fear and loathing about nuclear power plants

Nuclear energy has to be harnessed with great care and radiation is extremely dangerous if not properly contained. But fear-mongering about both to shut down nuclear power generation is simply dishonest.
nuclear winter

When it comes to names of political organizations, there seems to be an unspoken code. Groups mentioning enterprise in their names tend to lobby against corporate taxes and government regulation. When you see the word “family” anywhere in the title, you can safely expect an archconservative religious group playing morality police. And if you come across the keyword “concerned,” you’re probably dealing with an organization which is engaging in what amounts to concern trolling in some way, shape of form. Rather than raise problems while suggesting ways to fix them, these groups try to use whatever flaws they see as arguments against the things they fear. One example of this attitude is the Union of Concerned Scientists’ stance on nuclear power which paints the idea of building more nuclear reactors to meet our energy needs as a gateway to a radioactive and dangerous future filled with reactor leaks, carcinogenic miasmas, and constant threats of terrorist attacks.

You can see the anti-nuclear scaremongering in question from Dr. Edwin Lyman, a nuclear scientist working for the UCS on questions regarding global security and nuclear proliferation, in an article on Discovery Tech discussing the pros and cons of nuclear power. It’s a classic debate between two advocates expressing very different, if not outright opposite points of view on the same topic, and while there are few egregious errors in the science involved, there’s quite a bit of rationalizing the highly improbable and gloom and doom scenarios from Lyman. I can understand that since focusing of security issues regarding nuclear reactors and weapons would draw him to discuss the worst possible cases, he tends to go way too far with them. For example…

… An accident resulting in a large radiological release to the environment comparable to, or worse than that of Chernobyl, could definitely occur at a U.S. nuclear power plant. And while the particular accident mechanism resulting in a catastrophic release of radioactivity would be different for a U.S. light-water reactor than for a Chernobyl-type reactor, the outcome could be similar.

By contrast, the industry expert from the Nuclear Energy Institute says that the kind of meltdown that happened in Chernobyl is impossible because reactors in the U.S. are fundamentally different from those in the USSR, shutting down as the chain reaction starts getting a little too energetic. So how does Dr. Lyman think that we’ll see a Chernobyl 2.0 with very different reactor designs? A sudden hydrogen explosion or terrorist attacks. He repeats this trick every time he needs a nuclear reactor to be a menace akin to a sleeping volcano that could blow without warning. If it can’t just break down and cause a radioactive leak, there could be an explosion. And if that doesn’t do it, the terrorists could blow something up and presto, the nearby town will have six eyed frogs and outbreaks of cancer in no time flat. One would think that the giant containment chambers specifically built to withstand military attacks and guarded around the clock are so vulnerable to terrorist attack that we should tremble in fear every time we look at a nuclear reactor. However, that’s simply not the case.

During the disaster in Chernobyl, no terrorists were involved. It was simply bad reactor design and the lack of training for the plant’s operators which had grim consequences, especially for many of those who had to be responsible for cleaning up the mess. Having lived in Ukraine, less than 400 miles away from the reactors at the time of the accident, I’m sure I got more than my fair share of radiation in the blast’s aftermath, as did the millions who were exposed to the fallout carried by winds across a good portion of Europe. And yet, I’m really not afraid of nuclear reactors and know full well that radiation, within reasonable limits, isn’t necessarily going to kill me. However, it seems that Lyman isn’t aware of the fact and paints even well run nuclear facilities as a hidden menace spewing cancerous death rays across the land…

First of all, there is no such thing as a “safe” level of radiation. Reputable scientific bodies like the U.S. National Academy of Sciences have reviewed all the evidence and concur that even a single particle of ionizing radiation is capable of causing the genetic damage that could result in cancer. But the risk is proportional to the dose, so the higher the dose the greater the risk.

Note how the scientific disclaimer comes at the very end there. Just one stray gamma ray and you can have a terminal disease. But wait a moment, you couldn’t because the risk of developing radiation triggered cancers depends on your exposure. So which one is it? Should we be terrified of anything radioactive or should we be aware that our bodies can and do repair radiation (though nowhere near the level of some organisms which can absorb thousands of times the lethal limit for humans and keep on going), and that we’re constantly hit by a steady stream of mutagenic UV rays from the Sun so a gamma ray or a beta particle from a reactor probably won’t put us in an early grave? Lyman knows full well that because the words “radiation” and “nuclear” tend to be associated with weapons of mass destruction and feared by the general public, his scaremongering is the part that’s going to stick in the readers’ minds. Oh sure he gives the proper disclaimers, but only after he shot a highly condensed dose of frightening buzzwords in reply to the question at hand.

Are there legitimate questions about the risks and benefits of nuclear power? Of course there are. Should we be investing in other sources of power generation rather than hedging our bets on fission reactors to provide us with electricity for the future? Absolutely. But holding up radiation signs, talking about omnipotent terrorists striking radioactive waste shipments and reactors at their leisure, and outright threatening people with cancer while veiling this blatant scaremongering as “concern” is disingenuous at best and dishonest at worst. And a group billing itself as a scientific organization should really know better than that.

# politics // nuclear power / nuclear reactor / power generation

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