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.
“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 . . . has led either to overcautious behaviour and exaggerated health concerns, or to reckless conduct,” it states.
This raises the distinct possibility that the hyperbole of anti-nuclear activists about Chernobyl may cause far more harm than good to the survivors. Similarly, our fixation with Fukushima has blinded us to the fact that it was a natural disaster rather than a nuclear one that cost thousands of lives last year. The earthquake and tsunami that triggered a triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant killed 19,000.
Predictably, some take issue with the Chernobyl figures: a Russian non-peer reviewed report claimed 985,000 died as a result of the accident. Greenpeace claimed a figure of more than 200,000 deaths. Subsequent investigations by the journal Radiation Protection Dosimetry exposed these figures as utterly baseless. Despite these claims being nonsense, there are some in the ostensibly Green movement who persist in shouting them loudly over the abundant evidence to the contrary. To cite one local example, these debunked figures are still quoted by Chernobyl Children International, despite their lack of veracity being indicated to them by numerous scientists.
The ideological bias against nuclear is hard to overcome. The cold war left the impression of imminent destruction on the psyche of the world. This is understandable but unfortunate, as the physics behind nuclear weapons is entirely different to nuclear energy and one can no more turn a nuclear plant into an atomic bomb than one can convert a paper airplane into an F-14 Tomcat fighter aircraft.
While there are some in the Green movement who cling to anti-nuclear ideology without any consideration of the facts, there are a growing number of scientifically literate pro-nuclear environmentalists challenging this dogmatic approach. George Monbiot has written eloquently on why environmentalists need to embrace nuclear power. And scientist James Lovelock has said nuclear power is the only way to curb global warming. Societies like Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy and Better Environment With Nuclear Energy have seen a marked increase in support from Green activists.
The reason for this is simple: nuclear energy is clean, cheap and has tiny emissions.
The technology is also advancing rapidly; generation IV reactors will produce only about one per cent of the waste current reactors do, and thorium reactors are now available which can be fuelled by existing nuclear waste.
Renewable energy is a laudable goal, but not a panacea. Despite extraordinary claims about wind and wave power, the truth is they cannot supply the energy we need. A choice between nuclear and renewable is a false dichotomy; renewables as they stand cannot power the world.
While Japan protests under blackouts, France by contrast has since 1963 generated 78 per cent of its power from nuclear. Consequently, France has energy independence, the cleanest air in the industrialised world and among the lowest carbon emissions. Nuclear energy is complicated and has drawbacks, but it is clean, safe and hugely efficient.
Radioactivity is invisible and threats we cannot see frighten us, but a misplaced sense of ideological radiophobia cannot be the motivation in deciding how to power our world.
David Robert Grimes is a doctor of medical physics at Oxford University and a science writer. He keeps an Ockham award-nominated science and medicine blog at davidrobertgrimes.com