The “dirty bomb” and other bogeymen: why German electricity keeps getting dirtier

We are being bombarded these days with earnest sermons from political pulpits regarding fear and whether it is something we should base decisions on when we, say, go to exercise our democratic franchise and vote. I am always wary of people who really lay on fear rhetoric as they pursue political gain, and that includes those who accuse others of using it. At the risk of being criticized for doing exactly the same thing, I want to talk about a certain species of fearmongering: the dirty bomb.

Dirty bomb. It does sound scary, doesn’t it. But the dirty bomb is, when you give it a bit of thought, a cockamamie, comic book scenario and we would be really foolish to take it seriously, or—worse—spend lots of time and money trying to prevent it. A dirty bomb has been used exactly once, by Saddam Hussein, in his war against Iran. Not surprisingly, it did not have the effect he hoped for, which was to kill lots of Iranians and help him win the war. He realized that it was more effective, and infinitely less bothersome, to just use normal bombs.

The dirty bomb scenario is cockamamie for the simple reason that a terrorist will very likely not waste his time scouring the world for minuscule ampules of radioactive material, such as are found inside smoke detectors, so that he can pack them into a bomb in quantities sufficient to cause dangerous radioactive fallout from the explosion. Why would he go to all that trouble when he can walk over to a gas station and buy, for a few dollars and no questions asked, the main ingredient for a Molotov cocktail? Especially when the latter will get him on the news just as surely.

It is perverse to suggest that the worst outcome of a dirty bomb explosion is not the human casualties resulting from the immediate explosion and fire, but rather some vague scary-sounding alleged risk from radioactive fallout.

Now, I am not saying that ISIS, which is comprised of the remnants of al Queda in Iraq and assorted fanatics from elsewhere, led by junior officers from Saddam’s army, would not build and set off a dirty bomb. Clearly they would do anything. Nor am I saying that such an action wouldn’t cause mass fear; maybe it would, maybe it wouldn’t. I just believe it is folly to take the dirty bomb threat seriously, and worse folly to expend precious resources guarding against it.

Yet it is a perennial subject of discussion by alleged security experts.

What a shame that so many world leaders, some of whom caution their political rivals against spreading fear, collude in the spread of fear of such a baseless threat.

As I have noted before, this fear has consequences. A major consequence is that we have accelerated the dumping of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Note Germany’s position in the chart below, which compares the grid CIPK of selected jurisdictions in 2011 and 2014.

Your first impression might be that Germany is pretty middle-of-the-pack, sandwiched between the United States and North Korea. The immediate question that ought to jump out is, what are Ontario and France doing?

Well, click on the 2014 button to see how things changed after 2011.

What happened? Clearly, Germany’s electricity got dirtier, Ontario’s got cleaner. Germany used to be neck and neck with North Korea, of all countries, but now appears to be making a serious run to be dirtiest among the ten jurisdictions compared in the chart.

Germany’s electricity got dirtier because Germany decided in 2011 that it would get rid of nuclear energy, and go green with wind and solar. Wind and solar cannot replace nuclear, any more than they can replace coal. Nuclear is a baseload (on-demand) 24/7 source. So is coal. So if you take nuclear out, you have to replace it with another source capable of providing baseload 24/7 electricity. It’s the Iron Rule of Power Generation.

Germany decided to phase out nuclear because of the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns in Japan. Nobody in Germany was physically affected by the Japanese events. Nobody ever will be. Nobody in Japan will be.

But plenty of people were emotionally and psychologically affected, because of fearmongering by the German Green Party, which is ideologically anti-nuclear.

Why is the German Green Party ideologically anti-nuclear? In an article entitled “Ideology, altruism, and money: a brief history of the anti-nuclear movement,” I attempted to unpack the history behind the tortured pseudo-logic and banal greed that underpins contemporary anti-nukery. Have a look.

The German Green Party, and all green groups everywhere, took huge advantage of the sensational media headlines around Fukushima to warn that something similar would happen in Germany if that country did not immediately phase out nuclear energy.

The fact that nobody has died, or will die, from radiation at Fukushima has no bearing on either the Green Party’s willingness to demand major changes in national energy policy on the basis of their silly anti-nuclear fairy tales or the mainstream media’s willingness to publish the fairy tales.

Nor does the fact that German electricity just keeps getting dirtier.

Ontario’s electricity got cleaner after 2011 because it did the opposite of Germany. We added massive amounts of new (actually, refurbished) nuclear capacity. Our CIPK dropped. We are now cleaner than France. And France has always been pretty clean.

The dirty bomb is just another silly bogeyman. Together with all the other silly nuclear bogeymen, it has played a role in making Germany’s electricity dirtier and that country less and less equipped to deal with climate change. In this bogeyman-dominated political season, let’s hope that people will look at the lessons of Germany and Ontario.

They took the nuclear bogeyman seriously. We didn’t. And we are now the clean energy leader on the chart above.

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James Greenidge
7 years ago

National Geographic has lots of spare time on its hands between featuring whales and mountain climbers for the 4000th time. Be a nice way to shed their lukewarm nuke image by profiling this story.

James Greenidge
Queens NY

Andrew Jaremko
7 years ago

Thanks for including Alberta on the chart. I’m an Albertan, and that is NOT sarcasm. IMO it’s very important to compare our provincial CIPK numbers, all the better to get our politicians and businesses to see what’s happening. I’m very aware that our electricity is mainly coal fired. Calgary did get a shiny new natural gas fired plant recently; I’d have welcomed a reactor in my backyard.

7 years ago

…wonder how Washington State would rank.

Andrew Jaremko
7 years ago
Reply to  Russ Finley

Russ – the Bonneville Power Administration ( markets hydro and a small amount of nuclear electricity to the Northwest. Their power supply for 2015 ( looks even better than Ontario’s (no coal, 0.1% natural gas, 9.9% nuclear, and 83.6% hydro, unspecified ‘remainder’, and zero wind and solar).

BPA sells power to California as well. BPA definitely deserves celebration, anyway. The Energy Information Agency has statistics for Washington ( and that should be a good starting point for a calculation. (Another item on that page gives the 2015 numbers when you hover the mouse pointer over the graph – ‘The numerical answer is left as an exercise for the student’, as professors are inclined to say in classrooms.)

Search engines are your friend! Don’t hesitate to use them to satisfy your curiosity – bearing in mind all the misinformation and disinformation that’s out there as well. I found all of the above quite quickly.

7 years ago

How do you justify this statement:

“Germany decided to phase out nuclear because of the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns in Japan. Nobody in Germany was physically affected by the Japanese events. Nobody ever will be. Nobody in Japan will be.”

Are you serious in telling me that there was no one in Japan affected by nuclear radiation?