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No Word for Meltdown: Nukespeak Returns

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George Orwell argued that controlling language offered the ultimate tool for getting people to accept the unacceptable -- such as the catastrophic risks of operating nuclear power plants. In Orwell's 1984, each new edition of the Newspeak dictionary had fewer words than the previous one, making it harder and harder even to think a thought that might challenge Big Brother.

So Orwell would not have been surprised to learn, as the New Yorker's Elizabeth Kolbert helpfully pointed out this week, that there is literally no word for "meltdown" in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's glossary of atomic-related words and phrases.

A Google search for the past month showed more than 1.93 billion hits for "meltdown. Yet the regulators at the NRC remain wary of listing the word that everyone else in the world uses to summarize the full horror of what will ensue if uranium fuel at the core of a commercial nuclear power plant is left uncooled long enough for it to melt. It's no surprise, since the nuclear industry's proponents speak a different language than the rest of us, a special language where euphemism and obfuscation reign, as we first pointed out thirty years ago in our book Nukespeak: Nuclear Language, Myths, and Mindset. Nukespeak is the language of the nuclear mindset -- the worldview or system of beliefs of nuclear developers and enthusiasts, to whom there are never any accidents -- only "events" or "incidents," "abnormal evolutions and normal aberrations," or "plant transients."

Some things never change: the Orwellian impulse to hide the truth about nuclear dangers remains the same as when we first wrote on the subject. And the nuclear priesthood (to borrow a phrase from the father of our "Nuclear Navy", Admiral Hyman Rickover) still uses many words and concepts that were already shopworn decades ago.

Minimization of risk is one essential component of Nukespeak. In the U.S., the Nuclear Regulatory Commission assured us on March 13th that given the weather conditions and the distance, "Hawaii, Alaska, the U.S. Territories and the U.S. West Coast are not expected to experience any harmful levels of radiation." Note the use of the discussion-ending categorical "any."

Similarly, in the opening phases of the ongoing disaster, Japanese officials continually insisted there was little possibility of large releases of radioactive materials. After a second explosion at one of the plants on Monday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yuko Edano said, "I have received reports that the containment vessel is sound. I understand that there is little possibility that radioactive materials are being released in large amounts."

Or take that old standby, "no evidence." On March 13, Dr. David J. Brenner of Columbia University's Center for Radiological Research, comparing the situation in Japan with the meltdown at the Three Mile Island reactor in 1979, suggested we should not worry about events in Japan because "There is no evidence that anybody at all got sick [from Three Mile Island], even decades later."

In listening to nuclear proponents, it is impossible to underestimate the extent of their belief that we are capable of anticipating and defending against every conceivable accident, the "nothing can wrong" syndrome. The fact that we have as little information as we do about what is happening inside the damaged Japanese reactors is a result of this extraordinary hubris. After Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, where similar confusion reigned supreme, one might have assumed that nuclear operators everywhere would add an array of video cameras, radiation detectors, and the like, to provide the most complete information possible in the event of an accident.

But that never happened: hence the paucity of information being released by the Japanese and American governments. If you believe that "nothing" you have not already imagined "can go wrong", why spend money to install more sensors than your original "design basis accident" plan called for?

Crises pose a special challenge to users of Nukespeak, since the extreme pressures of the moment tend to produce irruptions of unsettling new metaphors. In an eerie echo of the debate that swirled around Bill Clinton's definition of the word "is," for example, we find the New York Times explaining that the "essential problem" in Japan now is "the definition of 'off' in a nuclear reactor." And while we learned from the meltdown of the financial industry about the technique of "pump and dump," we find that the Japanese plant operators are using a desperate "feed and bleed" procedure, pumping seawater into a reactor to cool the fuel and then relieving the pressure by pumping out radioactivity into the atmosphere.

President Obama has also been playing these Orwellian word games. In the effort to stop global warming, environmentalists have long pushed the idea of setting a federal renewable energy standard. But when Obama delivered the 2011 State of the Union, he used a slightly different phrase: a "clean energy standard," which was so sweeping that it included not only nuclear power but even so-called "clean coal," a technology that does not even exist at an industrial scale. The fact that neither the federal government nor the utility industry has figured out what to do with highly radioactive nuclear waste after more than 50 years of trying should give the president pause when he abuses that seemingly straightforward word "clean."

If they are lucky, the Japanese may still be able to prevent the worst possible outcome. But for the rest of us, it's time we rejected the feel-good, head-in-the-sand language about nuclear power as a "clean" and "safe" technology. There are plenty of more cost-effective, cleaner, and safer solutions to providing us with the energy we need. What we need to hear from President Obama now is some straight talk instead about a commitment to a future program of energy efficiency and solar-based renewables -- and not, as he has called for, an expansion of dangerous nuclear plants.

Rory O'Connor and Richard Bell are co-authors, with Stephen Hilgartner, of Nukespeak: Nuclear Language, Myths, and Mindset.