How I learned to stop worrying and love nuclear power

Nuclear waste and smiley face
James Morgan
James Morgan
In this week's blog, I argue that society should accept atomic energy as the big, cuddly teddy bear that it so evidently is...

Why don’t people like nuclear energy? What has it ever done to hurt anybody? Okay – that’s a pretty shoddy opening argument, so allow me to begin by shooting a few elephants* that have been clogging up my room.

...nuclear power has a tremendous problem with its public image. Why? Because the Allies didn’t drop water bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If the first widely known, water-related fact had been that H2O was capable of bringing death and destruction to millions, humanity would have died of thirst years ago.
I’m going to start by taking a shot at the granddaddy of nuclear disasters: Chernobyl. Now, it seems a little redundant for me even to have to state this, but as the last thing I want is to cause offence, I would like to make the following absolutely clear from the outset: I find human suffering neither trivial nor amusing. That being said, was Chernobyl really that bad?

Don’t get me wrong – I know that it was bad. I understand that for those who were – and in some cases, are still being – affected by the event, Chernobyl was an unmitigated tragedy. The official figure released by the presiding Soviet authorities of the time stated that the accident resulted in 31 fatalities. However, this number is widely disputed and fails to account for longer-term consequences such as cancer and deformity. More realistic estimates put the death toll at over 4,000.

Chernobyl was terrible, but we are talking about an isolated incident that took place in 1986. I’m generalising here, but I would imagine that most people – including me – would only be able to name one other nuclear accident. Step forward elephant number two: Fukushima Daiichi. In 2011, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami cost the lives of almost 16,000 people. It also caused severe damage to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, disabling both its reactor and cooling systems. This was the worst nuclear accident in almost a quarter of a century: the worst since Chernobyl.

Tragically, some of the plant’s workers were killed by the effects of the earthquake and tsunami, but there haven’t yet been any fatalities directly linked to radioactive material itself. Of course, longer-term factors could still prove fatal, but experts believe that the eventual death toll will be low to non existent.

'Risk versus benefit'


I am not trying to argue that the likes of Chernobyl and Fukushima weren’t horrible: they demonstrably were. Even so, horrible things happen all the time. It is a sad fact that life is plagued by risk, and the only legitimate response is to conduct risk-benefit analyses wherever possible. If you want to get somewhere, you’re probably going to have to cross a road: risky. If you want to woo your beloved, you’re probably going to have to put your pride on the line: riskier still. If you want to become World Rally Champion,** you’re probably going to have to drive like a person possessed over extremely hazardous terrain: crazy.

Essentially, if you want to completely eradicate risk from your life, you’re probably best doing nothing…forever. Of course, this isn’t really an effective strategy because your sedentary lifestyle will dramatically increase your chances of developing cardiovascular disease. The trick is – and this is much more difficult than it sounds – not to do anything stupid.

The arena of electricity generation is no different. However, risk is not the sole preserve of the nuclear power plant. Unfortunately – but inevitably – accidents occur across all branches of the energy sector. People make mistakes. Even when people don’t make mistakes, things can go wrong. The worst-ever energy-related accident – in terms of lives lost – occurred when China’s Banqiao and Shimantan Reservoir Dams failed in 1975. A staggering 171,000 people are estimated to have been killed by escaping floodwaters, dwarfing any other incident of its kind.

So why do people remember Chernobyl and not Banqiao? To be fair, the 1975 Chinese dam failures were not made public until the mid 1990s but other non-nuclear power plant accidents have claimed thousands of lives. Why do we remember Fukushima but not the Jesse pipeline explosion, for example?

'Public image problem'


I would argue that it’s because nuclear power has a tremendous problem with its public image. Why? Because the Allies didn’t drop water bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If the first widely known, water-related fact had been that H2O was capable of bringing death and destruction to millions, humanity would have died of thirst years ago. This is unfortunate to say the least because our ever-growing global population is demanding energy – and lots of it. In an interview with ScienceOmega.com, the University of Lincoln’s Dr Giorgio Locatelli explained that in the absence of suitable spots for hydroelectric power plants, nuclear energy is our next-best option. As far as electricity generation methods go, nuclear is effective, clean and – despite its reputation – safe.

As Dr Locatelli explained, policymakers and industry figures need to work harder to reassure the public that nuclear isn’t an accident waiting to happen. However, perhaps it is also time for society to conduct its own risk-benefit analysis. The main risk associated with atomic energy, as far as I can tell, is that when accidents occur, things can get more than a little bit scary. The main benefit, on the other hand, is that these plants have the potential to provide clean and abundant electricity for all.

Personally, I am willing to give nuclear power the benefit of the doubt.*** Things might go dreadfully wrong – just as they did in Chernobyl. However, things are going dreadfully wrong right now. New coal and gas power plants are still being built to this day, and we know exactly how greenhouse gas emissions damage our planet. If an accident occurs at a nuclear power plant tomorrow, people could be killed – both in the short and the longer term. However, people are dying because of the effects of climate change today, and this isn’t even an accident. The benefits of the energy produced by CO2-emitting power stations are deemed to outweigh the tangible cost in life – human or otherwise.

"Insanity," said Uncle Alby, "is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." I reckon it’s time to do something new and take a risk: it’s time for us to embrace nuclear power before it’s too late.


* Not literally
** Which, incidentally, I still do
*** Perhaps I should have said earlier, but the views expressed within this blog do not necessarily reflect those of ScienceOmega.com



Editor's response


22nd April 2013


[Scroll down to see users' comments]

Thanks to everybody who retweeted and commented on this blog over the weekend. Firstly, I must reiterate that I am not trying to downplay the severity of the catastrophe that occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. I wholeheartedly accept that this accident caused – and is still causing – tragic and far-reaching consequences for thousands of people. I never intended my piece to be an attack on, or a slight against, the victims of this disaster. I unreservedly apologise if I did not make this absolutely clear within my original blog, and I am sorry for any upset that my words may have caused.

My intention was not to trivialise the devastation that resulted from the Chernobyl disaster, but to draw comparisons between the respective safety records of nuclear power and other energy-generation sectors. I do not see how we can have a meaningful debate about the future role of nuclear power without talking about the most serious nuclear disaster in history. As for the timing of my blog, it was written as a companion piece to another article published on our website on Friday concerning an academic evaluation of sustainability factors in the power plant industry. I never intended my piece to detract from Chernobyl and Fukushima Awareness Week or any other related campaigns.

I do not believe that it is contradictory to recognise the tragic nature of the Chernobyl disaster whilst simultaneously asserting that this should not automatically preclude the use of atomic energy in the future. I would hope that holding a ‘nuclear-friendly’ stance in terms of our energy future does not prevent me from recognising the harm that has been caused by previous accidents. When I asked why people remembered Chernobyl but not Banqiao, I certainly never intended to suggest that we should forget Chernobyl: merely that an awareness of both incidents would be desirable.

Sadly, I do not believe that there are any easy answers when it comes to the looming energy crisis. Essentially, I am arguing that it makes no sense to write off an energy resource with the potential to cater for a growing human population because things have gone tragically wrong in the past. A more logical approach – in my opinion – would be to do everything humanly possible to ensure that similar mistakes are not made in the future.

I appreciate that some people will vehemently disagree with my point of view, but at the same time, I hope that it is clear that I never meant to cause any offence.


Thanks again for reading,

James Morgan
Web Editor

ScienceOmega.com


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One takes us for stupid nubes with this article...
Nuclear that's not a marketing product, nuclear industry means tons of dangerous waste, permanent danger for the environment and centuries of ruined regions in case of accident.

I don't like Nuclear because I don't like DEATH. This sounds simpler than your insane arguments.

Vallee - Paris, France
NOT THAT SERIOUS???! SOME AFFECTED??!!!!! Try generations lives destroyed by cancer, lives shortened to 30 years, children growing up knowing they'll never live to see their kids become parents and expecting their parents to die. Then there's the financial effects. I know farmers in Isle Of Man in the North Sea who have only been able to sell their sheep this year because the radiation levels in his soil were too high and it could rise again at any time causing another ban on sales.

This isn't something that's going to change any time soon. The reactor will still be leaking in 24,000 years and even when its stopped it will take another 25,000 years for the levels to reduce to a safe level. Not go just reduce!

Have you been to Belarus or Ukraine??? Have you spoken to the children from Ukraine??? Or farmers in the UK even??? No?? Well there's a surprise! Not!!!! If you did you wouldn't dream of writing these things.

You say why do people remember Chernobyl? Because it affected people over 2000 miles away. Because it released more radiation than 70 Atomic bombs. Because its still affecting people.

I challenge you to meet some of the children brought to the UK each year from Ukraine to try and extend their lives by at least 2 years just to give them some hope. Then see if you can write things like this.

I also find your timing disgusting. Monday is the start of Chernobyl and Fukushima Awareness Week, Friday is the 27th anniversary of Chernobyl. You could of posted this any time. While do it when people are working hard to raise awareness and funds to help those affected?? By making out it's not that bad makes their job even harder.

I challenge you to meet with someone who's worked with children suffering from mutated DNA or who has been there and seen the dead areas. If you want I can put you in touch with some. Then see if you can sit on the outside and say it's not that bad.

Vicki - United Kingdom
You clearly do NOT understand "how bad" Chernobyl was. The New York Academy of Sciences published an English translation of a 2007 publication, published in Russian, which was an analysis of the scientific literature, including more than 1,000 titles and more than 5,000 printed and Internet publications mainly in Slavic languages, on the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. This document estimates that the number of deaths from that nuclear accident is nearly one million to date. Since we're approaching 30 years since that disaster, that means that the amount of cesium in the environment is about half of what it was, meaning that that element alone will claim many more lives.

As for insanity being "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results", how about continuing to create nuclear waste for over 70 years without yet knowing how to store it? Or subsidizing an industry for that long, expecting that some day it will be able to stand on it's own feet (even as it makes plenty of profit all along)? Or allowing the industry to operate reactors which could have an accident costing up to 1.5 trillion dollars (Indian Point), while having an insurance pool of 12 billion dollars?

It just may be that the "public image problem" goes a little deeper than you have considered.

David Agnew - United States
Please read this book: "Radiation and Reason, The impact of Science on a culture of fear" by Wade Allison.

http://www.radiationandreason.com/

Professor Allison says we can take up to 10 rems per month, a little more than 1000 times the present "legal" limit. The old limit was 5 rems/lifetime. A single dose of 800 rems could kill you, but if you have time to recover between doses of 10 rems, no problem. It is like donating blood: You see "4 gallon donor" stickers on cars. You know they didn't give 4 gallons all at once. There is a threshold just over 10 rems/month. You are getting .35 rems/year NATURAL background radiation right where you are right now if you are where I am.

Radiation workers have a career limit of 5 rems/lifetime. Divide 5 rems by your present Natural Background Radiation. For Americans, Natural Background Radiation is at least .35 rems/year. Our Natural Background Radiation uses up our 5 rems/lifetime by the time we are 14 years old.

Natural Background Radiation is radiation that was always there, 1000 years ago, a million years ago, etc. Natural Background Radiation comes from the rocks in the ground and from exploding stars thousands of light years away. All rocks contain uranium. Radon gas is a decay product of uranium.

Coal contains: uranium and all of the decay products of uranium, arsenic, lead, mercury, antimony, cobalt, nickel, copper, selenium, barium, fluorine, silver, beryllium, iron, sulfur, boron, titanium, cadmium, magnesium, thorium, calcium, manganese, vanadium, chlorine, aluminium, chromium, molybdenum and zinc. There is so much of these elements in coal that cinders and coal smoke are actually valuable ores. We should be able to get all the uranium and thorium we need to fuel nuclear power plants for centuries by using coal cinders and smoke as ore.

Unburned Coal and crude oil also contain benzene: the cancer causer. We could get all of our uranium and thorium from coal ashes and cinders. The carbon content of coal ranges from 96 per cent down to 25 per cent - the remainder being rock of various kinds.

If you are an underground coal miner, you may be in violation of the rules for radiation workers. The uranium decay chain includes the radioactive gas radon, which you are breathing. Radon decays in about a day into polonium, the super-poison.

Chinese industrial grade coal is sometimes stolen by peasants for cooking. The result is that the whole family dies of arsenic poisoning in days, not years because Chinese industrial grade coal contains large amounts of arsenic.

Yes, that arsenic is getting into the air you breathe, the water you drink and the soil your food grows in. So are all of those other heavy metal poisons. Your health would be a lot better without coal. Benzene is also found in petroleum. If you have cancer, check for benzene in your past.

See:
http://www.ornl.gov/ORNLReview/rev26-34/text/coalmain.html, http://www.ornl.gov/info/ornlreview/rev26-34/text/colmain.html or http://clearnuclear.blogspot.com in case the ORNL site does not work.

Make coal fired power plants meet the same requirements on radiation release that nuclear power plants have to meet.

Asteroid Miner - Illinois, United States
Thanks very much for commenting. Please see 'Editor's response' above.

James Morgan - ScienceOmega.com
The New York Academy of Sciences did not peer review the "compilation" book referred to here. The "compilation" included media reports, websites of public organizations and even unidentified persons. At the same time, a lot of respected, peer-reviewed work from Russian-language authors was ignored.

The New York Academy of Sciences also published a review of that "compilation" book, by M. I. Balonov of Institute of Radiation Hygiene, St. Petersburg, Russia. He said:

"The value of this review is not zero, but negative, as its bias is obvious only to specialists, while inexperienced readers may well be put into deep error. ... Yablokov's assessment for the mortality from Chernobyl fallout of about one million ... puts this book in a range of rather science fiction than science."

Patrick - Canada
I don't like death either, nor do i condone mass death BUT, both happen. Let's only base this argument on the author's words. Chernobyl killed and destroyed lives, yes. How many? According to one comment from an article which has been thoroughly vetoed as utterly false, it is a million deaths - the NYAS document from Russia. If we take the author then it is roughly 4000 deaths. Now remember, no-one has died from Fukushima nor Three Mile Island - official reports. So even at its worst over 50-plus years, nuclear has killed 80 people per year on AVERAGE. That is lower than coal, so from a safety standpoint, nuclear is better.

Next point, if you are not living within 100 miles of a nuclear or hydro plant, you are getting power from a coal or natural gas plant, which is emitting CO2. As simple as that. Even if you have a wind farm with solar close to you, where does your power come from at night with no wind? Batteries for a whole community only last a few hours, if that much.

So, based on these facts combined with the fact that you can stand next to a dry cask storage bin, why is nuclear so much more dangerous than coal? People who comment on this site and place facts they received from Greenpeace or an anti-nuke need to get their facts straight. It is called Wikipedia and Google. Nuclear power and operation is actually very simple. Neutronics is where it gets complicated. Asking an anti-nuke what is positive about nuclear energy is like asking one politician what is good about his opponent - guaranteed not to be the truth.

My 2¢...

JD Ganders - SA
RELATED CONTENT
One takes us for stupid nubes with this article...
Nuclear that's not a marketing product, nuclear industry means tons of dangerous waste, permanent danger for the environment and centuries of ruined regions in case of accident.

I don't like Nuclear because I don't like DEATH. This sounds simpler than your insane arguments.


Commented Vallee on
How I learned to stop worrying and love nuclear power

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