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Nuclear Power: It's all in the mind

By Email author - Wed, 13 Jul 2011 14:15:16 GMT
Nuclear Power: It's all in the mind

Risk perceptionis a very subjective thing. It depends on your understanding of the dangers inherent in the activity. For example, whilst I love the mountains, nothing would persuade me to go rock and ice climbing since I lack the necessary insanity, but friends of mine love the sport. They are confident in their skills, strength and equipment and they usually climb on well-defined pitches. So far, they have all lived to tell the tale. Fear can be an irrational thing and it is usually stoked by ignorance. My friends may think that I was the mad person if they knew that I had happily stood on top of a working nuclear reactor, but then I know something about ionising radiation and shielding.

The nuclear industry was born of the cataclysmic destruction of two Japanese cities; Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Opinion is divided to this day as to whether this was a justifiable act which cut short a vicious and bloody war or a war crime conducted against a largely civilian target. Indisputably, the use of nuclear weapons against Japan and the brinkmanship of the doctrine of mutually assured destruction that marked the Cold War have shaped and, in my opinion, poisoned the public's attitude to nuclear power. In the public's mind, nuclear power is inextricably linked to destruction; nuclear fallout; mutation and cancer - it is probably the deadliest force on the planet. Yet these concerns are not borne out by the sixty or so year record of the nuclear power industry.

There have been four "nuclear disasters" in the atomic age: the Windscale fire (1957 UK); Three Mile Island (1979 USA); Chernobyl (1986 Ukraine Belarus border, former USSR); and Fukushima (2011 Japan).

Of these, only the Chernobyl accident resulted in immediate loss of life through radiation poisoning. It cost the lives of fewer than 50 individuals most of whom were "liquidators" dealing directly with the fire in the reactor facility after the initial explosion; according to the Chernobyl Forum report, sponsored by the IAEA. Nobody died from direct irradiation in the other incidents although two workers did die at Fukushima by drowning when the tsunami struck.

The silent fear with a nuclear incident is cancer which claims the lives of victims years after the disaster struck. The trouble with estimating this figure is that you must determine "excess" cancers in the population since cancer is a disease that afflicts millions around the world for whom exposure to ionising radiation is not a factor in their disease. You also run into the issue of political agendas, compensation issues, aid issues and development money; all of which loomed large in the aftermath of Chernobyl. One WHO report suggested that there would be 20000 premature deaths in the worst affected regions around Chernobyl - this was at odds with the IAEA's own estimates which put the number much lower.

It all comes down to risk assessment. The upper figure of 20000 lives cut short by the accident is (ironically) approximately the number of souls lost on 11th March 2011 when the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan. It is something like one tenth of the number of citizens that the EU calculates which dies prematurely from cancer induced by smoking each year.

Not one person died from radioactive exposure in Fukushima; the plant survived a magnitude 9 earthquake and a 14m tsunami wave (it was designed to withstand one up to 9m); the reactors failed safe when the control rods dropped in, yet the 'disaster' was enough to cause German politicians to abandon plans for continued and extended use of nuclear power. The risk the German "leaders" perceived was the risk of not getting re-elected when the German people next go to the ballot box.

France generates more than 70% of its electricity from nuclear energy. The technique releases less radioactivity to the environment than does a coal-fired power station (because coal contains trace amounts of radionuclides), zero carbon emission and no acid rain. True, the question of provision of secure storage of nuclear waste needs to be properly addressed, but again, this is more of a political and financial problem than a technical one.

If the mortality rate in the nuclear industry matched that in farming; mining; building; seafaring or many other 'safe' occupations, it would be shutdown in a heartbeat.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Top Image: Nuclear Power © Vojtech Soukup

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Topics: Nuclear