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Nuclear power: a failed technology?
By *Dr Aaron Oakley
No. 140, 1-7 November 1999
Dr Aaron Oakley
The hatred that greens have for nuclear power is a wonder to behold. They send themselves into paroxysms attempting to show that the business with one of the best safety records of any industry is actually an evil, dirty endeavour. This article seeks to critically examine one result of one such attempt: SEA-US's (The Sustainable Energy Anti-Uranium Service) attempt to malign the nuclear electricity industry with its article Nuclear Power: A failed Technology by Peter Kinrade.
Readers new to this debate will already be suspicious of an organisation calling itself "anti-uranium". This is because being pro and anti something implies an ideological position, and uranium and its uses are a topic that should be discussed scientifically. These concepts are important: A scientist tries to discover the truth through observation and reason. Ideologues (such as those that write for SEA-US) make up their minds about things based on prejudice and emotion and then try to force-fit the facts to fit theirpreconceptions.
One of the first things the typical anti-nuclear ideologue likes do is to wheel out the Chernobyl accident. And, if they think they can get away with it, they will make it sound as bad as they possibly can by exaggerating the impacts. And this is just what SEA-US does in its Nuclear Power article. Take the following statement:
"The Chernobyl nuclear accident contaminated 160,000 square kilometres of land, displaced at least 400,000 people and led to the premature deaths of incalculable numbers of people."
The truth, of course, is nothing like this. The reality is that while 40 people had died by 1996 (according to the World Health Organisation), and while some more deaths may be expected in the future, these figures fall far short of the "incalculable" (implying large) number of deaths SEA-US claims. (Perhaps SEA-US would care to inform us where WHO and other bodies studying the aftermath of the disaster have erred). The death toll from stress-related problems, including deliberate abortions resulting from environmentalist and journalist fear-mongering following the Chernobyl disaster is estimated to be much higher. For instance, The victims of Chernobyl in Greece: induced abortions after the accident, published by the British Medical Journal (vol. 295, p. 1100, 1987), reported that 2,100 otherwise wanted pregnancies were ended in May 1986 because of green scaremongering about radiation from Chernobyl. No green apologies for that one.
There has, unfortunately, been an increase in thyroid cancer (due to the release of radioisotopes of iodine). However, mortality rate from thyroid cancer is about 10 per cent, and most of the cancers could have been prevented if the Soviets had distributed potassium iodide pills to avert the absorption of the radioiodine released in the accident. In fact fewer people died as a consequence of the "world's worst nuclear accident" than died in the FBI assault on Waco.
And what of the supposed displacement of 400,000 people? What really happened was that following the disaster, the decision by the Supreme Soviet (against the advice of leading Soviet scientists) was to evacuate about 116,000 inhabitants of Belarus and Ukraine, causing unspeakable suffering. Was this justified? The level of radiation for which evacuation was deemed necessary was about twice the global average natural background dose (around 2.6 mSv). Yet many inhabited regions of the world have more than twice the global average background radiation. Why doesn’t everyone in Norway, for example, which has an average 365 mSv background radiation (and in some districts as much as 1500 mSv) move next door to Sweden? By reacting to Chernobyl in such a rubberneck fashion (and in accordance with green ideology), the Supreme Soviet caused much unnecessary suffering. But don’t expect the greens to own up to this.
And what of the 160,000 square km of contaminated land? As much as I have tried, I have been unable to find where SEA-US got this figure. And as it stands, the figure is really meaningless. Pertinent information that was omitted here is the actual level of contamination in question. Once again, if we check the facts we find that while there was some contamination of a large area of land, the amount of radiation is insignificantly small. For example, the ACF claimed that an are the size of the Netherlands (34,000 square km) was rendered "permanently [sic] unsuitable for agriculture", but people are living in and farming the affected area in question with no signs of radiation sickness, and on-site measurements reported in Radiation Protection Dosimetry put the average excess exposure at 1 mSv, which is still less than background radiation in many parts of the world.
The Chernobyl disaster was indeed tragic. But it is morally reprehensible to exaggerate what happened and use it as an ideological club to bash nuclear energy as Peter Kinrade and SEA-US have done. But of course, moral scruples do not stop the likes of Kinrade from using the tragedy to malign the nuclear industry:
"Claims by the nuclear industry that the 'safer' western-style reactors are not prone to Chernobyl-like disasters are dubious, given the near disasters at Windscale-Sellafield in the UK, Three Mile Island in the US and at the Monju reactor in Japan."
What is really dubious here is Kinrade's claims. A vital fact that blows up Kinrade’s argument is that all Western nuclear reactors have what is referred to as a "primary containment system", a structure which would have greatly reduced the scale of the Chernobyl disaster if only the Russians had built one. (The Soviets decided it was cheaper to replace Russians than to build the primary containment.) It is a sad legacy of communism that Russia and Eastern Europe suffered numerous environmental disasters, with Chernobyl being just the tip of the ice berg. Because there have been no real "disasters" in peaceful, western reactors, Kinrade is forced to make vague allusions to so-called "near disasters" at TMI, Monju and Sellafield. But the only real disasters here were the PR disasters and environmentalist over-hype following the incidents. Nuclear power has had far fewer fatalities per kilowatt hour generated compared with coal and other forms of power generation. But don’t expect SEA-US to admit to this.
Kinrade makes the following statement:
"Spiralling costs and concerns about reactor safety and waste disposal have caused the nuclear power industry to stall in industrialised countries."
I propose a little game. I will re-write the above sentence so that it would pass the "truth-in-advertising" legislation required in some countries:
"Spiralling costs (due to over-zealous nuclear regulators, environmentalists infatuated with the Linear no-threshold Theory of Radiation Carcinogenesis and spineless governments) and (baseless and overwrought) concerns about reactor safety and waste disposal have caused the (spineless) nuclear power industry to stall in industrialised countries (with high populations of mindless environmentalists chanting anti-nuclear mantras) but not in less industrialised countries (where environmental extremism hasn’t taken off yet).
The old canard about solar energy is then trotted out:
"In the longer term, sustainable energy systems will have to be nuclear free and largely fossil-fuel free. Renewable systems, in particular solar energy, offer the best hope of providing the world with a safe, clean and sustainable energy supply. Solar radiation striking the earth each year is equal to about 178,000 terrawatts or about 15,000 times current global energy consumption."
One wonders how the high-brow intellects down at SEA-US know that sustainable energy systems will have to be nuclear free in the long run. To do so they must be able to anticipate long-term technological advances. Maybe they have access to a working crystal ball or oracle, or maybe, just maybe, they are (horror!) prejudiced. The 178,000 terrawatt figure touted is impressive but absurd. The real cost, as we have seen previously is in collecting the energy, and has nothing to do with the total amount. Solar is very dilute (about 1 kilowatt per square meter), and I wonder how many greens would cringe if they realised how much land would be used up for solar collectors if society was to convert over to it as a primary electricity source. Don’t forget, also, that we have already shown that solar energy is not anywhere near as safe as nuclear! One wonders if the deep greens will ever wake up from their solar energy dream.
"Opponents of renewable energy — usually proponents of nuclear power, fossil fuels or both — frequently claim that it is either impossible, impractical or untried. But most renewable technologies are now well proven. In fact, renewable energy — solar, wind, micro-hydro, tidal and sustainably harvested biomass — already meets about 13 per cent of the world's commercial energy needs."
Opponents of renewables also have the advantage that they have brains in their heads and have done their homework on so-called renewable energy. The 13 per cent figure is meaningless. Does it, for example refer to the first world or the third world, or both? How much of that 13 per cent refers to the burning of cattle dung by peasants to keep warm? This is not meant as a joke. In 1984 it was estimated that dung, wood crop waste, ie., biomass, were the principle [sic] sources of cooking fuel for 56 per cent of the world's population. In some countries wood provided about 90 per cent to the energy budget. Another sobering fact is that 99 per cent of US electricity is generated by nuclear, hydro and fossil sources. I'll repeat that: 99 per cent.
>From 1970 to 1990 electricity generation doubled, with the greatest increase coming from nuclear power, not sunbeams. There is no way that so-called 'renewable' could have met the increased demand for energy. If the greens really believed that their alternative technologies were genuinely more efficient than coal and nuclear they would not hesitate to call for open competition rather than subsidies and the regulatory asphyxiation of the nuclear power industry
Anyway, how "sustainable" really, is solar and wind, given that the raw materials to make solar cells and wind turbines must be obtained by the (gasp!) mining industry. Solar and wind have been shown to be perpetual infant industries, incapable of surviving in the competitive energy market with out massive (taxpayer) subsidies.
In short, when will SEA-US start telling the truth about nuclear power? 'm not holding my breath.
(c)1999 By Oakley Environmental Research. The right to reproduce this page is granted providing that attribution to the author is given and that this noticeis reproduced.
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