In defence of nuclear power


Despite the recent radioactive leaks at Fukushima, nuclear power is ultimately a safe and environmentally friendly energy source, argues Eoin Brady

Given the hysteria of the past few weeks, one would be forgiven for thinking that the prophecies of the beardies with the “The end is nigh” placards were finally coming true. Planet Earth was teetering on the brink of nuclear apocalypse, and the people charged with saving it were under-prepared, under-resourced and underwater.

The leakages at the Fukushima plant have been described as being the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. At first, this sounds disastrous. However, the Fukushima accident was considerably less serious than Chernobyl. Even it, the worst civilian nuclear disaster in history, did not have an enormous human cost.

A UN and WHO-backed report from 2005 put the number of deaths from cancer due to Chernobyl at 9,000. Much of these deaths were due to thyroid cancer, which people contracted by drinking milk that was contaminated with radioactive iodine. This number of deaths would have been dramatically lower if the Soviet government had taken the basic precaution of providing locals with an alternative food supply.

Describing the deaths of 9,000 innocent people by cancer as “not enormous” is not intended to diminish the seriousness of that deplorable event. However, it is necessary to put the disaster in context. 6,000 people die in coal-mining accidents in China every year. China suffers the equivalent of a Chernobyl every 18 months due to coal mining.

The evidence demonstrates that coal is much more dangerous than nuclear energy. Despite this, the future of nuclear power has been called into question by the accident at Fukushima. Nuclear plant construction has been put on hold around the world in response to it.

In the US, the nuclear industry has been in decline since the Three-Mile Island accident in 1979 turned public opinion against it. No new reactors have been built since that year. Concerns about energy independence, energy costs and carbon emissions had led to a recent resurgence in support for nuclear energy: Nobel Prize-winning Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, is a proponent of nuclear energy as is President Barack Obama. However, the task of persuading a suspicious public of the merits of nuclear energy has become more difficult since the Fukushima incident.

The main builder of new plants is China, which has 27 plants under construction. Despite having suspended construction to perform a safety review, its plans are unlikely to be affected significantly by Japan’s accident.

While this safety review is to be welcomed, the lack of curtailment serves to highlight what The Economist referred to as “the great nuclear dilemma”. While safe nuclear power requires the transparency and independence of regulation that only well-developed democracies can provide, the only states that are able to proceed with large-scale nuclear development are the ones that pay little attention to the popular opinion of their populaces. Russia, the second-largest nuclear builder, has 11 plants under construction.

France appears to be an exception to this dismal rule: it is a healthy democracy, and relies on nuclear power for 75 per cent of its energy. It provides the example that other nations should follow.

According to a study for the European Commission, nuclear energy is similar to wind energy, in terms of both cost and carbon footprint. The only source of energy that performs better is hydroelectricity. The main weakness of hydroelectricity is the limited number of locations in which it can be implemented. Solar energy is four times more expensive than nuclear and, surprisingly, produces three times more carbon emissions. Fossil fuels produce at least ten times more carbon emissions than nuclear.

Climate change’s potential for causing environmental damage and human misery is enormous. The main source of carbon emissions, the driver of climate change, is fossil fuels. The alternatives – which are safer, renewable, less environmentally damaging, and not significantly more expensive – are wind and nuclear energy. Each should be developed, where appropriate.

The main stumbling block to nuclear development is negative public opinion. This unjustified fear exists because radiation is perceived to be mysterious, dangerous and difficult to detect and control. None of these problems are, in reality, more serious for nuclear energy than they are for other forms of energy.

As argued on David Spiegelhalter’s ‘Understanding Uncertainty’ blog, states should work to correct this imbalance in public opinion by explaining the realities of nuclear power through scientists and prominent, trusted members of society.

In most Western democracies, it appears that the end is nigh for nuclear power. This would be a terrible shame. Nuclear energy is safe, cheap and clean – despite what the beardies would have you believe. The gravest threat facing the Earth is not nuclear apocalypse; it is climate change. Nuclear power should have a major role to play in averting this problem.