Nuclear as the last resort – why and how?

19 January 2012

It is clear that since the Fukushima accident earlier this year, public and political acceptance of nuclear power has taken something of a knock in certain countries, resulting in the revival of phase-out policies. Germany is the most notable example of this but Switzerland and Belgium have also followed, albeit more gently, on a similar tack. Even in countries where nuclear power is still being endorsed as a useful contributor to a clean energy future, statements in support of nuclear power have been something less than strong and positive endorsements. And if this is the case, political choices in favour of nuclear and decisions made by private companies to invest in new nuclear stations are likely to get deflected by the slightest problem, and other less worthy energy options may indeed be pursued.

The reason behind this has been eloquently explained by my friend Milt Caplan of MZConsulting in a recent blog (www-mzconsultinginc-com-blog). This builds on a statement at the World Nuclear Association Annual Symposium in London in September by Director General John Ritch: that there is a common belief that nuclear power is only safe because of good management of fundamentally dangerous machines. Or in other words, there is a constant fear of the small risk of an extreme and catastrophic event.

Politicians who support nuclear usually say, “Of course we would rather not use nuclear power but we have no choice.” They are effectively saying that if we had better options, we would not use nuclear power due to its inherent risk. In the very extreme, this is the German position. The Germans are actually abandoning an important source of their current electricity generation because in their view it’s simply not worth the risk. So what is this risk? Is it a nuclear disaster that kills many, contaminates vast land areas and results in huge numbers of cases of long-term health effects to the population (primarily cancer) even for those living far away from the accident? Many people believe that, while nuclear is generally safely managed, such a scenario not only plausible but in fact somewhat likely. So yes, these are indeed doomsday machines.

Yet statistics show (as the informed public knows well) that nuclear power has killed by far the fewest number of people per terawatt hour of any type of power generation. And it has a very small impact on the environment with effectively zero emissions of any kind. But the nuclear detractors will say, “Yes, that may be true, but what about the one accident that will impact us all—as this is the greatest fear?”

But again, we have the necessary data. We know that Chernobyl was the world’s worst nuclear disaster, yet it only killed 52 people. Beyond the severe damage done to the first responders or ‘liquidators’ as they were known, the primary health impact was about 6000 thyroid cancers in children, of which 15 died. This is indeed terrible, but we also know how to avoid this in the future; the children were drinking contaminated milk several days after the accident owing to the incompetence of the authorities. We also know that we cannot so far attribute even one single cancer in the longer term to Chernobyl—and this is the most-studied industrial accident in history.

But try and tell that to people, your friends, and others who know you and trust you – and even they will say they really don’t believe it. And that is why a more significant effect of any nuclear accident is the psychological impact. There is undoubtedly a huge economic impact of moving people from their homes and jobs in order to protect them, but the reason for this is the essentially unwarranted fear of radiation. This in itself can cause many illnesses, providing much wider implications a long way from the scene of the accident.

Again, Fukushima is a terrible nuclear accident, the worst nuclear disaster in 25 years, with radiation releases and contamination in some communities. And yet there have so far been no radiation-induced deaths, nor are there likely to be any in the future. How can this relatively benign incident create such a degree of fear that it is dominating discussion of nuclear power’s future?

Nuclear naysayers will say, “Can you guarantee that there will be no cancers in the future from Fukushima?” And of course, the answer is no, we cannot completely guarantee this outcome. But what we can guarantee with absolute certainty is that many Japanese people will get cancer from many other sources over the coming years. This is guaranteed. So if we are really concerned with public health, it would be best to focus on those things in society that we know for sure will cause cancer. For example, smoking cigarettes; public campaigns against this will undoubtedly have a bigger impact on preventing cancers than extending the exclusion zones around nuclear accidents both geographically and in time. It reached ridiculous proportions in a recent article proudly proclaiming that post-Fukushima, Japanese cigarettes remain radiation-free. So it was a wonderful outcome for the marketing men–their cigarettes must therefore be very safe to smoke!

The Fukushima exclusion zone and the actions taken in the wider slightly contaminated areas are an interesting case in point. Japan has undoubtedly moved forward very quickly and with the allocation of the necessary measures (legal, economic and technological) to develop an efficient programme for remediation after the Fukushima accident. Unlike the countries around Chernobyl, Japan is affluent and developed, and therefore has the means to manage such a situation. However, it is being increasingly recognised that the authorities involved in the remediation strategy should cautiously balance the different factors that influence the net benefit of the measures to ensure dose reduction. They are now being encouraged to avoid over-conservatism which could not effectively contribute to the reduction of exposure doses. So therefore don’t spend a lot of time and expense decontaminating areas just to appease the public; make sure what is being done is effective in managing radiation doses and public risk. Best to deal with the science and not to let fear guide the clean-up activities.

“If much of the ignorance and fear about radiation can be overcome, nuclear power loses its doomsday machine mythology.”

One implication of this is that perhaps the radiation exposure limits and the attendant evacuation zones are too stringent. Would people easily accept relaxation of these limits? The advisory dose limit in Japan is one millisievert per year (with average global background doses around 2.4 mSv/year). The government is considering relaxing the limit. Experts, such as Professor Wade Allison of Oxford University, argue that Japan’s dose limit can safely be raised to 100 millisieverts, based on current health statistics.

There is, however, general distrust of authorities who say we are safe. This is also a difficult area for the industry – if it promotes any relaxation of standards, particularly after a major accident, it looks to the general public that it is cheating and maybe endangering their good health. People are unfortunately often more likely to listen to anti-nuclear advocates, rather than the industry or the authorities appointed to protect them.

This leaves the nuclear sector with a huge job to explain the basics of radiation to the public and why their fears are largely groundless. But we the industry have made this job much harder. Over the years we have, in effect, taught the public that they should fear nuclear, so maybe they are not as irrational as is often claimed. Malcolm Grimston at Imperial College, London argues that the public believe what they believe about nuclear in large part simply because that is what the industry has taught them to believe over the past 40 years. He argues that our constant focus on communicating safety has taught the public that nuclear power must be dangerous since we talk about it so much. We feed the dragon and then wonder why it breathes fire at us.

So we need to communicate much better the advantages of nuclear power without scaring people in the process. Yet history suggests this is a very difficult act to carry off. The world needs huge amounts of energy and nuclear power is a form that will last for centuries and provide safe and reliable electricity to feed this energy-hungry world. It is indeed safer than most other forms of energy—even allowing for future nuclear accidents. The consequences can be contained without any loss of life. There may be severe economic and social effects from the dislocation taken as a precautionary measure against radiation exposure, but such measures should be guided by science, not emotion.

It is in the interests of the anti-nuclear brigade to resist this, as the misunderstanding of radiation is an important key to discrediting nuclear power. They continue to lie about the health consequences of Chernobyl, ignoring the credible international reports by UNSCEAR and others. The effects of the Chernobyl disaster are crudely translated to Fukushima with the simplistic logic that cumulative radiation release equates to a certain kill rate, so that if the radiation release at Fukushima were x% of Chernobyl, then the same x% of Chernobyl casualties are likely to result at Fukushima. They know that the numbers they quote from Chernobyl cannot stand up to any scientific review, so then start majoring on the psychological impact of nuclear accidents. Yet they are the very people who are inducing such effects by continuing to feed the public scares about radiation! So the psychological impacts become essentially self-fulfilling; they stoke up an (illusory) fear and then complain about the consequences of this.

This is in line with nuclear opponents’ usual tactic of trotting out a huge number of arguments against nuclear power, each of which is individually very weak, but which cumulatively create public concern that so much can apparently go wrong with this technology. But without the unwarranted fear of radiation, most of the arguments look much weaker. Therefore the industry must do all it can to promote a better understanding of radiation, from the schools onwards: that it is a natural phenomenon; that natural background levels vary by geography; that there is a significant dose impact of medical procedures today; that relatively high doses are commonly received today by frequent intercontinental flying. All of these points should be related to normal exposures in the nuclear sector and what could conceivably be received locally during and after the next accident.

If much of the ignorance and fear about radiation can be overcome, nuclear power loses its doomsday machine mythology. It then should become something beyond a last resort technology for electricity generation and its positive attributes come to the fore. The general public and its political leaders are increasingly aware of these but would rather use some other technology which doesn’t induce such a big fear. Renewable sources of energy may be expensive, visually unattractive and often intermittent, but they don’t induce deep safety and security fears, as does nuclear. They also do not raise the same environmental concerns over carbon emissions attributed to the fossil fuels, notably coal but also oil and gas. Hence people, notably in Germany, have gravitated towards extolling renewable energy. This also harks back to an earlier age of a simpler life, with pretty villages, green fields and clean air, before we had mass industrialisation and all the attendant strains of city living and modern technology.

It is understandable at a time of economic dislocation that people look backwards rather than forwards. Nuclear power is, in fact, compatible with a more ideal world. Everyone is agreed that the world needs more and more environmentally-friendly power, particularly in those countries where electricity supply is intermittent or non-existent. Nuclear can provide this sustainably and economically – but without diminishing the fear surrounding it, it will be an uphill battle for the industry.

Author Info:

Steve Kidd is deputy director general of the World Nuclear Association, where he has worked since 1995 (when it was still the Uranium Institute). Any views expressed are not necessarily those of the World Nuclear Association and/or its members.

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