American Peace Activist Jonathan Schell: 'Our Most Dangerous Illusion Is that We Can Control Nuclear Energy'

In a SPIEGEL interview, peace activist and author Jonathan Schell discusses the lessons of the Fukushima disaster, mankind's false impression that it can somehow safely produce electricity from the atom, and why he thinks the partial meltdown in Japan could mark a turning point for the world.

Photo Gallery: 'Perhaps Fukushima Will be a Turning Point' Photos
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SPIEGEL: Mr. Schell, what unsettled you the most about the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe?

Schell: Clearly this whole accident just went completely off the charts of what had been prepared for. If you look at the manuals for dealing with nuclear safety accidents, you're not going to find a section that says muster your military helicopters, dip buckets into the sea and then try as best you can to splash water onto the reactor and see if you can hit a spent fuel pool. There's going to be no instruction saying, go and get your riot control trucks to spray the reactor, only to find that you're driven back by radiation. The potential for total disaster was clearly demonstrated.

SPIEGEL: But supporters of nuclear energy are already preparing a different narrative. They say that an old, outdated nuclear power plant was hit by a monster tsunami and an earthquake at the same time -- and, yet, so far only a handful of people have been exposed to radioactive energy. Not a single person has died.

Schell: Clearly it's better than if you had had a massive Chernobyl-type release of energy. But I think that any reasonable analysis will show that this was not a power plant that was under control. The operators were thrown back on wild improvisation. The worst sort of disaster was a desperate mistake or two away. Through a bunch of workarounds and frantic fixes, technicians at Fukushima headed that off, but that was no sure thing. No one will be able honestly to portray this event as a model of nuclear safety. It would be like saying that the Cuban missile crisis showed the safety of nuclear arsenals.

SPIEGEL: It is not just in Germany, but also in the United States and China that people are stockpiling supplies of iodine tablets. And shipments from Japan are supposed to be tested for radioactivity. Where does this profound fear of nuclear energy come from?

Schell: In the public mind, nuclear power is associated with nuclear weapons. In both, a nuclear chain reaction is, in fact, the source of power. It's true that you can't have an atomic explosion in a nuclear power plant, but people are quite right to make that association. For example there is also the proliferation connection. In other words, the problem with the association of nuclear power with nuclear weapons goes beyond the escape of radiation and Chernobyl-type accidents. The third big challenge is, of course, the waste problem. You have to keep that waste underground for maybe a half-million years. So we're acting in a kind of cosmic way in the terrestrial setting, even though we just don't have the wisdom and staying power to do so.

SPIEGEL: You say that dealing with nuclear energy is like gambling with "Mother Nature's power." Why is it so totally different from other sources of energy?

Schell: Because it's so colossally more powerful. Comparable energy can be found, at best, in the center of stars. It's basically not found on earth naturally, and it's only through our own scientific brilliance that we've been able to introduce it into the terrestrial setting. But, unfortunately, we're not as advanced morally, practically and politically as we are scientifically, so we are not prepared to control this force properly. The most dangerous illusion we have concerning nuclear energy is that we can control it.

SPIEGEL: Despite all these concerns, we have seen an emerging renaissance in nuclear energy in recent years.

Schell: I don't think there really was a nuclear renaissance. There was the phrase "nuclear renaissance," but already in many parts of the world the financial aspects of nuclear power were not working out. The bankers were not stepping forward to finance new power plants. Insurance companies were reluctant to cover the risk.

SPIEGEL: Many environmentalists are now even calling for an expansion of nuclear power -- because they see it as the only way to limit climate change.

Schell: I find their arguments weak. In the first place, there are about 450 nuclear power plants around the world. To make a serious dent in carbon emissions, you would have to double or triple that --and not only in countries as technically sophisticated as Japan. More importantly, I fear the attempted solution would be self-defeating in its own terms. Think how the high the cost will be if we pour our scarce resources into this faulty one and then there is a truly catastrophic accident down the road, and we were forced by this to liquidate the investment. This would be not only a disaster in its own right, but a disaster for the overall effort to head off global warming.

SPIEGEL: German Chancellor Angela Merkel had always been a supporter of nuclear energy. Now she is talking about expediting Germany's planned phase-out of nuclear power. Will Germany be able to succeed in eschewing nuclear power entirely?

Schell: The anti-nuclear movement certainly has been stronger in Germany than in practically any other country, even before the Fukushima incident. I'd say it looks quite possible that Germany will go back to the phase-out policy, and that its nuclear power plants will be taken offline quickly. And I'd be surprised if Japan did not go in the same direction.

SPIEGEL: Why don't we see similar anti-nuclear protests in the United States?

Schell: The whole nuclear industry has had a low profile in the United States, perhaps, in part, because we haven't seen the construction of new power plants since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.

SPIEGEL: But President Barack Obama has now announced the construction of new nuclear power plants.

Schell: … and people in the US don't seem to be bothered by it so far. That's been true, until now. New polls show that support for nuclear power has dropped sharply. Honestly, I don't think Americans have been thinking about this issue very much. Now the Fukushima accident will concentrate people's minds.

SPIEGEL: Will Obama abandon his pro-nuclear energy policies?

Schell: There's a real chance that, in practice, he will back off -- also for budgetary reasons. If you try to add in all kinds of new safety features, then you raise the price. The cost of building a nuclear power plant today already costs tens of billions of dollars.

SPIEGEL: The greatest enthusiasm to be found anywhere once permeated the US shortly after the discovery of nuclear energy. During the 1950s, the Eisenhower administration enthusiastically promoted its "Atoms for Peace" program.

Schell: That story is interesting because with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, we see the close connection at every stage of nuclear power with nuclear weapons. Eisenhower increased the US arsenal from around 1,400 to 20,000 nuclear weapons. But he also wanted an element of peace in his policy. This is where the "Atoms for Peace" program came in, whereby countries would be given technology to produce nuclear power, the "friendly atom," in exchange for constraints on proliferation of nuclear weapons -- the "destructive atom." That rationale is still embodied today in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

SPIEGEL: Obama has outlined his vision of a world without nuclear weapons. But the reaction to it has been lukewarm, even within his own team.

Schell: Within the Obama administration, it seems to be the president himself -- and possibly even the president alone -- who really believes in this vision. But he has the public on his side. If you ask people if they would like to live in a world without nuclear weapons, a very high majority answer in the affirmative. On the other hand, there is a powerful bureaucratic infrastructure left in the Pentagon, in the State Department, in the Energy Department that is not ready to translate Obama's vision into action and works to thwart it. He needs more supporters among his own officials.

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About Jonathan Schell
Michael Rubenstein / DER SPIEGEL
Since the 1980s, Jonathan Schell has been battling for a nuclear-free world. In 1982, the American author wrote "The Fate of the Earth," a kind of bible for the peace movement, in which he warned against the consequences of nuclear war and the dangers of the arms race. His latest book, "The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger," deals with the role of nuclear weapons after the end of the Cold War, and the proliferation of nuclear technology. Even today, Schell, 67, believes the nuclear threat is on par with the dangers associated with climate change and environmental degradation. In the Fukushima disaster he sees another warning sign of our inability to control the power of the atom.

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