Green movement needs to embrace nuclear energy
The ideological bias against nuclear power is hard to overcome but it is clean and cheap and has tiny emissions
NUCLEAR POWER has long been a contentious issue, and debate about it has intensified following the second worst nuclear accident in history, at Fukushima in Japan — an accident that has claimed no lives, and in all likelihood never will.
In Ireland, opposition to nuclear energy is nothing new; almost four decades ago, in the wake of the 1973 energy crisis, the ESB planned to build a nuclear plant at Carnsore Point. A public backlash resulted in the nuclear option being dropped and instead a coal plant was built at Moneypoint. This was and still is heralded as a victory by Green activists. But if this was a victory, it was a deeply pyrrhic one. Coal is undoubtedly the most hazardous and polluting fuel there is. The World Health Organisation estimates that more than 1.3 million people a year die from respiratory problems caused by solid fuel.
Coal is also the most polluting. Since its inception, Moneypoint spewed millions of tons of CO2 into the air. Contrast that with nuclear, which kills approximately zero people a year, has negligible CO2 emissions and produces vastly more energy. One wonders what exactly these protests achieved. Of course, the worst nuclear accident in history did claim lives and debates about nuclear seem to constantly return to the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. So what exactly was the impact on health? The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (Unscear) dealing with Chernobyl is the product of 25 years of research by medical and scientific teams, including the WHO, and answers that question.
A total of 28 workers died from acute radiation syndrome; and there were 15 fatal thyroid cancers in children. Those who imbued radioiodine immediately after the disaster are at elevated risk of thyroid cancer, which is treatable with a 92 per cent 30-year survival rate. Zero increase has been observed in solid cancers or birth defects.
That this toll is considerably less than people might expect does not diminish the scale of the calamity or change the fact that the response by the Soviet authorities was lamentable. While Iodine 131 is dangerous, it has a half life of just eight days and had proper action been taken the death toll could have been reduced. Hundreds more could have been saved from exposure to potentially detrimental levels of radioiodine.
Moreover, the scale of disruption caused by the incident was enormous. Unscear estimates that 115,000 people were evacuated by the authorities from areas surrounding the reactor in 1986; and subsequently about 220,000 people from Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine were relocated.
“The accident caused serious social and psychological disruption in the lives of those affected and vast economic losses over the entire region,” its report on Chernobyl states.
Nevertheless, it is interesting to compare the fallout from Chernobyl with that of the Banquio hydroelectric dam failure in China in 1975. This killed 26,000 directly and 145,000 from the resulting famine and epidemics, as well as destroying almost six million homes and buildings, affecting 11 million people.
Yet just as this failure doesn’t denigrate hydroelectric power, Chernobyl isn’t a trump card against nuclear energy. All forms of energy production have inherent risk and it is foolish to dismiss any out of hand.
Intriguingly, Unscear concludes that the greatest threat to survivors is the risk to mental health from exaggerated fears about radiation.