DISCLAIMER – I am not a scientist.
As a big supporter of anything green it comes as no surprise to find that I dislike nuclear. Nuclear power plants, nuclear weapons, in fact anything with the word nuclear in it. I have no justification for this claim other than my gut feeling that it’s bad. End of. Or is it?
This subject of nuclear power being used as an energy source has bugged me since I was about 14 yrs of age. I know I was 14 because I was at school at the time and during a period of a history teacher being off sick, the substitute teacher thought it would be a great idea to show the class the cartoon of ‘When the Wind Blows’ by Raymond Briggs. You know, the same guy that also gave us the Snowman…
Its fair to say the film shocked me. It jolted me from my little humble existence.
In just 85 minutes I had not only learnt about the threat of nuclear warfare but what it means for your average jo. Worse, it meant I wanted to know more.
I spent a while investigating this word, nuclear. Going through the libraries finding what I could but most of it involved science speak and I soon gave up. That was until another film happened to be on the TV called – ‘The Day After’. Yes, it’s very low budget film but even at 16 yrs of age I remembered it panicked me into a state of not sleeping for a few nights and remembered it again the day the Twin Towers came crashing down in New York, thinking this might be the end of the world.
Why I’ve written this piece
I just thought I’d write a piece about nuclear for my own purpose. To work through this dread I fear about the word and what it conjures up in my mind.
Thinking about it logically, most of my fears have been developed by the media. There is nothing better for TV and film producers than a good old disaster, even if it hasn’t happened. They can make it happen and film the after effects of what might happen. Taking the time the first nuclear reactor was opened in England – 1947 (Now known as Sellafield), that’s 66 years of having nuclear in our country without any catastrophe. I use the word catastrophe, as a major incident I am sure there have been many near misses we won’t ever know about and quite a few listed to recently. However up until 1986, Chernobyl, there have been a few radiation leaks, hot water accidents and other reactor fatalities, none of which ever amounted to more than 17 fatalities. 17? I know that was 17 deaths, all of them horrible but 17?
Not 170,000? What?
And this is what I find quite remarkable. Chernobyl published data and reports puts that disaster at 4,000 casualties. However of that 4,000 there have been only 56 reported deaths directly linked to the actual disaster (although even this figures varies). 56. The other 3944 persons died later from exposure to radiation.
The danger zone around Chernobyl is now at 30km square (18 miles). Although contamination has been put at reaching 150,000km square (93,200 miles). In that vast area of space, 200,000 people have estimated to have been relocated due to the accident at Chernobyl.
So, of 200,000 people only (I say ‘only’ not in any slight terms), 56 reported deaths. Is it just me or doesn’t that stack up somehow? Okay and still working on published figures by all sorts of different agencies (for and against nuclear), 56 seems very low.
Then you read about Windscales, which is now known as Sellafield (yup, that place again). Turns out 33+(Where are these figures?) died from cancer in 1957 by a fire having been ignited (how, not sure) causing plutonium to be blown about to nearby farms. This by the way is the nuclear plant that sits right next door to one of the most beautiful National Parks in the world – the Lake District.
When Fukushima had a meltdown in March 2011 I remember seeing lots and lots of news footage, lots and lots of opinions in the newspapers and comments online with estimated deaths and fatalities projected out in the 100s of thousands. However, dig a little deeper one yr on and it would seem the official stats state 573 deaths were classed as ‘disaster related’ but not directly attributed from the melt down. Most deaths being caused by evacuations of the old and infirm. There is lots of data about radiation this and cancer levels that but no definitive death rate directly linked to the meltdown either on the day it happened or as the months went by. All rather puzzling. It would seem if you don’t die of your injuries on site then it’s not ‘really’ counted as part of a nuclear issue. I’m sure health stats would provide interesting figures but of course it’s quite convenient that now those living within the 20km square evacuation zone (Around 1700 people) have been displaced elsewhere. Added to the extra 200 square miles of spreading contamination via weather fronts.
I can now see why the media gets itself excited by creating end of the world style films. There are figures, just not the correct official ones and it’s too ‘boring’ to produce a film about people surviving. So that is where my mind is being taken over. However if deaths are lower in comparison than coal, gas and even some renewable industrial fatalities then I can’t argue it.
That nagging gut feeling is still there though so lets be practical. If I can only work on stats and facts presented then there are still three reasons I can think of not to have nuclear as a source of power. That’s before we even get into nuclear weapons.
My discussion points
- Nuclear safety
Nuclear power stations have without any doubt the lowest industrial accident rates, according to figures found on-line However this is only half the story. There have been various attempts at calculating external costs of energy (all types), such as was done by ExternE projects (External Costs of energy) which started putting together various methodologies for trying to ascertain the risks of nuclear to humans. A 345 page report was published in 1995, which detailed what costs would arise from a potential disaster from a nuclear power station and the risks associated with it but was never renewed, which according to some sources, was due to problems of the huge global collective doses from the radioactive gas releases from reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. These circulate around the entire globe constantly.
So it’s pretty uncertain just what impact power stations do have. In fact any documentation is so complicated and lengthy, you’d have to have worked in the industry all your life, or be a scientist to understand it. Needless to say the bits I have read (before nodding off), were really summed up in the conclusion of the report:
No thresholds have been assumed in the calculation of the response to the doses received, so in many cases, the average individual doses to the public fall into a highly uncertain area of the dose-response relationship.
Which then means you need to be a Dr, preferably with a doctorate in oncology, to then work out that “dose relationship”.
Many scientist argue over what is deemed as high radiation, lethal doses of radiation, how and when etc etc etc, otherwise called the Linear No Threshold theory.
If the Linear No Threshold theory is accepted and used, these doses though very small remain significant. This is a major reason why pro-nuclear agencies and Governments in many countries attempt to discredit the LNT theory, despite the strong scientific evidence which buttress the theory.
So basically it’s down to luck and as chance would have it – aptly named ‘When the wind blows’ to determine whether you could or might or can die of radiation doses depending on if you live smack bang next to a nuclear station or 150 miles away from one, and how bad the leak is, if constant.
However just from my very simplistic view of life, 345 pages or not, the risk is still a risk. It just depends how much money you put on which side. In my humble opinion it’s not worth the risk which then brings me onto my second point;
- The work of decommissioning
Why, if it takes so long and costs so much to decommission a plant are we then building new ones? Waste from nuclear processing is so harmful they have to put it in steel tight containers for at least 100 yrs.
I don’t think I need to write anything on this subject really when America have recently had leaks at plants. Yet still, Nuclear power is being branded as clean energy.
Clean? When it takes 100 yr+ to cool, bottle and wait for the highly nuclear by product – plutonium to be something that can be stored away. No one wants it in there country, it gets shifted about or just left and decommissioned. 112 tonnes were announced by the BBC the other day in the news. 112 tonnes of dirty material that cannot be thrown down a pit, flushed in the sea or sent off to space (all of which I am under no illusion currently goes on). It needs to go somewhere but where? It just sits (along with further security expense and risk), waiting to become less dangerous or until the next generation comes along to sort it out.
So rather than work one problem out why are we creating more? It would make more sense to invest and be the first country to scientifically create some kind of process by which the spent plutonium can be safely dispensed. Either that or work on creating hydrogen without the plutonium.
- Does it match our energy needs
It matches some, not all but how to know what we actually need? So I did some digging.
According to the DUKES 2012 energy report the UK primary energy consumption has fallen by 7.5% of 19.6 million tones of oil equivalent (not sure why that particular measurement is used) in 2010 to 138.6 million tones in 2011 and continues to be on a downward trend. That figure is then split by industry, domestic and transport. For my primary purpose domestic made up 38.8 million of those tones.
From the same source as above it states that renewable energy made up 34.4Twh. Eh? That’s not in tonnes then. Fortunately someone (notable the HMRC) have worked out the equivalent which states that in 2011 9300 thousand tons of oil equivalent make up all renewable resources for transport and heat use. Or to put it another way 3.8% of energy.
Nuclear power made up 18% but of what was hard to pin down due to the ever changing measurements.
It was interesting to note that the following was stated in the same report:
It is estimated that carbon dioxide emissions from power stations accounted for 32 per cent of the UK’s total carbon dioxide emissions in 2011
That still doesn’t answer my question though of whether renewable can fulfil the 38.8 million tons required of domestic energy if at the moment it only creates 3.8% of it.
Well, one of the ways of deciding that is to look at investment.
It comes down to money and while nuclear technology can be engineered (regardless of the opposing arguments) there is currently more investment behind nuclear. France, for example, is a big investor and aided to any foreign policy you’re bound to get bigger shares in it. Add to that the various other government weighted people, investors and other money makers then it stands to reason that renewable power is going to have to play tough. There is no reason (apart from the environment itself) that renewable couldn’t look after all of our domestic needs, it’s just whether we want to fight hard enough for it.
There is one final factor in all of this – economy. Again I ask the questions that are clearly difficult to find by web alone. I read one source that said Sellafield employs over 10,000 people.
That’s a lot of people. Nowhere in the UK wants to lose that kind of employment. You’re also never going to need that many people maintaining a bank of wind turbines. However that is not a reason alone to hang on to and indeed create more nuclear power plants when we still find ourselves in the most ridiculous position of having to import so many different goods and commodities that could be creating new industry here.
The answers are not so much in the final outputs of energy but in more about the kind of place we want to live in and the lasting legacy we want to pass on.
Hopefully not a nuclear one.