Pandora’s Promise

Uranium is a chemical element that has the sym...

Uranium is a chemical element that has the symbol U and atomic number 92. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is a version of my ninth Toastmaster’s speech, designed to be a persuasive speech.  I have rewritten some parts of this to make it a better reading experience for web visitors.  It is also my only mention on this blog of the 2013 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which I blogged about in the past, something I just didn’t find time for this year.  Enjoy, and please give me feedback.

Public health professionals have studied about malaria and tried to eradicate malaria for decades, using many different strategies against the deadly mosquito borne parasite.  Despite these efforts, according to the World Health Organization, 660,000 people per year die prematurely because of malaria.[1]

Here is another statistic from WHO to think about:  According to World Health Organization,

“Urban outdoor air pollution is estimated to cause 1.3 million deaths worldwide per year.” [2]

1.3 million Deaths: That is a number to wrap your brain around, twice the number of malaria deaths.

While there are many sources of urban pollution, I can safely assert that  burning  fossil fuels causes most of that pollution.  Whether from gasoline, coal, or natural gas, burning fossils fuels pollutes.  As I am sure you are aware, burning of fossil fuels contributes massive amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, the principal driver of global warming.  Global warming threatens to dramatically alter our way of life at tremendous cost in lives and property; and it could quite possibly threaten the viability of our species.

Given the numbers of deaths attributable to urban pollution, and the real risks we face due to global warming, we can recognize the imperative to reduce and eventually abandon the burning of fossil fuels.  But, is that practical or even achievable?  One argument is that if we in the west could just give up some of our power intensive lifestyles – our cars, tvs, cell phones, computers – we could save enough electricity to dramatically reduce our fuel consumption.  But, ask yourselves, how much are you willing to give up?  Hot showers?  Hot food?  Driving to work?  I doubt many westerners would voluntarily give up these amenities.  Furthermore, it is an ethically bankrupt position to demand that the developing world forego these amenities now that the world is getting hotter because of our profligate use of fossil fuels.  This give and take between the desires of the developing world and the status quo in the developed world is exactly what killed the Kyoto protocols.

Another argument is that if we just had more investment and wind, solar, and other alternative fuels, we could wean ourselves off fossil fuels.  I am all for wind and solar.  However, to use those wind and solar power plants requires their manufacture, which for all practical purposes requires the burning of fossil fuels.  What is more, wind and solar simply do not have the efficiency and capacity to power a planet that is approaching 9 billion people.

Now I want you to think back 27 years, about the Chernobyl nuclear accident.  This was one of the two most horrific nuclear disasters in history.  The Chernobyl accident was arguably the worst accident, worse than the recent Fukushima Daichii event, as there was no containment vessel surrounding the reactor at Chernobyl.  The Chernobyl plant was an inherently risky design, really an accident waiting to happen.   The radiation released from Chernobyl was detectable across Europe.  Now knowing everything you do about public health, with 27 years of follow-up, can you guess how many people were killed as a result of the Chernobyl accident?

According to the WHO, of the first responders who worked to contain the Chernobyl disaster, 28 died.[3]  I repeat, 28.  In the years since then, WHO estimates that among the 626,000 people who received the highest levels of radiation exposure after the Chernobyl accident “there may be up to 4,000 additional cancer deaths.”[3]  Perhaps another 5,000 people may die because of exposure to radioactive cesium released after the Chernobyl incident.  I do not make light of these deaths, but the reality is these numbers, over a 27 year period are paltry compared to the 1.3 million deaths every year attributable to urban air pollution.  A WHO study from 2006[4] counts 47 deaths directly attributable to Chernobyl.

Chernobyl was the worst nuclear disaster we have seen, and yet, almost 30 years later, it barely causes a blip in the mortality of the human race.  Environmentalists, including me, have long favored the notion that radiation is just not safe, we should just leave it alone, it is too dangerous to human health.  But nuclear power doesn’t emit carbon dioxide, doesn’t have particulate pollution, and is tremendously efficient at generating energy.  Weighing those 1.3 million deaths per year, don’t we owe it to ourselves to keep an open mind and look again at nuclear power?

In essence, that was the premise of a fantastic movie I saw this year at the Full Frame Festival.  The name of the film is Pandora’s Promise, a documentary by noted filmmaker Robert Stone

.  Through interviews with nuclear engineers, environmentalists, and politicians, the film suggests that we have been frightened into thinking nuclear power is horribly dangerous, and, no doubt, it can be.  But Global Warming is a bigger danger.  Through fear, we may be throwing away the most valuable tool at our disposal in our effort to forestall global warming.

The most fascinating part of the film was when one of the filmmakers, wearing a radiation suit, filmed a geiger counter reading at various points around the globe.  Keep in mind that many people around the world, particularly those living at high elevations like in Denver, Addis Ababa, or Quito, live with high background radiation levels. Remarkably, Rio De Janeiro had one of the highest levels of radiation, higher than Chernobyl today, or even in Japan near the Fukushima Daichii nuclear plant.  Now knowing that, would you think twice about a free ticket to Rio?  Would you be as afraid to go there as you probably are to go to Pripyat, Ukraine, next to Chernobyl?

If you are opposed to nuclear power, I doubt my short talk hear has changed your mind, but my hope today is really to persuade you to open your mind.  Director Robert Stone faced tough audience questions after the film showing at Full Frame.  But ultimately, I think a lot of people walked away with their minds changed.  This was not my first introduction to the concept of safe nuclear power, an idea that I could understand, even support, but not feel fully confident in admitting too.  What I simply ask you to do is to watch this film – it is in theaters in June, or look for it later on Netflix – and watch with an open mind.


References

  1. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs094/en/index.html
  2. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs313/en/index.html
  3. http://www.who.int/ionizing_radiation/chernobyl/backgrounder/en/index.html
  4. http://whqlibdoc.who.int/publications/2006/9241594179_eng.pdf page 106
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