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Column: ‘The very mention of nuclear power sends people into a flutter’

After Fukushima, nuclear power has become a bogeyman – but we shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand, writes physicist David Robert Grimes.

David Robert Grimes

NUCLEAR POWER GETS a bad reputation. The very mention is enough to send people into a furious flutter of condemnation.

The difficulties at Fukushima have dominated international news coverage, and sparked angry protests. 2011 is the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster,  which puts ‘PR person for nuclear industry’ at the top of the ‘thankless jobs’ list for this year. Political figures worldwide have been quick to poor scorn on the bogeyman of nuclear power.  But is that fair or wise ? Hardly. Nuclear energy is the most efficient major source of energy. It is also the safest, with much less deaths than both conventional fuels and renewable technologies, and it massively reduces CO2 emissions. And if we’re serious about saving the environment, we cannot afford to dismiss nuclear power.

Politicians of course have a tendency to court populist sentiment, regardless of how wrong-headed it may be. When Angela Merkel promised environmentalists to phase out nuclear power, they hailed this as a victory. But if it was a victory, it was a Pyrrhic one given that Germany aims to replace these with coal plants. This is quite simply the worst possible option – coal produces obscene amounts of greenhouse gas and destroys water, air and land in its wake. It is also notoriously inefficient.

Nuclear energy on the other hand releases negligible amounts of greenhouse gas and boasts about 83,300 times more energy than coal per kilo. While fears about radioactivity are often cited, what is ignored is that the fly ash of a coal plant is more than 100 times more radioactive than the outputs of a nuclear plant. In terms of human health, coal is the absolute worst offender – the WHO estimate solid fuel kills over 1.3 million a year. Nuclear energy very rarely kills anyone, and when it does it tends to relate to uranium mining accidents rather than radiation. CO2 levels are set to rise dramatically because of this, giving a certain dark irony to the celebrations of the obstinately environmentally conscious.

Zero nuclear deaths

Of course, these people wanted renewable energy, and that is laudable – but is it pragmatic? Not yet anyway. Renewables are intermittent and cannot operate in ‘always on’ mode; they have a relatively low yield and they often require huge swathes of land to be effective. They also require a baseload for times they aren’t feeding the grid. But a choice between nuclear power and renewable energy is a false dichotomy – renewables in tandem with nuclear would massively reduce CO2 emissions while letting the relatively young renewable technologies mature to higher levels of yield.

This is important because despite hopeful speculation, renewables as they stand cannot power the world. We have become used to high energy consumption and the world population is growing massively – the UN estimates it will hit 9.1 billion in 2050. Ideally we’d all reduce our energy expenditure, but it would not be realistic to assume this will happen worldwide.

The assumption that renewable energy equates to no deaths is also a fallacious one. In the US alone there have been 83 fatal accidents from windfarms since 1995, and hundreds of accidents. By comparison, there have been zero nuclear deaths in the US since the 1970s. Hydropower can also go seriously wrong; when the Banqiao dam failed in 1975, it killed 171,000 people and displaced 11 million. These illustrations are not intended to rubbish renewables (which we need) but rather to offer perspective.

Of course, it would be remiss to ignore nuclear disasters. Opponents of nuclear power have long cited Chernobyl as a trump card which ‘proves’ nuclear power is dangerous – but does it really back up their point? Chernobyl was an unmitigated disaster. On the night of April 26, 1986, a terrible marriage of human ineptitude and poor design caused a series of steam explosions. The roof, which had been illegally constructed with flammable material, went alight and unprotected firefighters were sent in to put it out. The steam also released some radioiodine 131 into the atmosphere. The Soviet authorities, in a moment of staggering stupidity, made no attempts to move people and actively tried to cover up that anything was wrong.

Victims, not survivors

This is about as bad as a nuclear accident could possibly be – a perfect storm. But how many health effects can be attributed to the disaster ?

That’s a question we can answer. The latest report from the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) dealing with Chernobyl was published this year. Some 134 plant workers and cleanup workers were exposed to dangerously high levels of radiation with minimal protection, and suffered acute radiation sickness. Of these 28 died. Radioiodine  is absorbed by the thyroid and hits young children hardest; there were 15 fatal thyroid cancers in children. These could have been avoided had the Soviet authorities issued iodine tablets. Those on site immediately after the disaster are at elevated risk of thyroid cancer, which thankfully is treatable with a 92 per cent 30-year survival rate.

Importantly, zero increase has been observed in solid cancers or birth defects. The Chernobyl forum concludes the greatest threat to survivors is the risk to mental health from exaggerated fears about radiation, noting that “designation of the affected population as “victims” rather than “survivors” has led them to perceive themselves as helpless, weak and lacking control over their future. This, in turn, has led either to over cautious behavior and exaggerated health concerns, or to reckless conduct.”

These are conclusions people often find surprising, expecting the health toll of Chernobyl to be much greater. That this toll is considerably less than people might expect does not take away from the tragedy or make the Soviet response any less dreadful; Chernobyl cost the lives of 43 people and some of those exposed in 1986 may yet die early. But it does put the worst nuclear disaster in history firmly in perspective.* Fukushima, the second-worst nuclear disaster in history, has killed no one yet and is highly unlikely to do so. This is incredible when on considers the plant was obsolete and scheduled for decommission, and was hit with a natural disaster of immense proportions. What is sobering is that in our fixation with Fukushima we’ve almost forgotten that nature itself claimed at least 15,000 lives at the same time.

Natural nuclear reactors

There are of course some practical problems with nuclear fuel. While spent fuel rods can be recycled, plants produce small amounts of radioactive waste, which takes upwards of 100,000 years in some cases to be rendered completely benign. To avoid contamination and potential health effects, this waste is generally stored in sealed, underwater vats in very stable geological locations. This is exceptionally cautious: alpha and beta radiation are entirely blocked by 5mm of paper or aluminium respectively, but it is better to totally isolate them to be on the safe side. The geological structures are exceptionally stable too – natural nuclear reactors have been discovered in Oklo, Gabon, which have remained stable for almost two billion years. Nuclear waste is an inconvenience yes, but it does not render the technology any less useful, especially now as generation IV reactors come online that produce less than one per cent of the waste of current reactors.

Some raise concerns of terrorism as an objection to nuclear power, but that’s based on a misconception. It is important to remember an explosion at a nuclear plant is not the same as a nuclear explosion – you cannot just turn a nuclear plant into a bomb, they use entirely different physical principles. The spectre of the Cold War left the impression of imminent nuclear destruction on the psyche of the world, so it is understandable but wrong that people conflate the two. While we fret about the environmental consequences, it’s worth bearing in mind that France has since 1963 been quietly and diligently generating 78 per cent of its power from nuclear energy. As a consequence, France has the cleanest air in the industrialised world and among the lowest carbon emissions.

Apprehension about radiation is understandable; it is invisible and threats we cannot see are most perturbing. But in deciding how to power our world and save our environment, we should be basing our policy on informed decisions, not a misplaced sense of radiophobia.

David Robert Grimes is a doctor of medical physics with a keen interest in the public understanding of science. He writes a blog on science and medicine called Three Men Make A Tiger.

* People are very often surprised at this figure, when organisations like Greenpeace put the figure much higher – these figures can easily be shown to be fallacious and the UNSCEAR report is considered authoritative.. If you’re interested in the history of the Chernobyl disaster and a discussion of radiobiology, the author has written about it before here.

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