Tuesday, 5 April 2011

"Ungrounded in science, unsupportable when challenged, and wildly wrong": George Monbiot Blasts The Anti-Nuclear Movement

I haven't looked much at the issue of the safety of nuclear power since university, when I wrote a paper on nuclear safety which stated that the exact accident which caused the current crisis at Fukushima was virtually impossible - a somewhat embarassing mistake I'm sure you'll agree. However, whilst researching that paper I did read through quite a bit of literature written by anti-nuclear power lobbyists.

My impression of most of it was that it was scare-mongering (one leaflet even warned of an "nuclear secret police"), that it was unscientific (little in way of real, reliable statistics were ever mentioned) and that it failed to distinguish between nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons, often eliding from one into the other. I remember one anti-nuclear campaigner making the claim of a proposed nuclear power station in East Anglia that it threatened to "lay waste" to the entirety of East Anglia (an area of 16,000 square kilometres - much larger than even the "zone of alienation" around the badly-designed Chernobyl plant).

It is therefore with some pleasure that I read arch-green George Monbiot's brilliant piece excoriating the unscientific approach of the anti-nuclear lobby in today's Guardian. I heartily advise you to go and read it.

The only thing I would add to what George Monbiot says in his piece is this: the central crux of much of the conjecture about the possibly side-effects of radiation exposure is the unknown effect of extreme low-level radiation.

When you read studies of the estimated increase in incidents of cancer or other diseases caused by radiation release, much of this will be based on the idea that the effect of radiation is linear. That is to say, that extremely low amounts of radiation cause illness in proportion to greater amounts of radiation the side-effects of which are known. However, this is not known, and there are biological mechanisms which might easily repair small amounts of damage caused by low-level radiation but not the much larger amounts of damage caused by high radiation.

Moreover, as Monbiot points out, ascribing illnesses which have no known link to radiation to nuclear accidents is unacceptable. Especially as increased rates of these illnesses were not seen even in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Finally, in deciding the acceptability of nuclear power, it is necessary to compare the loss of life that might be caused by the adoption of alternate sources of power. Whilst renewable sources seem likely to cause the least health problems, no power grid can rely entirely on solar, wave, and wind power, at least without a proper means of storing energy for those times when there is no sun, wind, or waves. In the absence of hydroelectric power, this leaves either fossil fuels, or nuclear energy. Fossil fuels have known costs in terms of climate change, pollution, and deaths caused during extraction. Nuclear energy also has a known cost, perhaps low relative to that of fossil fuels, but this should not be artificially inflated.

[Picture: A comparison of a Light Water Reactor (LWR) and the RMBK (reaktor bolshoy moshchnosti kanalniy - "High Power Channel-type Reactor") used at Chernobyl. The description reads "The critical differences in the RBMK reactor compared to a LWR (Light Water Reactor) that directly contributed to the Chernobyl disaster. 1. The flamable graphite moderator in the reactor core that burned in the fire, 2. The positive void coefficient in the water that made possible the power peak that blew the reactor vessel, 3. The control rods were very slow, they took 18-20 seconds to be inserted into the reactor. Moreover they had graphite tips that actually intensified the fission chain reaction in the beginning of the insertion. 4. No containment building at all". Via Wikicommons.]

No comments: