by Will Boisvert

Review of No Immediate Danger: Volume One of Carbon Ideologies

by William T. Vollman. Viking, $40, (624 pages).


We like to think that on vital questions of climate and energy a close engagement with facts can overcome a mistaken ideology. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

Consider William T. Vollmann, a novelist, journalist and National Book Award-winner who is sometimes bruited as a Nobel contender. Vollmann likes—considering the labor involved, probably needs—to write multi-volume nonfiction treatments of big, nebulous subjects. (His Rising Up, Rising Down is a seven-volume, 3,352-page meditation on “violence, freedom and urgent means.”) This week he’s coming out with a new doorstop entitled Carbon Ideologies, a two-volume, 1,308-page treatise on the perils of global warming and unclean energy. It’s a weighty statement of green doctrine, burnished to a literary sheen and packed with eye-witness reportage for added emotional impact. It’s also an object lesson in how confused green doctrine has become. So confused that No Immediate Danger, the first volume of Vollman’s cri-de-coeur against carbon-based energy, is an attack on nuclear power, one of the leading sources of carbon-free energy.

In making its case No Immediate Danger offers a barrage of facts: facts about fossil fuels; facts about energy consumption; many, many facts about fallout from the Fukushima nuclear accident, the main focus of Danger; paragraphs and tables and glossaries and appendices full of facts. Counterposed to the facts in Vollmann’s epistemic scheme are “ideologies” of complacency and denial—anodyne claims by “ideologues” that fossil fuels and nuclear power are safe and benign, or at least necessary for the time being—that he aims to discredit. But the facts are no match for Vollmann’s own ideology: a dogma of austerity, premised on apocalyptic fear, that’s as irrational and dangerous as any of the ideas he opposes.

The problems start with Vollmann’s handling of facts in an opening 200-page “primer” on fossil fuels and global warming, one that’s strewn with numerical data that suggest rigorous analysis but deliver inane distraction. Vollmann is painfully uncomfortable with technical discussions and so nervous about making readers sit through them that he feels compelled to goose them with writerly japes, like denominating the power requirements of various machines in “multiples of what was needed per minute circa 1975 to operate a plug-in vibrator.” [1] Unfortunately, while his paid math-checkers were busy verifying that benchmark they let through some whopping errors. (Vollmann claims that “in each two days of 2009, the world burned the entire oil output of 1990,” which is wrong by 289 days.) [3] Worse than Vollmann’s wrong numbers are his many pointless ones. On page 213, for example, we learn that combustion of Maryland low-volatile bituminous coal yields 13,870 BTUs of energy per pound, while Alabama high-volatile bituminous coal yields 14,000; Colorado anthracite coal 14,030; Eastern Kentucky high-volatile bituminous coal 14,290; West Virginia low-volatile bituminous coal from Elkhorn 14,550, from Big Stick 14,370 and from Skelton 14,780 BTUs per pound. [4]

This chaff of factoids is meant to show that Vollmann has done his homework, that he’s not just another literary lightweight dabbling in scientific issues he doesn’t really understand. But he seldom uses facts to make a coherent argument or mount a critique of an opposing viewpoint. His discussion of “carbon ideologies,” the reasons people give for our ongoing reliance on fossil fuels, rarely gets beyond sarcastic gibes—“why, those shivering Canadians ought to be grateful!” [5]—and never contends with them on the merits. Indeed, his definition of “carbon ideology” is so loose that “solar energy…tidal electricity and wind turbines could all be named carbon ideologies” [6] just because they have something to do with how much carbon we burn. He even counts himself as a “carbon ideologue.” [7] With concepts this muddled it’s hard for Vollmann to say anything meaningful, and he concedes that “this little book [sic] scrapes by without offering any solutions” [8] that might demand a serious investigation of the advantages and pitfalls of various energy sources.

So he leaves the thinking to us—or, specifically, “you.” Vollmann addresses his commentary to an unnamed “you” reading it at an indeterminate time in the future when global warming has so ravaged the planet that the folly of fossil fuels has become self-evident and needs no elaboration. “You” live without electric lighting or refrigerators and have to take a radiation detector everywhere you go. “You” may not even read his book, Vollmann shudders, since “even I in my deluded toil can barely imagine that you will trouble to turn over these data, even with your boot, since you are busy enough scouring dead beaches for food.” [9] There is nothing but hunger and bitterness “for you from the future, who understandably despise us” [10] because our emissions in the present caused your misery. Vollmann needn’t trouble himself with showing that this Road Warrior future is remotely plausible (as I argue elsewhere, it’s not), [51] because to “you” it’s a certainty. After all, you live there!

With “you” as his witness he can dismiss every quibble about the lingering need for fossil fuels. Vollmann allows that fossil-fueled electricity and machinery alleviate human drudgery, improve our lives and let us make “useful and beautiful things of all sorts.” [11] We might further reflect that before the industrial revolution started under coal power the world really was as impoverished and desperate as a Hollywood post-apocalypse. But the manifest benefits of fossil fuels, and the fact that right now the world would collapse without them, hardly matter since the endpoint of all that energy and industry and advancement—as “you” well know!—is a future of famine and rags, devoid of useful and beautiful things of any sort. Our profligate energy use eventually returned you to the hell it delivered us from.

And even the supposedly benign flow of energy we currently enjoy is largely luxury and waste, Vollmann assures us. He offers reams of data on the inefficiency of machine tools, industrial processes, food spoilage, and everything else we do, asserting that “61 % of the energy generated in the United States accomplished no useful work whatsoever.” [12] (He doesn’t quite grasp the thermodynamic principle that doing useful work usually requires shedding lots of heat energy as “waste,” and doesn’t realized that industrial energy efficiency compares well with natural processes; muscle contractions typically dissipate over two thirds the energy they consume as waste heat, and photosynthesis is only about 6 percent efficient at converting sunlight into chemical energy.) [13] Comfortable living is for Vollmann a panorama of squandered energy, of lazy, hot showers and parasitic appliances idling in standby mode. “What was the work for?” [14] he wonders repeatedly, suggesting that even when energy is not wasted it is still not useful—it just makes us fat and sick:

[I]n 2002, Americans spent 287,604 more BTUs per capita than in 1997 on the manufacture, distribution, preparation and disposal of sugar and sweets. That was the equivalent of an extra 69 pounds of coal apiece. Diabetes had long since become commonplace among us, but sweets tasted so delicious!….And at Halloween it was just plain neighborly to buy giant bags of individually wrapped candies to make the trick-or-treaters happy. It never crossed my mind that I was doing wrong.” [15]

What to do with a world of waste and junk food and useless work by machines that are best regarded as their equivalent in sex toys? Vollmann leaves it up to “you”: “I would argue that wherever thermodynamic efficiency was low, energy input was high, and the question ‘What was the work for?’ lacked any better answer than ‘for short-term profit or pleasure,’ then a given manufacturing process should have been branded wasteful—You from the future would say: ‘It should have been prohibited.’” [16] Even if Vollmann can’t bring himself to ban Halloween, he knows “you” would, because there is no candy on the dead beaches you scour.

Thus Vollmann’s real ideological target isn’t “carbon,” it’s industrial civilization as a whole and its ethos of surfeit, convenience and pleasure. And while that’s a hard sell to today’s heedless consumers, to “you from the future” it’s axiomatic. You live in a world physically blighted by industrial pollutants and emissions but morally cleansed of industrial decadence and hubris; from your hard, clear-eyed future of bare survival, you pass unanswerable judgment on the frivolous present. And so you are the perfect effigy of a green ideology of austerity that Vollmann embraces without taking responsibility for its cruelty, or grappling with its unpopularity, or even bothering to demonstrate its necessity. Like the unyielding alarmists who are his natural audience, “you” don’t need any persuading of that fearful, sanctimonious creed because you have always believed it.

Having painted fossil-fueled global warming as an apocalyptic threat, Vollmann proceeds to a 296-page attack on nuclear power, the most reliable low-carbon energy source, on the grounds of an apocalyptic threat of radiation. Here’s he’s charging into another technically sophisticated controversy that carries a heavy ideological charge. The usefulness and safety of nuclear power is the most contentious issue in energy policy, and there is an enormous scientific literature on it. Thousands of researchers, scientific bodies like the U. S. National Academies of Science and government regulatory agencies have spent decades hashing out a consensus on the health risks of radiation exposure and the consequences of nuclear accidents. There is also much trenchant advocacy on the issue. Many environmentalists and climate scientists have staked out pro-nuclear positions arguing that the risks of nuclear power are small and that its benefits in preventing air pollution and climate change make it indispensable. Pushker Karecha and James Hansen, the latter probably the world’s most prominent scientific advocate for clean energy, have published a study estimating that nuclear power has already saved nearly 2 million lives by replacing coal-fired power plants and eliminating the air pollution they would have generated. So there’s a lot out there for Vollmann to chew on in pondering nuclear power.

But he chews on almost none of it. The notions that radiation is unfathomably toxic, and nuclear accidents an unparalleled threat, are axioms for him, not propositions open to debate. So Vollmann doesn’t explore the arguments in favor of nuclear power, he just dismisses them as “nuclear ideology” in a seven-page section consisting of 53 disconnected pro-nuclear soundbites, including bumper-sticker slogans like “To Save the Planet, Go Nuclear.” [17] In reply to said ideologies he attempts a few sketchy rehashes of long-debunked anti-nuclear canards. (He offers the news that fossil fuels are burned in processing uranium and building nuclear plants, without noting the many studies that show that the resulting greenhouse emissions are tiny, and lower per kilowatt-hour generated then those from solar power.) [18] More often he contents himself with the usual witless sarcasm—“Carbon Ideologies now delights to inform you that unlike its main three rival fuels, nuclear could be fun!” [19]—that he levels at every challenge to alarmist orthodoxy. The only (barely) sustained pro-nuclear voices readers hear are bland pronouncements from employees of TEPCO, the Japanese utility that owns the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, as awkwardly relayed by his translator. The main independent expert he relies on in assessing nuclear risks is Ed Lyman, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, who has made a career of very alarmist (and much-disputed) nuclear accident scenarios. (His report “Chernobyl on the Hudson,” which imagined a terrorist strike on New York’s Indian Point nuclear plant killing hundreds of thousands of people, featured prominently in New York State’s legal campaign to shutter the plant.) Vollmann feels no need to get past thread-bare jeers at nuclear power because, again, “you” already know he’s right. You live in the fallout-drenched, cancer-ridden future where “you will mask yourself” against the radioactive dust, “rinsing off alpha and beta particles at your destination, perhaps with recycled grey water, and slicing off your tumors every few years until they get you.” [20]

He does, however, give us facts about radiation—lots of facts. The last half of the book is mostly Vollmann wandering around with radiation meters in the evacuation zone surrounding the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, measuring the surge and ebb of gamma rays. This section is expanded from articles he wrote for Harper’s Magazine, and takes after the Harper’s Index and Findings sections by mining decontextualized data-dumps for polemical grist and literary effect. His rambling radiation surveys paint a picture of nuclear desolation, of abandoned towns, weed-choked fields and grim survivors sifting the ruins. (They also let him tell readers that the sound of a scintillation counter sampling radiation is “a 3-tone chirp, not unlike the sound one of [Vollmann’s] sweetest girlfriends used to make when she climaxed.”) [21] The measurements, obsessively recorded and tabulated, take on their own impressionistic and emotive force. They constitute the basis for Vollmann’s real case against nuclear power, which is this: radiation is rising, time to panic.

He benchmarks the Fukushima radiation against readings of natural background radiation from all over the world, starting with his Sacramento studio and ranging as far afield as West Virginia, Singapore and Bangladesh. The readings start low: 0.06 microsieverts per hour (uSv/h) in Sacramento, which works out to 0.5256 millisieverts per year (mSv/y). But once he gets to the Fukushima evacuation zone, the readings start to spiral: 0.296 uSv/h (2.6 mSv/y) at a playground in Naraha; 1.74 uSv/h (15.24 mSv/y) near some bags of contaminated waste in Iitate; 4.25 uSv/h (37.2 mSv/y) at a cross-roads in Iitate; 12 uSv/h (105 mSv/y) one foot above ground level at a drainpipe in Tomioka and 20 uSv/h (175 mSv/y) three inches above ground level at the same drainpipe; 41.5 uSv/h (364 mSv/y) in the grass near a fish hatchery in Okuma. [22] That last reading is phenomenally high, 692 times higher than Vollmann’s Sacramento studio and 364 times higher than the 1 millisievert per year that is the “maximum dose advised for ordinary citizens, per the International Commission on Radiological Protection,” [23] he informs us. Worse, he warns, his measurements of radiation doses in air leave out the effects of internal bio-concentration, the tendency of ambient radioisotopes to accumulate in organisms; we should therefore “multiply my readings by a factor of 250 and imagine bearing that amount of radiation in your muscle tissue.” [24] Other frightening radiation facts filter in to him from activists and the media. He’s warned that the rice might be contaminated with radioactive cesium to the tune of 10 to 20 becquerels per kilogram, and he hears a report that 20 to 40 trillion becquerels of radioactive tritium has flowed into the sea since the accident, 100 times more than the plant’s normal yearly discharge. [25]

As Vollmann navigates this radiological minefield, his chest “tightening” with every uptick on his dosimeter, [26] he asks his entourage—drivers, translator, local officials, day-tripping evacuees—their opinions of nuclear power and the radiation they are braving. Their blasé responses spark an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. While they often voice dismay and resentment over the Fukushima accident, they just as often express mixed feelings about nuclear power and a casual attitude towards the risks. Cab-drivers tell him they’re not worried about the radiation and sometimes decline the protective cover-alls and face-masks he offers them for the journey into the “red zone.” Guides sidestep safety protocols too, those with the most training in radiation being the most cavalier. Vollmann interprets all this as the essence of a nuclear ideology whose equivocation and denial stand in stark contradiction to the terrifying numbers on his radiation meters. He further ruminates on the contrast between the verdant, depopulated Fukushima landscape and the chirping reminders of fallout from his equipment. It all culminates in a bleak pastorale of reconciliation with a toxic future that promises the erasure of mankind:

[A]gain and again, despite my horror and sorrow, I could not but find myself beguiled by the freshness, not to mention the vegetative silence that had overcome that corporate monoculture of convenience stores and shining vending machines….I worried about cesium in my muscles, strontium in my bones and gamma rays stabbing through me; more than that I grieved for the people who had lost so much, and I worried about the worse atomic accidents that might at any moment happen—but these red zones were new places, not entirely ugly; when those oceans of goldenrod rose up in their own gentle tsunamis to drown the abandoned homes of nuclear refugees, I experienced something refreshingly non-human, reminding me that however much we might alter our planet, the planet itself would survive awhile, bearing its own loveliness, just as Jupiter or Venus must be lovely, even if lethal to us.” [27]

Powerful stuff—except that it’s all a crock. For all his meticulously compiled factoids, Vollmann’s doom-saying is garbled nonsense that betrays little scientific understanding of radiation. The 250-fold bio-concentration factor he cites, for example, applies to internal radioisotope levels in waterfowl that drink and feed from contaminated ponds; it has no relevance for human exposure to the external radiation that his meters measure, and isn’t scientifically intelligible in that context. The possible 10 to 20 becquerels of radio-cesium in the rice pale beside the natural radioactivity rice normally contains, anywhere from 20 to 250 becquerels per kilogram of potassium-40. (All food and flesh are naturally radioactive, with the human body bearing about 100 becquerels per kilogram from radioactive carbon and potassium.) And while 40 trillion becquerels of tritium leaking into the sea sounds like a cataclysm, it’s totally innocuous; school “EXIT” signs contain up to 925 billion becquerels of tritium, so that Fukushima leakage is the equivalent of throwing 43 of them into the Pacific Ocean. [28] Indeed, the radioactivity in the Pacific from naturally-occurring tritium, potassium-40, and rubidium-87 is about eight billion trillion becquerels, making Vollmann’s anxiety about the “radioactive sea” poisoned by Fukushima effluent absurd. [29]

As for the 1 millisievert “maximum dose” standard that he repeatedly invokes, that’s an arbitrary regulatory line for the nuclear industry that says nothing about how safe a dose of radiation is. As Vollmann himself allows, that “maximum” is exceeded by everyone, everywhere. The natural background radiation from soil and space averages 2.4 millisieverts per year worldwide and can range up to 10 millisieverts per year. Americans get an average of 6.2 millisieverts per year, counting medical procedures and other man-made exposures. Last year I received a dose of 40 millisieverts from CT scans I got during a bout with kidney stones. If you are one of the millions of people who will get radiation treatments for cancer this year, you will get a dose of several hundred to several thousand millisieverts. [30]

Vollmann’s meter readings, his biggest dataset, do seem accurate, but taken together they give a wildly skewed picture of radiation exposures and risks in the evacuation zone. That’s because he sought out “hotspots” of atypically elevated radiation: roadsides, gutters, sewers and drains where mildly radioactive runoff from large areas collects and concentrates, as well as bags of radioactive waste deposited by cleanup crews. He chuckles about “[his] hobby of measuring drain pipes and culverts,” [31] but it’s no hobby: it’s standard operating procedure in the alarmist radiation “studies” that Greenpeace dispatches from Fukushima, which may be where Vollmann learned about it.

Worse, he did almost all his measurements outdoors, which also exaggerate the radiation levels that people would encounter in daily life. Fallout mostly settles outdoors, and buildings effectively shield people inside from the radiation it emits: wooden houses typically block one half to two thirds of outdoor radiation, while stone apartment buildings, schools and offices will block 67 to 99 percent of it. [32] Since people mainly live indoors—a study of living patterns in Iitate, a farming community that Vollmann pored over with radiation meters, found that time spent outdoors averaged just two hours per day [49]—outdoor measurements are mainly irrelevant for estimating yearly radiation doses. But that doesn’t stop Vollmann. “At a nearby house with yellow danger tape around it, the base of a drainpipe read 22.1 microsieverts [per hour],” he reports, and then calculates in a footnote that, “[h]ad I been chained to the drainpipe for a year in punishment for my sins, I would have accrued 193.6 milli[sieverts].” [33] Sounds scary, but unless you really do live outdoors chained to a drainpipe those numbers tell you nothing about your dose or your risk.

To which you might retort, forget about representative surveys; who wants to run a gauntlet of radioactive hotspots? The answer is, we do, whenever we go to the beach. UV rays in sunlight are ionizing radiation just like gamma rays—a sunburn is a radiation burn—and they cause many thousands of deadly skin cancers every year. (The UV radiation at tanning parlors causes thousands more.) Dermatologists warn people about the dangers of UV, but unless you wear a burqa and a sombrero whenever you step out, you don’t give a damn. Nor do we dodge the gauntlet of household radon gas, the radiation from which kills about 21,000 Americans each year. [34] Every few years the EPA does a nagging campaign about radon abatement, and every few years we ignore it. Nor do we shun the elevated radiation in airliners at cruising altitude, as high as 3.32 microsieverts per hour, which would amount to 29 millisieverts if we were chained to our seats and stayed aloft for a year—that’s 29 times the maximum dose for a civilian! (I got that number from Vollmann, who dutifully measured it, with no hint of alarm or calls for the abolition of air travel, while he was jetting around the world to investigate the dangers of nuclear power.) [35]

So life right now, not in the future, is a tapestry of radiation hotspots, some of which Vollmann basks in and others of which he freaks out at. To understand the true risk of the Fukushima accident, and by extension of nuclear power, we don’t need a haphazard tour of hotspots, we need a scientific estimate of the radiation people would get in the evacuation zone and the cancer risk it would pose. Scientists have done those estimates—and they demolish Vollmann’s alarmism.

The best source on the Fukushima accident is the authoritative report by the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Airborne Radiation. [36] (Vollmann doesn’t seem to have read it; he mentions it just once, as far as I can tell, in a second-hand reference sourced to an anti-nuclear publication.) [37] UNSCEAR estimated the radiation doses from Fukushima fallout that people in the evacuation zone would have received during the first year after the accident if they had not evacuated, taking into account fallout patterns, population distributions, building shielding effects, time spent indoors, doses from external exposures, and internal doses from radioactive water, food and dust that they might ingest. The highest average first-year dose would have been 51 millisieverts in the village of Tomioka; doses in other evacuated areas would have been lower, as low as 2 millisieverts. UNSCEAR also reckons that 80-year life-time doses in contaminated areas would be two to three times the first year dose. (Radiation levels drop quickly because of radioactive decay and weathering.) From there we can estimate the dose people would have received from fallout had they lived their whole lives in the evacuation zone: about 100-150 mSv in the most contaminated townships, substantially less elsewhere in the EZ. [38]

So how unhealthy would that extra Fukushima radiation be? Not very. According to standard radiation-risk factors from the National Academy of Sciences, 150 mSv confers a fatal cancer risk of 0.9 percent—about the same risk an American runs of dying in a car crash. [48] Had the 100,000 people in the evacuation zone never left, a few hundred of them would have someday died of cancer caused by the radiation, while 99 percent of them would have suffered no ill health at all from the accident. Living in the evacuation zone is thus not as risky as living on Jupiter or Venus, as Vollmann suggests; it’s actually about as risky as having a driver’s license.

Studies by anti-nuclear scholars support that conclusion. Vollmann’s adviser Ed Lyman coauthored a paper estimating that the total worldwide cancer death toll from Fukushima would amount to about 1000 fatalities. [39] All these numbers are conjectural because it’s impossible to separate such a tiny Fukushima mortality from the millions of cancer deaths that occur every year. That’s why UNSCEAR concluded that “[n]o discernible increased incidence of radiation-related health effects are expected among exposed members of the public or their descendants” because of the accident. [40]

Scientists have also conducted direct radiation surveys of Fukushima residents outside the evacuation zones, giving people dosimeters to wear for weeks on end to get realistic measurements of their exposures. Those surveys accord well with UNSCEAR estimates, and they show that the Japanese government’s evacuation guidelines exaggerated radiation exposures by a factor of two to four. [41] (Among other unrealistic assumptions, the guidelines reckoned that people typically spend 8 hours per day outdoors, a gross overestimate.) From many lines of evidence a scientific consensus has emerged that the health effects from the accident will be tiny—too small to even show up in statistics. Many researchers now argue that mandatory evacuation was not just unnecessary but counterproductive. [46] Hundreds of old and sick people died from the stress of forced evacuations, more than likely would have died from the radiation had there been no evacuations. [47] Tens of thousands more were driven from their homes over radiation levels that would never have harmed them, leaving behind the post-human landscapes that so entrance Vollmann.

Very little of the scientific literature on Fukushima made it into Vollmann’s 622-page tome. Instead, from his cherry-picked measurements he conjures a morality play about a nuclear ideology that causes enormous human suffering in the pursuit of profit and then sweeps it under the rug. But the science points to a different ideology at play, an ideology of fear that, in its panic over illusory risks, proved far more destructive than the accommodations and reassurances Vollmann decries. That ideology of fear is Vollmann’s ideology, and the dominant ideology of the green movement.

Part of that ideology doubtless stems from ignorance and phobia. One of the more bizarre themes in Danger is Vollmann’s dread of alpha and beta radiation. (An alpha ray is a high-speed helium nucleus—two protons bound to two neutrons—and a beta ray is a high-speed electron; they are ejected from atoms undergoing radioactive decay.) Alpha and beta rays are harmless when emitted outside the body because they cannot penetrate clothing or skin and are stopped by a few inches to a few feet of air. Yet Vollmann feels besieged by them. “A cool breeze blew from the sea; I wondered if it were poisonous with beta particles,” he writes. At a local shrine he tells us, “I could not help but wonder whether in the enclosed space alpha and beta particles might be likewise sifting down to tickle my lungs with carcinogenic scintillations.” He even “wonder[s]…whether sunscreen would adhere alpha and beta particles to [his] skin.” [42]

This is all gibberish: alpha and beta particles don’t drift on the wind or stick to the skin, and pose about as much threat as a helium balloon. Passages like this show how clueless Vollmann is about the basics of radiation, but they point to a deeper misunderstanding. Vollmann clearly thinks of radiation as a kind of germ, a bacillus or virus or spore that could drift through the air, land on him, stick to him, get in his lungs and cause a disease. That’s important because the hallmark of a germ is that there is no safe dose: if just one germ gets on you it will multiply into billions that devour you. Vollmann’s tacit germ theory of radiation is a cultural commonplace, and explains a lot about the hysteria surrounding innocuous exposures. While the true epidemiology of radiation is the epidemiology of sunlight (getting a lot will slightly raise your risk of cancer), the folk epidemiology of radiation is the epidemiology of contagion (the slightest exposure poses a mortal threat).

But Vollmann’s ideology of fear isn’t just ignorance, or lazy acquiescence to green conventional wisdom, or a meme from our plague-haunted subconscious. It is an ideology—a belief system stubbornly asserted in the teeth of contrary evidence. Vollmann’s compiling of factoids sometimes brings him into contact with a reality that undercuts him. He knows how to put Fukushima radiation in context with things like air travel and background radiation and radon gas; he would just prefer not to. In Koriyama, a town close to the Fukushima reactors but outside the evacuation zone, he notes that the radiation level is substantially below the global average background, but concludes that, “all the same, one might not wish to marry and raise children in Koriyama.” [43] And he comments breezily that “I could have fished around for radon in Connecticut basements, but why bother when Iitate put them to shame?” [44] Why indeed, given that the American death toll from household radon is the equivalent of twenty Fukushima accidents every year? Tugging on that thread might lead to awkward reflections on misplaced priorities. Running through No Immediate Danger, through its evasions and sarcasm and rhetorical questions and smokescreens of irrelevant data, is a tacit realization that, properly accounted, the facts show nuclear power to be pretty safe compared to other mundane risks we readily accept.

That poses a problem for the book’s larger catastrophist ideology. Vollmann doesn’t dread the catastrophe that he prophesies as much as he yearns for it. As self-righteous as he is self-flagellating, he wants to be “you” after the collapse, a you that’s him with the triviality and materialism burned away and replaced with ardent moral rectitude. Nuclear power threatens that apotheosis precisely because it’s clean and safe. Accidents included, nuclear is roughly as safe as hydro-electric power and dramatically safer than coal-fired power plants, whose air pollution kills upwards of a hundred thousand people every year. [50] And contrary to Vollmann’s Orwellian mislabeling of nuclear power as a “carbon ideology,” the reliable low-carbon energy it produces lets economies develop without greenhouse emissions. By offering a good compromise between material development and planetary stewardship, nuclear does what Vollmann’s ideology says is impossible: it makes industrial society sustainable.

Vollmann is more flamboyant and misanthropic than most anti-nuclear ideologues, but he uses a familiar set of propaganda tools. He mounts a pseudo-numerate display of statistics to cloud scientific issues rather than clarify them. He fixates on arbitrary regulatory diktats instead of offering a straightforward accounting of comparative risk. Above all, he plays on knee-jerk phobias instead of scrutinizing them in the light of evidence and common sense. And far from being a dissident voice confronting a mighty ideology, he is aligned with a powerful anti-nuclear establishment that includes Green parties in ruling coalitions, well-funded NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, rival fossil fuel and renewable energy industries, and grandstanding judges and politicians who pander to lobbyists, lawsuits and public anxiety. That establishment has hobbled the nuclear industry by shuttering dozens of reactors over the last decade and banning the technology outright in Austria, Australia, Italy, and soon Germany, Switzerland and Belgium. Those nuclear shutdowns and never-builts spell more coal-burning and greenhouse emissions, more pollution and cardio-pulmonary disease for us in the present and, of course, more heat and drought and flooding for “you from the future.” That’s the project that Vollmann has lent his pen to.

So Vollmann is right to beg forgiveness from generations unborn, if for the wrong reasons. But lets not be alarmist about alarmism. Industrial society won’t collapse, and “you” will lead a better life than we do now. There are enough people who want to make the world a better place, to accommodate reality, to reap large benefits from small risks, that fear-mongers will likely never succeed in derailing progress, though they may impede it. Vollmann can’t save or destroy the world with his ideology; the most he can do is make it a little worse than it otherwise could have been.



  1. No Immediate Danger, p. 67


  1. NID, p. 89


  1. NID, p. 48. World oil consumption was 3.1603 billion tonnes in 1990, 3.9557 billion tonnes in 2009, BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2017, underpinning data, 1965-2016,


  1. NID, p.213


  1. NID p. 102


  1. NID p. 104


  1. NID p. 39


  1. NID p. 3


  1. NID p. 159


  1. NID p. 38


  1. NID p. 133


  1. NID p. 32




  1. NID p. 25


  1. NID p. 50


  1. NID p. 40


  1. NID p. 221-7




  1. NID p. 233


  1. NID p. 499


  1. NID p. 399


  1. NID p. 244-52


  1. NID p. 245


  1. NID p. 418


  1. 10-20 bq/kg of radiocesium in rice, NID p. 355; 20-40 trillion bq of tritium flowing into sea, NID p. 325.


  1. NID p. 338


  1. NID p. 461


  1. 20-250 bq per kg of radioactivity from natural potassium-40 in rice,; natural radioactivity is 100 bq per kg,; 925 billion bq of tritium in exit signs, that is 25 curies,




  1. ; ;


  1. NID p. 489


  1. EPA Protective Action Guide, 2017, dose reduction factors, p. 19.


  1. NID p. 361




  1. NID p. 249




  1. NID p. 354


  1. UNSCEAR report; first-year averted doses, Table C-11, p. 190, “projected” column; 80-year lifetime doses being about 2-3 times first-year doses, Table 7, p. 59.




  1. UNSCEAR report, p. 10.




  1. NID pp. 269, 438, 431.


  1. NID p. 301


  1. NID p. 439






  1. 570 fatal cancers per 100,000 people each getting a dose of 100 millisieverts, mortality scales linearly with dose.




  1. Since 1960 roughly 37,000 people have died in dam failures, assuming low-end figures of 26,000 dead in the 1975 Banqiao dam collapses in China. ; . Conjectured death toll for nuclear accidents is 27,000 for Chernobyl ; and 1,000 for Fukushima .