economics and that we and our students should be leading the way. Here is an opportunity to have a look at what one ecologist can offer in a sense of optimism and hope for the next decades, a new world consistent with the transition away from fossil fuels and into a world of restored environmental integrity.  
The book: A World To Live In: An Ecologist’s Vision For A Plundered Planet is available for a short time from  MIT Press at a substantial discount. (30% discount at with digital discount code MWORLD30  through 11/30/2016)

New from the MIT Press:
             A World to Live In: An Ecologist’s Vision for a Plundered Planet
George M. Woodwell

A century of industrial development is the briefest of moments in the half bil- lion years of  the earth’s evolution. And yet our current era has brought greater changes to the earth than any period in human history. The biosphere, the globe’s life-giving envelope  of  air and climate, has been changed irreparably.  In  A World to Live In,  ecologist George Woodwell shows that the biosphere is now a global human protectorate and that its integrity of structure and function are tied closely to the human future. The earth is a living system, Woodwell explains,  and its stability is threatened by human disruption. Industry dumps its waste globally and makes a profit from it, invading the global commons; corporate interests overpower weak or nonexistent governmental protection to plunder the planet. The fossil fuels industry offers the most dramatic example of environmental destruction, disseminating the heat-trapping gases that are now warming the earth and changing the climate forever. The assumption that we can continue to use fossil fuels and “adapt” to climate disruption, Woodwell argues, is a ticket to catastrophe.

But Woodwell points the way toward a solution. We must respect the full range of life on earth—not species alone, but their natural communities of plant and animal life that have built, and still maintain, the biosphere. We must recognize   that the earth’s living systems are our heritage and that the preservation of the integrity of a finite biosphere is a necessity and an inviolable human right. And he outlines how to go about it.

George M. Woodwell is Founder, President, and Director Emeritus of the Woods Hole Research Center, Woods Hole, Massachusetts. He is a member of the National  Academy of Sciences, a former president of the Ecological Society of America, a former Vice Chairman  of the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the author of Forests in a Full World, The Nature of House: Building a World That Works, and other  books.

“Woodwell calls for a fundamental rethink to ensure the protection  of the global commons. . . [He] is to be commended for clearly outlining  the threats and sketching out a bold solution" —Julia Fahrenkamp‑ Uppenbrink, Scienc

Hardcover | $29.95 Trade | £19.95 | 978-0-262-03407-4 | 248 pp. | 6 x 9 in eBook | $20.95 Trade | 978-0-262-33367-2 | 248 pp.
for more information visit

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Of Money, Biophysics and Government

   Jane Mayer’s new book, Dark Money,  sets forth with frightening clarity and compelling detail how sinister the  problem of money in politics has become[i]. The issue has been amplified in various tracts \ , none more simply stated and powerful than Bill Moyers’ widely circulated essay deploring the concentration of wealth in the hands of one percent of the populace while the majority is systematically impoverished[ii] .   Mayer  deplores the conspiracy of the  Koch brothers and allies in advancing that transition and supporting the patently false proposition that the free enterprise capitalistic system assures the welfare of all without governmental interference or regulation. She shows how corporate interests have used tax-free "public interest" institutions to advance the 1980 Reagan mantra of  "getting government off the backs of the people".  Their efforts have produced the neo-conservative  congressional leaders who refuse to perform the duties of their elected offices. These same seditious officials have also frustrated efforts to correct corporate exploitation of environment for profit including in particular all efforts to control the climatic disruption now wreaking havoc globally. .  

Neither author considers the biophysical limits of the earth as now limiting, if not defining, core political and economic objectives.  Growth of the human enterprise alone generates a soaring need for rules to protect not only public health and welfare but also corporate safety and welfare.  Here I am guilty of blatant self-promotion for I have written about these limits recently [iii].  I join in showing  that it is now essential  to invert the Reagan mantra and to restore the integrity of governmental function. The objective becomes building a government that works in assuring the full functional integrity of the global environment to accommodate growth in all aspects of the human endeavor.  We who thrive on growth travel a one-way street into a compelling need for regulation of human affairs in the interests of protecting welfare, including civil rights, as human numbers swell, corporate aspirations expand and the human undertaking intensifies.  There is no turning back to simpler times on this road into life in an ever tightening world whose core functions demand a delicately defined set of circumstances to support  all life.

These developments are products of biophysical reality,  ineluctable products of growth, not to be set aside by what amount to bribes from corporate interests aimed at turning governmental purpose to corporate advantage.   Roots of the changes required to correct these trends lie in the realities of the physical, chemical and biotic integrity the earth, whose continued function is ever more important to human welfare and challenged as never previously.    Answers lie not only in a new economy and  a restoration of responsibility and reason in government but also in using scientific insights into the elementary biophysics of  crowding a planet with 7-10 billion humans.

[i] Jane Mayer.  Dark Money. Doubleday, N.Y. 2016
[iii] George M. Woodwell. A World to Live In. MIT. Cambridge, MA. 2016

                                                                                                George M. Woodwell
Woods Hole,  MA         Sept. 11, 2016