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  • The IAEA wins the Nobel Peace Prize

    Posted by Ralf Goergens on October 7th, 2005 (All posts by )

    James Joyner points out that the IAEA is receiving this year’s Nobel Peace Prize because of its opposition to the Bush Administration, while having failed in its stated mission to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Hardly an improvement about past laureates like Jimmy Carter or Yasser Arafat.

    Environmental groups aren’t happy either. Last month Greenpeace accused the IAEA of being a front group for the nuclear industry, downplaying the consequences of Chernobyl:

    Greenpeace accused the International Atomic Energy Agency of deliberately trying to down play the death toll of the Chernobyl accident as part of the nuclear industry’s continued attempt to portray itself as an acceptable future energy source. During a two-day conference in Vienna, the Agency presented a report claiming that ultimately some 4,000 deaths can be expected as a result of the world’s worst nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986. According to the IAEA “fewer than 50 deaths had been directly attributed to radiation from the disaster,” to date. The IAEA study does not cover all of the populations affected by Chernobyl fall-out but merely considers those who received a high radiation dose in the immediate wake of the accident – namely those ‘liquidators’ drafted in to carry out the immediate clean up of the site.

    “It is appalling that the IAEA is whitewashing the impacts of one of the most serious industrial accident in human history. It is a deliberate attempt to minimize the risks of nuclear power in order to free the way for new reactor construction,” said Jan Vande Putte, Greenpeace International nuclear campaigner.

    I’m no fan of Greenpeace, nor am I opposed to the use of nuclear energy – strong doubts about breeder reactors aside – but this is a fair point. The IAEA isn’t so much a watchdog, but indeed a lobby for the use of nuclear energy. It would be highly unrealistic to expect that its members are unaffected by commercial considerations. This goes both for the investigation of nuclear accidents, and indeed the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.

    Keeping that in mind, reaction of Greenpeace to the Nobel Peace Prize for the IAEA isn’t exactly surprising:

    Who won the Peace Prize? Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde?

    Oslo, Norway — The Nobel Peace Prize, founded on a fortune made from explosives, has gone to the agency whose job it is to promote nuclear power without promoting nuclear weapons, and the man who heads it. Anybody with that job probably deserves some kind of prize.

    Mohammed ElBaradei is the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), both winners of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

    The agency is tasked with policing the spread of nuclear weapons at the same time it is charged with promoting the very technologies and materials used to make nuclear weapons.

    It’s a job worthy of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

    We hope that this award will spark a new discussion around the fundamental contradiction of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s dual role as nuclear policeman and nuclear salesman. Oly once that duality is removed can the IAEA truly focus on the pressing threat of the global spread of nuclear weapons technology, both civil and military.

    The IAEA is more than just a mere ‘salesman’ for nuclear technology. The spread of this technology required intense lobbying and a lot of commitment by governments, which used the IAEA supposedly independent experts to gain credibility with their won citizens to get nuclear industry off the ground. Market forces alone would never have achieved that, for initial investments were huge, and back then nobody had an idea how and where secure final storage of nuclear wastecould be managed. The technocratic spirit of the 50s and 60s, and the general fascination with the idea of harnessing the power that previously had been used to destroy for peaceful purposes did the rest. The few who warned against the dangers of nuclear were dismissed as alarmists or even hysterics.
    Modern reactor designs are much safer, and we know now how to safely store nuclear waste, but the fact remains that there is only a small step from the peaceful use of nuclear energy to its use for military purposes. The nonstop blather about peaceful use is nothing but a figleaf for the nuclear lobbyists. The fact remains that many, if not most, countries can’t be trusted with the technology, if only because of carelessness with fissionable materials or nuclear waste.

     

    7 Responses to “The IAEA wins the Nobel Peace Prize”

    1. mgl Says:

      While I’m sympathetic to your criticism of the useless IAEA, the fact is that the high death and morbidity rates that many predicted in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster have always been influenced more by panic and (dare I say it) wishful thinking than by facts.

      Ionizing radiation is one of the best-understood carcinogens out there. After six-plus decades of studying the death and morbidity rates among hundreds of thousands of people exposed to known quantities of radiation (from watch-dial painters and early X-Ray technicians to nuclear shipyard workers and Japanese A-bomb casualties), researchers have developed very accurate statistical predictions of how much radiation it will take to kill, injure, or eventually cause cancer in a certain proportion of those exposed. At Chernobyl, the great majority of people in the surrounding towns were exposed to radiation levels much higher than normal, that much is true, but here’s the thing: even those levels were nowhere near the threshold required to cause the effects reported by anti-nuclear organizations. A similar effect was observed among A-bomb survivors in Japan: the cancer rate spiked briefly among those most heavily exposed, then settled back to normal, and many are alive to this day.

      Anti-nuclear organizations have been very successful in propagating the belief that Chernobyl caused tens of thousands of deaths, birth defects, and the like, but there is no empirical or theoretical basis for believing this to be true. They have probably caused much more harm by instilling panic and stress among those displaced by the disaster, than were ever killed by radiation.

    2. Ralf Goergens Says:

      Ionizing radiation is one of the best-understood carcinogens out there. After six-plus decades of studying the death and morbidity rates among hundreds of thousands of people exposed to known quantities of radiation (from watch-dial painters and early X-Ray technicians to nuclear shipyard workers and Japanese A-bomb casualties), researchers have developed very accurate statistical predictions of how much radiation it will take to kill, injure, or eventually cause cancer in a certain proportion of those exposed.

      I’m no expert, but what about ingesting or inhaling small doses of radioactive isotopes? If I’m not mistaken the inverse square law says that people with such isotopes in their bodies, even in very small amounts, would get a disproportianally dosis, even if it just in a very localized way. If it possible to check for that? I’m asking because, for example, mushrooms and venison were, if only lightly radioactive. Particles from Chernobyl aslo rained dowwn all over Europe.

      Like I said in the post above, I support the of nuclear power, but I’m a bit dubious to some of the potential effects. It can also be pretty hard to get a straight answer out of the officlail experts around here, who’ll dismiss any worries, while the environmenatalists mostly just try to alarm people.

    3. Charles D. Quarles Says:

      Ralf,

      This planet is radioactive. Every day we ingest radioactive isotopes. We have defense mechanisms that limit damage from ionizing radiation. Though many won’t accept it, there is a threshold effect for radioactivity induced illnesses. Even if this planet wasn’t radioactive, people will still die of cancer. Since we have reduced the impact of trauma and infections, we now have more people living to ages where vascular diseases, cancers, and other ‘degenerative’ diseases are prominent causes of death. We should never forget that we are mortal man doomed to die. It is only a matter of how and when.

    4. Ralf Goergens Says:

      I know that the planet is radioactive, but what about small amounts of isotopes that still give you several times the dosis you normally get? I supppose that in the overwhelming majority of cases the body will deal with it just fine, but given the huge number of people who were exposed that could still mean at least a couple of hundred cases of cancer.

    5. Shannon Love Says:

      Ralf Goergens,

      but what about small amounts of isotopes that still give you several times the dosis you normally get?”

      Radioactive substances must be in a form that the body will absorb and integrate before they become dangerous in the tiny quantities that people more than a few kilometers from a disaster site are likely to encounter.

      Uranium for example, is not used by any of the bodies natural process, nor is it chemically close to any elements that used. Any uranium that is absorbed by the body will be rapidly expelled before it has a chance to cause much exposure.

      The most dangerous of trace isotopes are those of elements like iodine, strontium or cesium. Iodine is used by the body to make thyroid hormones and strontium and cesium are chemically close to calcium and therefor integrate into the bones. Even so, only trace amounts of the elements will occur in any given nuclear pile as they are only naturally occurring impurities in the original materials. Therefor, the amount of such dangerous materials that could be released by the complete vaporization of an entire nuclear reactor would be at the most on the order of a few dozen grams. (Transmutation of local elements into their radioactive isotopes is possible but not significant in the case of a reactor failure.)

      Taking iodine and calcium supplements can prevent the body for storing the isotopes and dramatically reduce the risk even if the absolute quantity of isotopes is extremely high.

      Chernobyl was such a localized disaster because the reactor was a graphite one with no containment. It didn’t melt down but rather burned, sending a plume of uranium filled smoke over the surrounding area. You could not have gotten better dispersal of the contents of the reactor if you had used a crop duster.

      It is technically correct to say that chernobyl sent a cloud of radioactive material all over Europe but that is like saying the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in China influence the weather in Texas to some extent. Radioactive material was detectable but that is because our instruments can detectable materials down to the 1 part in a billion or better. That is much different from saying that enough radioactivity spread across the rest of Europe to actually cause anyone to suffer any health consequences.

      One researchers I read years ago pointed out that statistically more people died from stress and fear related illnesses because they feared radiation poisoning than could have possibly died (or will ever die) from the actual radiation.

      Radiation simply isn’t the boggy man than so many people think it is. There are many chemical compounds in common use that are far more deadly in the same quantities to which you are far more likely to be exposed.

    6. Shannon Love Says:

      Ralf,

      “The fact remains that many, if not most, countries can’t be trusted with the technology, if only because of carelessness with fissionable materials or nuclear waste.”

      I do agree whole hearted with this sentence. Many countries of the world cannot even manage the technology necessary to keep their roads paved much less manage nuclear technology.

      Technological artifacts like reactors or roads don’t exist in a vacuum. Such artifacts require not only technical knowhow but also organizational management. The lack of a political and managerial “ecosystem” if you will is the major reason that so many areas have trouble effectively using technologies of many kinds.

    7. Ralf Goergens Says:

      Thanks Shannon, very interesting.

      Btw, back then the substance most frequently mentioned was indeed cesium. Certainly not enough to make many people sick, but those who couldn’t wean themselves from mushrooms and venison probably absorbed more cesium than was good for them.