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Dublin: 22 °C Thursday 24 July, 2014

Column: Fossil fuels won’t last forever. Ireland should consider nuclear power.

When an aeroplane crashes we don’t stop flying, we improve safety. Nuclear power should be the same, writes Philip Walton.

Philip Walton

Last month the Department of the Environment released a report from independent experts who claimed that a radioactive leak at Sellafield would have “no observable health effects in Ireland”.  So should Ireland consider nuclear power? Philip Walton thinks so. He writes:

MENTION THE WORD Sellafield in Ireland and many people have very serious misgivings, but are they justified?

Sellafield is a nuclear reprocessing plant (no reactors now) which handles spent fuel from nuclear reactors. The spent fuel is not waste, as only about one per cent of the available energy from the uranium has been used and we should make use of the other 99 per cent in the future. In reprocessing, waste is generated and some discharged into the Irish Sea.

The impact of this on Ireland has been studied by our Radiation Protection Institute of Ireland (RPII) and by Professor Ian McAulay (TCD) and Professor Peter Mitchell (UCD).  The primary route for radioactivity to reach a human is through the eating of fish caught in the Irish Sea. At the very worst time for these discharges, in 1982, a very heavy eater of this fish would receive a radiation dose of 70microSieverts (µSv). The discharges have been steadily declining since 1982, so now this dose is less than 1µSv.

The internationally recommended annual dose to the public is 1000µSv – these doses represent 7 per cent and 0.01 per cent respectively, so there is very little to worry about. No restrictions have ever been suggested on eating fish. It should be noted that the dose from the naturally occurring polonium-210 in the same fish is 32µSv.  The overall average annual dose to an Irish person is 3950µSv, of which 86 per cent is from natural radioactivity, with radon in buildings contributing the most at 2230µSv.

Sellafield

Now you might say this is fine, but how about an accident scenario at Sellafield? How would that affect Ireland? Well, this question has been answered in a very recent report commissioned by the Government, which examined “risks to Ireland from incidents at the Sellafield site”.  The team selected was “…internationally respected for their understanding of the risks posed by nuclear facility activities”. None of them work for the UK Government. They examined situations from minor malfunctions, fires, explosions, earthquakes and possible meteorite impact and explored possible contamination to Ireland. In their summary of results for all their scenarios they state: “No observable health effects in Ireland.”

So what about the future of nuclear power? Should we be considering it for Ireland? I believe the future supply of world energy is one of the major problems we face. It is an appalling situation that fossil fuels, which took millions of years to form, will all be used in a matter of about six hundred years and we are now at the peak of their use. We also have to restrict carbon emissions to curtail global warming. The Kyoto protocol called for a maximum temperature rise of 2°C but the International Energy Agency says we are headed for a rise of 3.6°C by 2035. A further problem in Ireland is that we are about 90 per cent dependent on imported fossil fuels – some from not very reliable sources.

I believe we should use all available sources – fossil fuels, renewables, nuclear – and very strict conservation measures. There is a belief in Ireland that renewables, primarily wind, will answer our problems. However, there are difficulties with the variability of wind. On August 8, the wind was producing less than 30 MegaWatts (MW) of electricity from an installed capacity of 2000MW! At the same time the demand was 3000MW. It is foreseen there will be difficulties in generating more than 50 per cent of our electricity from wind due to this variability. Nuclear power is the only source of low-carbon constant baseload electricity. It certainly should be considered for Ireland.

Looking to nuclear

Thirty countries have nuclear power, using 434 reactors, and 18 countries are planning to join the club. These include Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emerates (oil-rich countries!) and Belarus, which was affected by the Chernobyl accident. Ukraine, where the accident happened, has 15 reactors and is proposing a further 13. Obviously the accident has not caused these two countries to change their minds.

Obviously this was a very serious accident where an unapproved experiment was being undertaken on a badly designed reactor with no containment building. Despite wild figures for the casualties the true effects are best found in the UNSCEAR (United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation) Report published last year.

There were 56 deaths among the workers and 15 deaths among the 4000 thyroid cancers. They estimate there might be 4000 extra cancers in the 600,000 people most exposed, but it will be impossible to see this given the natural cancer deaths of 100,000. There were very serious socio-economic effects and people experienced a “morbid fatalism” . There was no evidence of an increase in birth defects that could be attributed to radiation.

One of the most recent  nuclear accidents was in Fukushima. Essentially this was caused by a 15 metre wall of water hitting an 11 metre barrier and swamping the emergency electricity generators. The loss of cooling water caused steam explosions which spread radioactivity, about 10 per cent of that from Chernobyl. Due to the precautions taken, it is likely there will be no fatalities. Compare this to the 28,000 deaths from the tsunami.

When an aeroplane crashes we do not stop flying, but have an enquiry to improve safety.  The same will happen with these nuclear accidents.

Philip W Walton is an Emeritus Professor of Physics at NUI Galway.

Read: Accident at Sellafield would have “no health effects in Ireland”>

Read: Japan may scrap nuclear plant over seismic fault>

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