Dr. Andrew Kanter recently addressed the United Nations General Assembly about the devastating humanitarian consequences of nuclear war.
As Immediate Past President of Physicians for Social Responsibility – or PSR – Kanter is a passionate opponent of nuclear technology.
When he’s not speaking to groups about the potential global catastrophe from even limited nuclear warfare, he teaches at the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Several weeks ago, he stopped by WHQR .
Dr. Kanter willingly engages in detailed discussions about new developments in nuclear technology. But given an opening, he propels the conversation out of the weeds into a philosophical one – preferring instead to examine the thinking behind decisions that affect the planet.
“If you think about where we’ve got right now… We’re in very deep trouble in many ways. And that’s because there’s lots of people on the planet doing lots of small things badly… And we have so many people and so much creativity on this planet – that if everyone just made that choice to do something positive as opposed to doing something negative we would achieve the solutions that we hope for.”
PSR is the largest physician-led organization in the U.S., says Kanter, working to protect the public from threats of nuclear proliferation, climate change, and environmental toxins. The organization won the Nobel Prize Peace Prize in 1985, and Kanter remembers traveling to Oslo as the medical student representative.
"Prior to that, it was common to think that nuclear war was winnable. And the physicians raised awareness that the dangers of nuclear war in terms of human health and survival far outweighed any kind of political benefit and therefore we needed to prevent nuclear war at all costs."
But opposing nuclear war, nuclear weapons, and proliferation threats, also means, for Kanter, taking issue with the development of nuclear technology as an alternative energy source.
"Nuclear power is often put forward as potential solution for climate change because of decreased carbon production. But throughout the entire fuel cycle – from the mining of the uranium all the way through to production of electricity and creation of the nuclear waste which also produces nuclear weapons, it actually doesn’t help the environment or climate change."
There is a new generation of integral fast reactor – one that, proponents say, solves some of the historically-intractable problems associated with nuclear technology. What to do with the waste is one of the knottiest, and while a new IFR has yet to be built on a commercial scale, scientists say this design essentially recycles large amounts of waste leaving behind less toxic, radioactive matter. But that doesn’t change PSR’s opposition.
"The nuclear industry in particular has not had a successful track record. And there’s always something new down the road which will potentially solve all the problems… what we’ve found though is that the technology is never cheap enough or safe enough or clean enough to really solve our problems. And the whole basis behind a whole new generation of nuclear power plants – it’s really driven by special interests and the nuclear industry who wants to maintain this as a solution even though the economics are against it. The safety record is against it."
In order for nuclear technology to become a viable form of alternative energy that would make a substantial impact on global warming, the industry would have to build roughly 1000-1500 new nuclear reactors, says Kanter, citing data from an MIT study.
"And when you think about where the energy’s going to be needed we’re supposedly building these plants for – two-thirds of energy in the next 50 years is going to be mostly in developing countries. Not here in the U.S."
So those new nuclear plants would have to be built in places that aren’t typically seen as technologically advanced.
"If Fukushima can happen in the most technologically-advanced society in the world, perhaps Japan, you can imagine what it would be likely to happen if there were nuclear power plants scattered throughout the planet."
But consider the fact that GE Nuclear is a major contributor to the economic vitality of the Cape Fear region.
"When we think about what kind of investments we’re making in our energy and future here, now, do we choose things that are going to perhaps give someone else more money but risk our lives, or do we try to find technologies and livelihoods that do both -- that both supports the ecosystem and maintains a sustainable life while providing jobs and the right kind of lifestyle for our kids?"
It’s not just a war between the United States and Russia that people should be thinking about, says Dr. Kanter. If there was even a smaller exchange of nuclear warfare –
“Let’s say half of the weapons in India and Pakistan, say…”
Not far-fetched – considering the neighboring countries have gone to war in the past, says Kanter…
“The amount of people killed and the climate of impact – that war that happened a long way away -- would actually impact the entire planet up to the point of killing a billion or maybe even two billion people.”
And that’s when the activity is on the other side of the globe, says Kanter, because of the small, interrelated nature of this planet and its climate. It’s for that reason Kanter says he’d like to see the whole discussion about nuclear weapons re-characterized. It’s not enough to talk about reducing arsenals, says Kanter. They must be eliminated for the human race to have a chance at survival.