Who Can We Trust on Nuclear Power?

With both sides accused of “cherry-picking” data, many problems remain

News | Christian Cummins | June 2011

The 26th of April marked the 25th anniversary of the meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, the worst nuclear accident in history. Never has this commemoration seemed more relevant as, a quarter of a century later, a new generation is being confronted with the frightening pitfalls of the nuclear energy industry.

Despite massive public concern, some unlikely voices have been defending nuclear power. Guardian columnist and prominent environmental journalist George Monbiot has announced himself as a reluctant nuclear proponent, much to the dismay of some colleagues in the Green Movement. For journalists, it is sometimes braver to challenge public opinion and become a villain than to challenge authority and become a hero.

Monbiot is defending nuclear energy because of its low-carbon credentials. In the climate change debate, nuclear energy has long been sold as a stopgap solution.

It should fill our growing energy needs as we slowly wean ourselves off fossil fuels, while developing renewable energy sources. Everyone seems to agree that renewables are the future, but as The Guardian science editor Damian Carrington has put it, "If existing nuclear power stations were closed down today, their 13% …of global electricity generation would almost certainly be replaced by dirty coal, which dumps both carbon and radioactive elements into the atmosphere." This trade-off, as Monbiot sees it, throws us "out of the nuclear frying pan and into the coal fire."

The Energy Dilema

UK physicist Dr. Melanie Windridge is involved in the development of nuclear fusion technology. While insisting that she is not a fan of fission, Windridge points to well-established figures on the annual impact of traditional coal energy. Coal-related air pollution is globally responsible for more than 100,000 deaths per year, in addition to thousands killed annually in mines. Coal contains both uranium and thorium.

According to a report in Scientific American, "radiation doses ingested by people living near coal plants were equal to or higher than doses for people living around nuclear facilities." Despite these statistics, Windridge thinks we are more scared of radiation than coal fumes because nuclear power is invisible and still relatively new:

"Coal is something that we are very familiar with. Even if we see the smog fumes, we don’t think so much about what it is doing inside our lungs because we have been using it for centuries."

To help the layperson understand the science surrounding radiation, Monbiot points to the UN Scientific Committee of the Effects of Atomic Radiation, a body created to give an overview of the health impact of nuclear energy by pulling in as many peer-reviewed scientific papers as possible.

This body has concluded that 9,000 people will eventually die due to the fallout of Chernobyl. It says the largest impact has been thyroid cancer, thoroughly unpleasant but eminently treatable, of which there have been 7,000 cases, largely in children whose thyroids were particularly sensitive and who drank milk contaminated with radioactive iodine in the immediate aftermath.

The Exclusion Zone At Chernobyl

Dr. Helen Caldicott, anti-nuclear campaigner, physician, and author of Nuclear Energy is Not the Answer, is neither surprised nor reassured by the UN’s findings. She has called UN’s scientific assessment of the Chernobyl disaster "The biggest medical cover-up in the history of medicine." She bases her argument on a 2009 report, "Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment." Compiled by Alexey V. Yablokov, the report suggests that close to 1 million people have already died from Chernobyl’s effects.

It estimates that 58,000 people have developed thyroid cancers. Caldicott claims that the Yablokov report is the first to bring together over two decades of research published in Slavic scientific literature, and the first to publish these findings in English.

Caldicott has accused the IAEA and the World Health Organization of ignoring the data.Further complicating the issue, the New York Academy of Sciences, which published the Yablokov paper, has sharply distanced itself from this research.

"In no sense did Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences or the New York Academy of Sciences commission this work," says the Academy’s website, "nor by its publication do we intend to independently validate the claims made in the translation or in the original publications cited in the work. The translated volume has not been pe er reviewed by the New York Academy of Sciences, nor by anyone."

Monbiot has accused Caldicott and other anti-nuclear activists of fear-mongering, "cherry-picking data" and "parading" the victims of congenital deformations who were born in the area of Chernobyl "as in a medieval circus" without "any evidence" that the deformities are related to the disaster.

How Best To Understand Radiation?

Both parties have accused the other of "cherry-picking" data. Caldicott is angered by nuclear proponents’ oversimplification of comparing internalized doses of radiation to normal background levels of cosmic radiation.

According to this argument, Chernobyl can’t be described as having made 40% of Europe radioactive because the Earth is already radioactive. Radiation is universal. It’s emitted by the sun’s rays and the rocks we walk on. Granite, for example, which is ubiquitous in the southern English county of Cornwall, is particularly radioactive. Using such information, Windridge calculates that, "…the radiation dose received by drinking Tokyo water for a year is less than that from moving to Cornwall and living there for a year."

Caldicott warns that the UN doesn’t pay enough attention to internal emitters of radiation that can build up in the food chain and, "…enter the body. These elements – called internal emitters – migrate to specific organs such as the thyroid, liver, bone, and brain, where they continuously irradiate small volumes of cells with high doses of alpha, beta and/or gamma radiation." She says it is inaccurate and misleading to speak only of acceptable levels of external radiation.

Laurence Williams, a Professor of Nuclear Safety in the John Tyndall Institute for Nuclear Research, points out that we are subjected to internal radiation in the very food that we eat. He says the potassium in our body subjects us to 15 million radioactive disintegrations per hour. Muesli is considered particularly radioactive. These and other common sources of internal radiation are considered quite harmless.

What is the layperson to believe? As Damian Carrington puts it, "This is not an issue that can be resolved with cold facts alone, for the simple reason that many of the facts are not known." It is still only decades since we split the atom and Caldicott argues that it might take several generations to understand the genetic impact of radiation.

Everyone seems to agree that renewable, sustainable energy is the best long term solution, but there is disagreement over the viability of such a vision.

Professor Williams has argued that some forms of renewables have such a low energy density, and farms would have to be spread over such a large area, that they couldn’t possibly cover the shortfall that a nuclear phase-out would bring. He also raises the question of affordability. If renewables, at least in the short term, are more expensive than fossil fuels, how much are we prepared to pay for a nuclear phase-out?

What is often forgotten in this argument, and clear to any visitor to the region, is that 20% of Belarus’ land has been rendered agriculturally unusable because of radioactive isotopes in the soil. This is a crippling statistic. And it will remain unusable because the isotope Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years. This longevity is not only an issue for nuclear accidents. The nuclear industry has offered no convincing solution for the problem of long-term storage of nuclear waste.

In Brussels, I met Brook Riley, climate justice and energy campaigner, of Friends of the Earth. He says he can’t understand support for nuclear power until the storage issue is resolved:

"It’s like getting in a plane and taking off before a runway has been built for you to land on."

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