I previously mentioned an incident in which Friends Of the Earth (FOE) UK conspicuously switched strategies to opposing nuclear on economic grounds as opposed to safety grounds, which led some commentators to suggest that perhaps they had done so because earlier warnings of apocalyptic hazard have not been borne out. The record is that there have been three meltdowns in 60 years of civilian nuclear power: Three Mile Island, in which no one died and there was no statistically significant uptick in local cancers, Fukushima, which has received the same evaluation,1 and Chernobyl, a unique reactor that had no containment vessel, in which 50 people died from the accident and the official guess is 4000 may die due to related cancers.2
Without belittling the singular tragedy of Chernobyl, it can still be concluded from the record of nuclear power that it is the safest of all energy sources.3 For in the meantime, emissions from coal plants have been responsible for "roughly a million premature deaths a year,” every year.4 In the meantime, the biggest industrial accident in history was a hydro dam that broke in China killing 171,000 people. Energy is the stuff out of which civilization is built, but it is dangerous stuff. Indeed, energy might be both our our undoing, according to reports that climate change due to burning fossil fuels will cause three million deaths a year by 2100 and even now is associated with 150,000 deaths yearly.5
Yet when we think about risky energy sources our minds go to nuclear and we dread most of all the hazards of meltdowns. It sounds cavalier to say it, and I was surprised to observe it, but barring Chernobyl, even a meltdown is not an especially risky event even for those who are in the immediate vicinity. The lowest one-year dose clearly linked to cancer risk is 100 times as great as the typical dose in Fukushima Exclusion Zone in two weeks following accident. It is 10 rem.6 One Fukushima worker got that dose, and it was associated with an increased lifetime cancer risk of 0.5%.7 That increased risk of cancer is comparable to the increased risk of having one alcoholic drink a day, which is one that many of us are happy to take on without dread.8 Now divide that by 300 and you get closer to the risk of being a regular person near a nuclear meltdown who follows normal procedures like staying inside for 24 hours.
The other little-known reason why there is little concern about Fukushima’s health risk is that, at Fukushima, the engineered containment facilities did what they were designed to do--they contained the radiation, even after the earthquake and the tsunami. According to reports, the melting down material in the worst impacted reactor did not “even get close to exiting the container that was designed to retain it…in a case where the reactor was operating at full power and then lost all cooling within a few minutes, which is pretty much a worst case scenario.”9 It was after observing the minor impact of Fukushima that Monbiot, a pretty traditional environmentalist overall, claims he was “converted…to the cause of nuclear power” since at Fukushima “atomic energy was subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet was confirmed to be small.”10
It is often said the reason why radiation is scary is that it is invisible. But I think that another prospective reason is that it is measurable in such tiny amounts by scientific devices like Geiger counters. Who knows how much mercury we are breathing at any given moment from running our cars, or how many pharmaceuticals are in our drinking water? We don’t pay a lot of attention to it. Yet we can have the quantity of radiation that is around us described to us to a sub-atomic level. It is the same story with dealing with spent nuclear fuel, which I would consider to be even less of a scary thing in its nature than an active nuclear reactor. You can encase it in glass or concrete, and put it in rock, and if you do a moderately good job at that it will never cause anyone any trouble. But when you are measuring down to sub-atomic particles, anything does become hard to control with absolute perfection. Some people will find a disintegrating nucleus here or there, and others will make something of it.
To take another example, there was a chemical reaction earlier this year within an underground nuclear repository in New Mexico that caused a leak of radioactive material up the shaft, which was caught when 20 trillionths of a gram of plutonium were caught in a filter at a detector nearby.11 That is a very small amount of something to catch in a filter. This leak was subsequently observed to have communicated to “nearby occupied dwellings receiving a maximum potential dose near 0.1 mrem,” which is actually the “average dose a U.S. citizen receives in just one hour from what are called background sources: radon, radiation from natural radioactivity in the dirt, cosmic radiation and natural potassium in your body.”12 Yet you can still read on websites like nuclear-news.net that there are “very high levels of radiation again at WIPP nuclear facility.”13 People then decide that because there was a leak of a few atoms, the whole idea of deep repositories for nuclear waste has to be dished--and as such the whole prospect for nuclear power, because its responsible use depends on having something to do with the waste. And so the cycle continues.
But for me, shifting from thinking about the vast scale of millions of deaths that will be caused by global warming and that even noware caused by coal, to the minuscule scale of countable radionuclides from nuclear releases, feels strange. I once had someone ask me very ominously on twitter if I knew that I had Strontium-90 in my teeth. I probably do--probably around fifteen becquerels of it from nuclear tests in the '60s14 . A becquerel is one atom disintegrating every second. But monkeys have been be injected with 600,000 bequerels of Strongium-90 to no ill effect.15 And I have other things to worry about than an iota of radioactivity in my body, which is otherwise radioactive due to the potassium in my cells. Moreover, I would have much more to worry about if I was a fisherman in the Maldives whose island was probably going to be submersed in the next 15 years due to rising oceans16 or a farmer in South Sudan whose land stood to be swallowed up by the Sahara due to expanding deserts.17 I honestly think global justice demands a larger perspective.
I do not want to leave the impression that I utterly dismiss the risk of radiation and meltdowns, but rather with the impression that nuclear engineers are on it, and that it is something we don’t have to worry about that much. If we built up hundreds of nuclear power plants a year, no one could guarantee that something, somewhere, wouldn’t go wrong once in a while. But the odds are overwhelming that almost no one would get hurt, and that whatever happened, it wouldn’t be in the same ballpark of hazard as even one of the thousands of impacts of climate change we will otherwise be seeing in the coming period.
Finally, I would like to address the issue of public acceptability of nuclear power. It is well understood nowadays that people perceive higher degrees of risk in that which is man-made compared that which natural, that which is indetectable by the senses to that which is detectable, that we don’t as individuals have control over versus that which we choose, and that which is novel compared with that which is familiar.18 Nuclear power can push all the wrong buttons, and it can arouse resistance and indignation and protest and all those kinds of things that politicians don’t like.
Yet people who live with nuclear power nearby get used to it19 and don't get sicker than others20 and they have their appliances and their computers to use as they like and their cars to charge up and drive guilt-free, and all that with clean air to breathe. And if you ask people point blank, as was done in an American survey sponsored recently by the Nuclear Energy Institute, whether “we should take advantage of all low-carbon energy sources, including nuclear, hydro and renewable energy, to produce the electricity we need while limiting greenhouse gas emissions,” 82 percent agreed.21 Further, 75 percent said nuclear energy will be “very important” or “somewhat important” in meeting America’s future electricity needs.
People instinctively like the idea of getting energy from the sun and the wind; they are nice images. The idea of getting all the energy we need without the complications and inconveniences of having to deal with nuclear materials is also attractive. But people generally aren't clear on how hard it would be to do that, and they don’t realize what they might have to give up along the way, by way of cheap electricity on demand and cheap food whose prices aren’t ratcheted up by land use given over to grow biofuels.22
People also don’t realize that, as the sun is a big fusion reactor, solar energy and wind energy are actually nuclear energy. Yet when we build and control nuclear reactors on earth we have the added convenience of being able to turn the process on and leave it on and fine-tune how much power it is delivering. That is a capability we can either shy away from in dread or we can embrace for the next phase of civilization, to help us solve the problems from our maxing out on fossil fuels in the last phase.
6 Xkcd "Radiation"
10 Read more: http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/energy/photos/9-high-profile-champions-of-nuclear-power/george-monbiot#ixzz3HyZou6t0
11 Twitter conversation with Jeff Terry (@nuclear94): “basically calculations goes as y Bq of material x 2.7e-11 Ci/Bq x 1 /specific Activity in Ci = y grams of mat. specific activity of Am-241 – 3.2E0 and Pu-239 – 6.2E-2.”