Another inconvenient truth: radiation and the tea kettle

Nuclear power: few technologies are as controversial, feared or hotly contested as the fairly straightforward process of splitting the nuclei of heavy atoms. Its equally, if not more, feared cousin – radiation – surrounds us every day.

Twenty per cent of the world’s energy comes from nuclear power, or the constant bombardment of background radiation. So the fear of radiation and its applications (and therefore, by extension, dipping into the tremendous fear of cancer) does not have a grounding in science but rather is based on decades of misconceptions and prejudices. Had it not been for the threat of climate change this fear would mainly be of academic interest. However, the irrational fear of nuclear power renders our best hope of climate change mitigation useless; a policy non grata.

Nuclear power is the most powerful energy source at mankind’s command. It is clean, incredibly dense, has very small waste volumes and is capable of producing power whatever the weather. One out of five British teacups is currently made with nuclear power. Reactors have one purpose: boil water, essentially making them huge tea kettles.

It is very rare, however, that the strengths of nuclear power are ever discussed or, indeed, promoted. The most frequently cited reasons for opposition to nuclear power are accidents and nuclear waste, both grounded in a fear of the invisible killer that they perceive radiation to be. This stems from a confusion (involuntary or otherwise) about what radiation is and, more importantly, the perceived difference between ‘natural’ (background) radiation and artificial sources of radiation.

The nuclear power industry and its regulatory environment has, by and large, been caught up in this narrative that all artificial radiation, regardless of how small it is, must be contained – no matter the costs. The As Low As Reasonably Achievable (ALARA) principle is a prime example of this, where radiation is treated as if it is the plague, which significantly increases costs but has minor or negligible risk reductions. This extreme risk aversion founded in the deep fear of radiation entrenched the notion of something inherently dangerous that the public must be protected from. Part of the blame for this actually falls on nuclear proponents as – first and foremost – they talk about its safety. The more that security is talked about, the more instilled the image becomes of something dangerous that one should be protected from.

Accidents are incredibly rare. Of the accidents that actually did happen, a vanishingly small minority of cases involved loss of human life. The most serious was evidently at Chernobyl, a nuclear monolith that symbolised many of the illnesses of the Soviet society at large. Security was lax, senior staff lacked understanding of how these – often ill-tempered – reactors operated, and most strikingly of there was a total lack of any decent containment structure.

The design flaws of this type of Soviet reactor were well-known in the nuclear circles across the world. No such reactor was ever built outside the Soviet Union for that reason. This also renders any comparison between modern nuclear power and Chernobyl utterly useless.

When debating nuclear power, there are a few themes that are as certain to appear as the sun rising each morning. Chernobyl is one such theme. Whilst being a tragedy in its own right, the shameless exploitation of human suffering from anti-nuclear activists is saddening. The real human tragedy here is the countless people that were uprooted from their ancestral lands, branded as tainted and left to fight for their own devices. The mental impacts that this had has been severe, with widespread alcoholism being but one symptom.

Ask most anti-nuclear organisations, however, and the number of deaths from radiation due to Chernobyl they usually give ranges from 100,000 to 200,000+. Studies have consistently shown this to be a gross exaggeration. Nuclear power is considered to be the least deadly of energy sources, but the anti-nuclear crowd has seemingly (and rather conveniently) not acknowledged this. Bear in mind, though, that the death of fewer than 100 individuals does not make for a very good campaign headline.

The fear of nuclear power would be less of an issue if the circumstances were different. Mankind is facing a grave threat due to our failure to adequately address greenhouse gas emissions and, while it isn’t the full answer to the threat, Nuclear power must play an integral part. Allowing NGOs like Greenpeace to spread such blatant lies and confusion about nuclear power is dangerous. It only reinforces and preserves the atmosphere of fear about all matters nuclear and by doing so they have done untold damage to the fight against decarbonising the economy, thus making us more energy insecure and climate change mitigation harder.

The fossil fuel industry on the other hand must be delighted, given that nuclear power is the only real threat to their hegemonic position. Batteries have been researched for over 100 years and large scale storage of renewables is still far ahead in the future. Challenging the status quo will be difficult. Nuclear power has become an inconvenient truth for environmentalists, but it is high time we reevaluate the fear of our tea kettles.


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