Jan Haaken on The False Promise  Of a Nuclear Renaissance

In the opening scene of Jan Haaken’s new documentary – Atomic Bamboozle: The False Promise of a Nuclear Renaissance – then Energy Secretary Rick Perry is standing amidst a group of about twenty beaming young people. 

And Perry says – “Here are a group of young men and women, they are the millennials for nuclear power. This is the brain trust. They are going to make nuclear energy cool again.”

The Department of Energy’s and the nuclear industry’s millennials for nuclear power public relations campaign has had an impact.  

Ask a young person who is concerned about climate catastrophe what they think about nuclear power and odds are, they will be in favor.

Haaken is out to counter the industry’s campaign and win back young people to the no nuke side.

The film follows anti-nuclear activists, Tribal leaders, scientists and attorneys as they draw lessons from the decades-long campaign to shut down the Trojan Nuclear Power plant in Oregon and extend those lessons into a new struggle: proposals for small modular nuclear reactors in the Pacific Northwest. 

The documentary exposes the true costs of these reactor designs that have been aggressively promoted by the US Department of Energy and the nuclear industry.

The film, which was shot by Haaken, a professor emeritus of psychology at Portland State University, portrays a nuclear industry rising quickly while downplaying nuclear power’s waste issues.

The documentary follows activists as they expose the true costs of these small nuclear reactor designs that have been opposed by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) as well as by a number of other environmental groups.

With the current rush to fund SMRs at the federal level and pressure from NuScale and other companies in Oregon to overturn state laws restricting nuclear power plants, activists and tribes asked the Haaken to take up the issue and produce this documentary. 

Were you surprised by the number of young people who speak positively about the nuclear renaissance?

“Yes and no,” Haaken told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last month. “The toxic legacy of this industry has a long half life. But the nuclear industry has been very effective at portraying itself as clean. The boundary between clean and dirty has interested me a lot – how something gets defined as clean versus dirty. We can all see how coal and fossil fuels are dirty. But the nuclear industry has kept a lot of its dirty work underground.” 

“The Department of Energy has actively promoted millennials for nuclear energy. This is not a spontaneous movement of young people, like the Sunrise Movement.”

I’ve heard the Sunrise Movement has been waffling on nuclear power.

“Their national group – I don’t think they have made a statement on nuclear power. Young people have not been very informed about the problems of this movement.” 

“When I started out researching Atomic Bamboozle, I saw that the internet was awash in promotions for nuclear power.” 

The film focuses on the fight against nuclear power in Oregon. What’s the situation there now?

“In 1980, the voters of Oregon passed a law that does not allow nuclear facilities to be built in the state without two conditions – a repository for nuclear waste and a referendum by the voters.”

“The nuclear power company NuScale is located here in Portland. They have been pushing for a loosening of that 1980 law. Some of the legislation says that this law does not apply to them because they are proposing small reactors.”

Right now, Oregon is nuclear free because Trojan was defeated?

“Yes. Trojan was shut down in 1993 and decommissioned in 2006. It takes a long time to decommission these plants. It’s very expensive to take them down. I didn’t realize before I started on this film project that there are over 30 castes of nuclear waste permanently stored at the former Trojan nuclear site here along the Columbia River.”

What’s going to happen with that waste?

“The government made a commitment with a taxpayer fund of money to find a permanent geological repository for these wastes by 1998. That date passed long ago and there is no more political will to find a storage site. The Yucca Mountain site in New Mexico was the last one that had some potential. But every time a site is considered, there is political organizing against it, including here at the Hanford site along the Columbia River in Washington state.”

The key message of nuclear renaissance is that these smaller reactors are much safer than the larger reactors that are being decommissioned and pose no threat. And in the age of climate disaster, these smaller reactors should be part of the answer.

“That’s correct. They don’t claim they are the sole solution, but they do say they are an essential part of any technological response to the climate crisis. I’m attuned as a psychologist as to how people respond in a crisis. In a crisis, people are vulnerable to various messages of salvation when they are afraid, whether it’s an authoritarian appeal or a technological quasi-religious appeal in terms of what is going to deliver us from our scary situation.”

“It became a noticeable mantra of the industry that the climate crisis is so severe that we have to throw all the tools we have at it. They say – we don’t deny the advantages of renewables, but renewables can only get us so far.” 

If it was safe and cost-effective, then it would be an answer to climate disaster.

“Nuclear power has a long history, both for large and small reactors, of overselling themselves. They rely heavily on substantial government subsidies. The industry has made cost estimates that have fallen short. And they have fallen short in their claims around safety and their ability to manage the radioactive waste they produce.”

“It’s not just that these small reactors are not safe and cost effective. But they are worse even than the big reactors. These are prototypes. But they are just designs. And the companies pushing these small reactors are not up front with how long the process is for approving them, how the radioactive waste they produce would be less secure than how wastes are now managed at about 52 plants – where nuclear wastes are buried onsite.”

How would the wastes be less secure?

“The business model involves building these modules in plants and then shipping them to various remote areas. One of their key selling points is that they could bring energy to remote areas of Alaska and rural areas around the world, to Eastern Europe, that don’t have access to other forms of power. They would be trucking these reactors around.”

  “Think about a rural community having to manage this waste. One of the bills in Oregon shifts the regulatory burden of the wastes onto the counties. The half life of these wastes is hundreds of thousands of years. It’s eternity. It’s as long as human evolution.” 

“They are thrusting these problems onto smaller communities without a stable regulatory structure that would need to be in place to regulate this waste. It’s a horrible solution for desperate communities. And some of the waste is near the grade used for nuclear weapons.”

“This is a deal with the devil. I would not want to assume that everyone in this industry is malevolent. There are many true believers who have invested their careers in this.” 

“But entrepreneurs in America have a long history of overselling their products. They have invested their lives in these products. And we cannot be looking to entrepreneurs to evaluate the viability of their own designs.”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has recently leaned into nuclear power. She is now using industry talking points like calling the nuclear waste cycle “recycling.” 

Are you seeing that among young progressive legislators?

“I was puzzled by that. The propaganda on the other side of this issue is pretty fierce and intense. A lot of young people have to pick their battles. The nuclear industry has not been targeted by the environmental movement in the same way that fossil fuels have. Oil, coal and gas are at center stage.”

“Until there are grassroots movements against nuclear power, people like AOC are not going to critique it.”

At the center of the documentary is Professor M.V. Ramana of the University of British Columbia, who seeks to debunk the industry propaganda.

“There is a company called Lazard, which is a Wall Street company that comes up with estimates of costs of electricity generated from different kinds of sources,” Ramana says. “The last report from Lazard that came out in 2021 estimated a new nuclear power plant would produce electricity at roughly $160 per megawatt hour.” 

“By comparison, the cost for solar and wind are on the order of $30 to $40 per megawatt hour. That’s a huge gap. And if you go to small modular reactors, that gap will only become larger.”

“And if large nuclear plants themselves are not competitive, there’s no way that small modular reactors are going to be economically competitive.”

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Jan Haaken, see 37 Corporate Crime Reporter 13(14), March 27, 2023, print edition only.]

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