how justified are our nuclear energy fears?

Anti-nuclear NIMBYism has not gotten better over the years. In fact, it's getting worse.

radioactive wasteland
Illustration by Marek Okon

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.

# politics // energy / environmentalism / nuclear power

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