how justified are our nuclear energy fears?

April 7, 2011

George Monbiot is hardly the kind of person you expect to start pumping out spin or propaganda on behalf of major energy conglomerates or builders of nuclear power plants. He is, after all, best known for political and environmental activism, authoring books on global warming and corporate overreach in the UK. So when an activist with his track record decides to pen a blistering critique of anti-nuclear groups and calls people out by name for scaremongering, exaggerating, and using cherry-picked or nonexistent data to support many of their arguments, it just has to be noted. For a spectacular example of cherry-picking science and combining it with terrifying rhetoric in the name of getting people to fear nuclear energy, we can look back at an older post scrutinizing the claims of a respected and staunchly anti-nuclear organization in the U.S., claims very, very similar to the ones Monbiot tackles head on as he scowls at the anti-nuclear movement’s lack of scientific or factual rigor in their arguments. His thesis is that every discussion about nuclear energy comes down to two things, radiation and Chernobyl, and both issues are exaggerated or exploited to scare the public, ignoring a good deal of science while propagating urban myths, tall tales, and gruesome, sensational anecdotes.

As mentioned in the link above, once upon a time I used to live in Ukraine and was about 400 miles from that ill designed, mismanaged reactor when it blew. Just to answer your next two questions, yes, I glow a calming iridescent blue at night, and yes, I do get to save quite a bit on my energy bills. Of course I’m only joking, and it’s actually a joke which tends to be recycled pretty often but whenever a conversation does shift to Chernobyl and I mention the fun fact that I was not too far downwind of it when it happened, people inevitably look at me wide-eyed and ask me whether I glow at night because radioactive things are supposed to glow, right? Well, anti-nuclear activists seem to take these jokes seriously as they warn about sinister miasmas of radiation on the winds emanating from nuclear power plants like some sort of Lovecraftian blight that summons horrifying creatures buried in the earth in antediluvian times, along with freshly arisen zombies who shamble to nearby towns and kill every resident with nightmarish cancers. Monbiot quotes some anti-nuclear zealots who claim that the disaster in Chernobyl killed nearly a million people, a figure which sounds very highly suspect to me, and as he points out, based on assigning virtually every case of cancer in Ukraine for a certain stretch of time to the meltdown. Instead, he notes, scientists place the real death toll at around 7,000, and put the blame on milk contaminated by the fallout, which triggered thyroid cancer in more than 6,800 children.

That sounds much more reasonable because radiation, while very dangerous, is not magic and needs to get into our bodies to actually harm us. Contaminated debris from nuclear disasters starts out very concentrated, and in an explosion, can rain down over a wide area. But as the contamination spreads, it becomes far more diffused, meaning that as it spreads wider, those who it affects are exposed to less radiation over more time and their bodies could heal the damage. Radiation poisoning depends not just on the dose because another very important factor is how quickly you absorbed it. Since all radiation knocks around molecules in your body and damages tissues and organs, the big question is whether your body can keep up with the repairs. When hit by a decent dose very quickly, the damage becomes way too much for your body to fix and you will suffer a death that can only be described as horrific as your organs will pretty much liquefy. But a constant hum of very low level radioactive emissions is something with which your body can certainly cope as evidenced by the fact that you can exist on this planet despite the constant radiation you get from the sun, cosmic rays, and a slow, steady decay of radioactive elements in the ground right beneath your feet. Nuclear reactors buried in a thick layer of solid concrete and metal do not leak radiation as a part of their normal operation and are very strictly controlled. But constantly harping about radiation and what it does certainly encourages NIMBYism

It’s really that NIBMY attitude that anti-nuclear activists are after, hyping radiation fears to make sure that when a nuclear power plant does get approved, those living near it will ignore the fact that modern reactors are very safe and have a very good track record, and panic enough to shut the project down. This is why another anti- nuclear activist cited by Monbiot claims that in 2006, he saw wildly mutated infants in Ukrainian hospitals and that it must be the result of Chernobyl. There’s absolutely no evidence for this assertion and the ward that he visited should probably not remain unnamed, but it sure sounds scary, doesn’t it? And that’s exactly what he’s trying to convey by painting us a gruesome picture, especially now, with the nuclear mess currently unfolding in Japan and which got some American pundits all hot and bothered. Never mind that it took a magnitude 9.0 earthquake which released roughly 1.5 EJ, the equivalent of 380 megatons, and a massive tsunami to crack open one nuclear plant. Never mind that almost 8 out of 10 watts used in France come from nuclear reactors reliably and safely, and that many other nations using nuclear energy on a wide scale don’t face such a major seismic threat as Japan. All that matters to the activists Monbiot righfully calls out is that somewhere, there is a nuclear plant being built and that by very definition, nuclear power is evil and must not be allowed because you know, cancer and Chernobyl, right? Even if the science doesn’t agree with the gloom and doom.

[ illustration by Marek Okon ]

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  • Greg, would you agree that waste disposal is the real problem to consider when discussing nuclear energy?

  • Carri

    This article posts some very interesting points. There is much to learn from what has been happening recently involving nuclear energy consequence, including Japan. I recently saw program in which a panel of experts discussed what we should have learned from the recently nuclear crisis, and what each country can do to prevent such tragedies from happening again.

    Here’s the link:

    — Carrie

  • Tzatziki

    After decades of continuous 3.2 gigawatt-thermal operation (one GW electrical), the greatest caches of carbon-13 on planet Earth are Chernobyl-type RBMK-1000 graphite reactors. We hear nothing but complaints. It is raining soup and all these idiots can do is use their soup bowls for rain bonnets.

  • Greg Fish

    “would you agree that waste disposal is the real problem to consider when discussing nuclear energy?”

    Yes, since that’s the biggest issue when it comes to nuclear power plants. When you need to store highly radioactive waste for thousands of years in off-limits areas, there are countless complications. But the point of the post was that fear-mongering about the actual operation of reactors is unfounded.

  • MW

    “Zero-risk bias occurs when individuals value complete elimination of a risk, however small, to a reduction in a greater risk. That is, individuals may prefer small benefits that are certain to large ones that are uncertain, regardless of the size of the “certain” benefit.

    An example is the Delaney clause of the Food and Drug Act of 1958, which stipulated a total ban on synthetic carcinogenic food additives.

    Zero-risk bias occurs because individuals worry about risk, and eliminating it entirely means that there is no chance of harm being caused. What is economically efficient and possibly more relevant, however, is not bringing risk from 1% to 0%, but from 50% to 30% (for example).

    It is related to the concept of cognitive closure (psychology), and it can also be explained in terms of a tendency to think in terms of proportions rather than differences. When a risk is reduced to zero, 100% of the risk is removed.”

  • Bruce Coulson

    Where is our energy going to come from?

    This is the key question. Petroleum, no matter how ingenious the methods that are developed to axtract it from difficult sources, is ultimately a finite source of energy. Once it’s gone, that’s it. The same is true of coal and natural gas; eventually, the world’s supply will be exhausted.

    And we will still need, at that future time, some source of plentiful energy, from somewhere.

  • Greg,
    Could you do a post about depleted uranium? I’ve found many people making claims about its radioacive nature or some other bs.
    Great post about nuclear energy. Keep up the good work.

  • HikerTom

    As an engineer and having some knowledge on the subject, the knee jerk reaction to the events at the Fukushima plants was unfortunately, predictable. To by no means trivialize the consequences or the displacement of so many people at a time of great hardship already, but the rabid anti-nukes would have predicted a far greater catastrophe, like many immediate deaths and a vast wasteland unfit for human habitation, than has actually occurred. Sure, there are lessons to be learned from the event and I hope that this country will look hard at this and be sure our older plants are not as vulnerable as those at Fukushima. But, retreat from nuclear? That would be a drastic, unwarranted, overreaction.

    With respect to disposal of spent fuel, there are technical solutions, such as recycling (reprocessing) or geologic disposal that we have the technology for (and have had for some time). What has been lacking is the political will to do something without NIMBY getting in the way or more irrational fear.

  • Paul

    People feel like they’ve been lied to by the nuclear industry and it’s regulators and supporters. (Fukushima is an example of that. “Everything’s fine, the reactors all scrammed, there’s no danger” [explosion] “that was a small hydrogen explosion but everything’s fine now” [explosion] “we’ve got everything under control” [explosion] [radiation increasing] [fire] [exposed fuel rods] [partial meltdown] [breached main containment] [signs of primary fission restarting]…)

    So people look around for someone who is talking about nuclear power, but isn’t hand in glove with the industry. That leaves the anti-nuke activists.

    If you are going to lie to people, tell them it’s worse than it really is. Because it reassures people you are watching the worst possible thing. It you lie by telling them everything is okay, then when things go wrong, they will assume (correctly) that you can’t be trusted to watch for problems.

  • HikerTom

    Having been an interested observer of the events in Japan, I never got the impression at anytime that “things were under control” (fact is as the IAEA says the situation still remains serious). Of course, the media doesn’t help simply because they just don’t have the expertise to communicate nor seem able to bring the right experts out to speak, just the standard ‘talking heads’. So people get the wrong impression, unless they go to more direct sources like the IAEA or NRC, etc. I agree that TEPCO probably understated the degree of problems (but we won’t know for some time the exact nature of it) there is some speculation that is a cultural thing. Of course what was the biggest concern? When they vastly overstated radiation levels due to a math error, so I don’t think getting it wrong on the more serios side is really a good thing either. By the way @Paul, trusting only anti-nukes on nuclear power issues would be like trusting only global warming denialists for climate issues. As that sort of mindset has been discussed elsewhere in the posts I won’t get into that here.

  • Pasander

    I just saw a documentary film “Into Eternity” by Michael Madsen about Onkalo, the Finnish nuclear waste repository that is now under construction. Onkalo (Finnish for “hiding place”) has already reached its final depth of 420 meters and the burial of spent fuel will begin somewhere around 2020. The construction and burial of fuel is projected to be continued into 2100’s. Afterwards, Onkalo will be closed and backfilled, and it and the waste it contains is expected to stand the test of time for at least 100,000 years. Given that the local bedrock has remained undisturbed for 1,800,000,000 years, Onkalo might easily last millions of years. The greatest worry is actually that the future human descentants might find it and dig it up, perhaps not knowing what they are unearthing…