Monday, 3 September 2012

Nuclear power - yes please?

"Science is important, innit?". 

Ali G.

I've long been a fan of science for simpletons books such as Stephen Hawkings "A Brief History of Time", Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" and Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything".   Recently I bought Richard Dawkin's "The Magic of Reality" - a science book for kiddies I can just about grasp.

Science is the sum of what we know, or think we know.  It is not absolute.   

However, there are people out there - as discussed in an earlier blog - who think things they cannot see do not exist: viruses for example (though they believe in a god).   I assume they don't believe in atoms either, though the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki might disagree.

Our scientific knowledge can be beneficial however.  Without it we would still be living in caves or crannogs.  Or Cork.  

Have a read of the article below, written by David Robert Grimes, a doctor of medical physics at Oxford.   I know some of you might have a greenish tinge, but his argument seems pretty convincing to me.  

What do you think?

Irish Times, August 14th, 2012.

The ideological bias against nuclear power is hard to overcome but it is clean and cheap and has tiny emissions

NUCLEAR POWER has long been a contentious issue, and debate about it has intensified following the second worst nuclear accident in history, at Fukushima in Japan — an accident that has claimed no lives, and in all likelihood never will.

In Ireland, opposition to nuclear energy is nothing new; almost four decades ago, in the wake of the 1973 energy crisis, the ESB planned to build a nuclear plant at Carnsore Point. A public backlash resulted in the nuclear option being dropped and instead a coal plant was built at Moneypoint. This was and still is heralded as a victory by Green activists. But if this was a victory, it was a deeply pyrrhic one. Coal is undoubtedly the most hazardous and polluting fuel there is. The World Health Organisation estimates that more than 1.3 million people a year die from respiratory problems caused by solid fuel.

Coal is also the most polluting. Since its inception, Moneypoint spewed millions of tons of CO2 into the air. Contrast that with nuclear, which kills approximately zero people a year, has negligible CO2 emissions and produces vastly more energy. One wonders what exactly these  
protests achieved.

Of course, the worst nuclear accident in history did claim lives and debates about nuclear seem to constantly return to the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. So what exactly was the impact on health? The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (Unscear) dealing with Chernobyl is the product of 25 years of research by medical and scientific teams, including the WHO, and answers that question.

A total of 28 workers died from acute radiation syndrome; and there were 15 fatal thyroid cancers in children. Those who imbued radioiodine immediately after the disaster are at elevated risk of thyroid cancer, which is treatable with a 92 per cent 30-year survival rate. Zero increase has been observed in solid cancers or birth defects.

That this toll is considerably less than people might expect does not diminish the scale of the calamity or change the fact that the response by the Soviet authorities was lamentable. While Iodine 131 is dangerous, it has a half life of just eight days and had proper action been taken the death toll could have been reduced. Hundreds more could have been saved from exposure to potentially detrimental levels of radioiodine.

Moreover, the scale of disruption caused by the incident was enormous. Unscear estimates that 115,000 people were evacuated by the authorities from areas surrounding the reactor in 1986; and subsequently about 220,000 people from Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine were relocated.

“The accident caused serious social and psychological disruption in the lives of those affected and vast economic losses over the entire region,” its report on Chernobyl states.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to compare the fallout from Chernobyl with that of the Banquio hydroelectric dam failure in China in 1975. This killed 26,000 directly and 145,000 from the resulting famine and epidemics, as well as destroying almost six million homes and buildings, affecting 11 million people.

Yet just as this failure doesn’t denigrate hydroelectric power, Chernobyl isn’t a trump card against nuclear energy. All forms of energy production have inherent risk and it is foolish to dismiss any out of hand.Intriguingly, Unscear concludes that the greatest threat to survivors is the risk to mental health from exaggerated fears about radiation.

“Designation of the affected population as ‘victims’ rather than ‘survivors’ has led them to perceive themselves as helpless, weak and lacking 
control over their future. This . . . has led either to overcautious behaviour and exaggerated health concerns, or to reckless conduct,” it states.

This raises the distinct possibility that the hyperbole of anti-nuclear activists about Chernobyl may cause far more harm than good to the survivors. Similarly, our fixation with Fukushima has blinded us to the fact that it was a natural disaster rather than a nuclear one that cost thousands of lives last year. The earthquake and tsunami that triggered a triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant killed 19,000.

Predictably, some take issue with the Chernobyl figures: a Russian non-peer reviewed report claimed 985,000 died as a result of the accident. Greenpeace claimed a figure of more than 200,000 deaths. Subsequent investigations by the journal Radiation Protection Dosimetry exposed these figures as utterly baseless. Despite these claims being nonsense, there are some in the ostensibly Green movement who persist in shouting them loudly over the abundant evidence to the contrary. To cite one local example, these debunked figures are still quoted by Chernobyl Children International, despite their lack of veracity being indicated to them by numerous scientists.

The ideological bias against nuclear is hard to overcome. The cold war left the impression of imminent destruction on the psyche of the world. This is understandable but unfortunate, as the physics behind nuclear weapons is entirely different to nuclear energy and one can no more turn a nuclear plant into an atomic bomb than one can convert a paper airplane into an F-14 Tomcat fighter aircraft.

While there are some in the Green movement who cling to anti-nuclear ideology without any consideration of the facts, there are a growing number of scientifically literate pro-nuclear environmentalists challenging this dogmatic approach. George Monbiot has written eloquently on why 

environmentalists need to embrace nuclear power. And scientist James Lovelock has said nuclear power is the only way to curb global warming. Societies like Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy and Better Environment With Nuclear Energy have seen a marked increase in support from Green activists.

The reason for this is simple: nuclear energy is clean, cheap and has tiny emissions.

The technology is also advancing rapidly; generation IV reactors will produce only about one per cent of the waste current reactors do, and 
thorium reactors are now available which can be fuelled by existing nuclear waste.

Renewable energy is a laudable goal, but not a panacea. Despite extraordinary claims about wind and wave power, the truth is they cannot supply the energy we need. A choice between nuclear and renewable is a false dichotomy; renewables as they stand cannot power the world.

While Japan protests under blackouts, France by contrast has since 1963 generated 78 per cent of its power from nuclear. Consequently, France has energy independence, the cleanest air in the industrialised world and among the lowest carbon emissions. Nuclear energy is complicated and has drawbacks, but it is clean, safe and hugely efficient.

Radioactivity is invisible and threats we cannot see frighten us, but a misplaced sense of ideological radiophobia cannot be the motivation in deciding how to power our world.

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Anonymous said...

GM, to me the article reads like a piece of lobbying boilerplate. Not surprisingly, the author is associated with the lobbying outfit Better Environment With Nuclear Energy (BENE)

He makes unsubstantiated and questionable claims. EG, no one has, or likely will, die from the Fukushima accident. This is true only if you agree that dying from something means being killed immediately, and doesn't mean having your life span reduced. According to that logic, because no one has ever smoked himself to death in an afternoon, no one has ever died from tobacco use. In fact, it is far too early to know if anyone will have been "abbreviated" by the Japanese accident, and our lobbyist is talking out his arse. He might be right, but only accidentally; the evidence is not available yet. Time will tell.

He also says that the sort of cancer we get from radiation exposure is not the bad kind. It's just cancer, not cancer cancer.

His central claim is BS too: that opponents are motivated by technophobia. This is an easy idea to sell, but hardly proved. Most people I know are concerned about the worst that can happen, not what is likely to happen. Admittedly, the *risk* (that is, the chance that something will go wrong) is low, but the *threat* (the actual thing that goes wrong) is extremely serious. This objection is hardly rooted in medieval superstition and fear of the unknown, as our industry shill implies. It is a quite rational worry. A low risk of something catastrophic (like an entire region becoming uninhabitable for generations, the expense and disruption of mass evacuations and re-locations, etc) is not something to dismiss lightly.

Basically, the piece is a plant.


Anonymous said...

The author of the article claims that Nuclear power is a recipe for Energy Independance, where exactly is Uranium to be found in Ireland?

Nuclear Power is not a serious runner for Ireland in my opinion, in a country known for NIMBYism, finding somewhere to put a Nuclear Reactor would be a mirical that could take on Knock.

Wind and Wave power is something that has yet to be tapped and is something that could make Ireland truely energy independant.

An Coileán

DB said...

Irish conservatism?

anna said...

Just remember- the age of massive dependence on fossil fuel is but a blink in the history of earth- first oil wells @ late 1800's, first car just over 100 yrs old- of course Many depend on cars- and we need public transport- but how did we end up in a situation where there was No alternative to cars? When couples with No connection to farming or the land end up in isolated estates on the edge of motorways- because Irish house prices forced them out of the city?
Life Was Better and people were more connected to their communities when they could walk/ bike to work. Yes we need to work on all energy alternatives- but even cutting down on the massive waste of fossil fuels would be a help- after all up to now irish insulation standards have been poor, and public transport often lacking.Nuclear could be considered on a very small scale- but in fact the true cost of making it Really safe outweights any ideas of it as a cheap supply.( and in a nation of buck passers,and where all public services where checks and balances are required are often forgotten about ( Remember forgotten tallaght hospital X-rays??)the potential for accidents is too great,) Yes Ireland could work on it's wind potential- we are one of the windiest countries on earth

Anonymous said...

Aside from the safety concerns, it is frightening to imagine the mess we would make of such a project. Think of the ways our Gombeen Masters would turn this into an extravagant public fiasco.

We'd outsource it all to a multinational, and our entire reward for increased taxes to pay for even more lavish corporate welfare that we can't afford would be a couple of thousand temporary jobs for slapdash local builders and engineering outfits.

We've already seen how well the Corrib project is working out for the man in the street. This would be many times more expensive, complicated, and susceptible to the sorts of corrupt shenanigans and ultimate self defeat that the Irish specialise in.


The Gombeen Man said...

Fair points, all.

I can well imagine a reactor riddled with pyrite and falling apart within a couple of years, given our Powers-That-Be's propensity for doing things arseways..

Anonymous said...

I agree with the author's main premise, that nuclear energy is much much safer than we give it credit. We judge safety by emotion, not by coldly evaluating facts. Technophobia is real. A friend of mine makes a constant argument in support of nuclear power, and it goes a bit like, if you're gonna outlaw nuclear power over its safety, perhaps you should start outlawing alcohol. His point about numerous things having risk and yet are still being used is an extremely valid one.

The line highlighting the "risk of an entire region becoming uninhabitable for generations"... has the poster ever been to Limerick? Joking aside, extreme risk requires extreme safety. That safety is built into the technology. The same reasoning has made flying the safest way to travel. Nuclear incidents are extremely rare, and nevermind the wild speculation surrounding the Fukushima incident, the actual amount of radiation released was actually quite small.

It furthermore saddens me that anyone supportive of Nuclear Energy always gets labelled a biased lobbyist. I suppose I'm a lobbyist as well. And GM is a lobbyist too! In this fantasy world, there is only one "valid" opinion, and any other one is associated with Evil. Sounds rather Catholic, doesn't it?

That being said... we can't even build two tramway lines that connect. We can't build a tunnel through Dublin that isn't riddled with safety failures and leaks. That's all 19th century technology we've yet to grasp. Nuclear Energy requires strict regulation, strict obedience to regulation, paper trails, and responsible leaders... none of which we have ever had.

Nuclear energy is great, but I don't think Ireland has the know-how to be allowed anywhere near a fuel rod.

Dakota said...

Ireland is not Energy Independent Nation most of it's energy is secondhand from countries with long established Nuclear agendas.

Could not envisage an Irish Government ever putting a Nuclear Program together. If they're not giving energy resources away they're otherwise preoccupied ignoring reality.

David Robert Grimes said...

Some interesting points; I am the author of the piece and just to clarify, BENE are not some shady outfit funded by the nuclear industry; they are scientists with a concern for the environment who happen to believe nuclear is the way forward. Anyone can join, and we receive no industry funding.


Anonymous said...

Doesn't (or didn't) France export its nuclear waste to Japan for processing?

Where does France get the ingredients for its nuclear weapons?

What if.... the unthinkable..... were to happen?

Anonymous said...

Hello, Fukushima?

Anonymous said...

DRG should update his scepticism and keep his obsession with 'peer review'in check by reading this article:
Furthermore, DRG is invited to honestly review some intelligent criticism posted on his Fluoride article: