Nuclear Power, Carbon Emissions, And How Most People Believe Whatever The Hell The Media Feeds Them
I work for an Energy Company, so sent this letter to the Chief Executive after seeing an interview with him in the Daily Telegraph newspaper.
After the terrible tragedy that occurred in Japan, everybody seems to be going crazy over fears of Nuclear Fallout. I thought now would be a good time to publish this article so that you can make your own minds up based upon the facts, rather than the disinformation and panic spread by the media. People seem to under the impression that this could become a global disaster, when actually, the only disaster on a global level would be how far the plans for new Nuclear Reactors have been set back due to the problems in Japan, and how we are going to combat climate change and deliver truly carbon-neutral power without the help of Nuclear Generated Power.
Dear Energy Company Chief Executive,
After reading an article in the Daily Telegraph reporting on your plans to generate more power from Nuclear to cut down on carbon emissions, I feel compelled to write to you to discuss my views on Nuclear Power, which I consider to be different from the norm. I know you are a strong supporter of Nuclear Power, so I hope I am offering another perspective from a fellow supporter, and not just discussing issues that you are already very aware of. The information I have gathered on the subject has been taken from various sources, such as the award winning BBC Horizon Television program, various other news, nuclear and government websites. I have listed the references at the bottom of this document.
As mentioned in the Telegraph article, the UK is currently generating approximately 30 percent more carbon emissions per head than France, mainly due to France generating 75 percent of their power through Nuclear Energy. In the UK we only obtain about 23 percent of our power generation from Nuclear sources, which helps explain the difference between Carbon Dioxide emissions in our two countries.
Currently the attitude the general public takes on Nuclear power is based up misconceptions regarding many areas of Nuclear power, from the area of danger caused by the power plant itself, right down to the effects of radiation.
I believe that Nuclear Power could be one of the major turning points in the uphill struggle against climate change. However, the stigmas associated with it are afflicting many people from politicians to the general public.
For example, not a lot of people know that despite Chernobyl being an international disaster that jumps to mind whenever anybody mentions Nuclear Power, a total of around 59 people have died as a direct result of this accident (according to a 2005 report by the UN Chernobyl Forum). Approximately 50 of whom were in the clean up crew, and were exposed to massive doses of radiation and died in the next few months following the accident. To date, there have not been noticeable increases of cancers, leukaemias, chromosomal abnormalities or other illnesses commonly associated with radiation according to scientific study.
Another fine example is the team of Russian Scientists who worked within the Sarcophagus of Chernobyl in 1996. Many of them would receive the equivalent to a yearly dose of radiation for a British Nuclear worker, in an hour. But despite these high levels of radiation, 10 years on, and none of them have suffered from radiation related illnesses. Several have died from heart attacks, but this is attributed to the years of high stress levels working within the extremely dangerous conditions of Chernobyl’s Sarcophagus rather than as a result of radiation exposure.
I think that the reason that people are fearful of radiation stems from a number of areas. People think of radiation, and instantly think Hiroshima/Nagasaki/Chernobyl. These three disasters have shaped our view of radiation, leaving us with a potentially distorted view of the facts.
Approximately 67,000 people died instantly when the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with approximately another 35,000 dying in the following four months from extreme radiation poisoning. However, in the 30 years since, only around 400-500 more people died as a direct cause of radiation exposure. These events provided scientists with a studyable source of radiation exposure on humans. It was from this information the LNT model (Linear No Threshold) was created.
Unfortunately for scientists, the radiation studies in Japan were only looking at radiation cases in which people had received a large, one off doses of radiation. It did not look at the effects of prolonged exposure to radiation, nor the effects of smaller amounts of radiation as these conditions were not present. Of the people tested, most had received a does somewhere between 200 and 2500 millisieverts (mSv). For reference, 2500mSv is about equivalent to 25,000 chest x-rays.
However, when scientists created the LNT model, they didn’t have any data on the effects of radiation below 200mSv. The LNT model shows that as radiation increases, so does the risk of cancer (about 8% increase in risk at 2000mSv). The two values are proportional to each other, meaning that as the radiation exposure increases, so does the risk of cancer/death. However, as the scientists did not have any information regarding the other end of the scale (exposure levels under 200mSV) they made an educated and conservative guess; they continued the relationship between exposure and illness right the way down to zero. This would indicate that any amount of radiation is harmful. Many scientists now believe this model to be antiquated and in urgent need of an update.
Some of the reasons for citing this fault with the LNT have arisen after prolonged studies on Radiation of various sources. A number of studies have shown that areas in the USA that have the highest levels of background radiation, the lowest cancer rates are found. Airline staff on planes receive yearly doses of around 11mSv, equivalent to around eleven hundred chest x-rays (or about two and a half x-rays a day), with no ill effects, despite numerous in depth studies by the airline operators.
Another example is from the people of Ramsar in Iran. Here the background radiation is in excess of 200mSv a year, yet when scientists tested their blood against blood taken from people in an area of normal background radiation, they found that when exposed to fatal amounts of radiation (around 1.5 sieverts) the blood from the people of Ramsar developed far less chromosomal abnormalities . The world average is 2.5mSv, and for reference, when the Ukraine and Belarus was evacuated in 1986 following the reactor meltdown in Chernobyl, the average evacuee received a dose of between 17mSv and 31mSv.
This evidence would seem to suggest that not only is the LNT and the general view on radiation misguided, but that lower amounts of radiation could actually be good for you!
The point of all this is that my opinion is that for the public to accept Nuclear Power, they should first be educated. When people think of Chernobyl, they think of two headed babies, and thousands of people dying of radiation poisoning. When people think of Nuclear power, they make comparisons between the modern day reactors, and the flawed design of Chernobyl, which is commonly accepted as the cause of the meltdown. They do not realise that due to the design of current reactors, an accident simply could not happen in the same manner that occurred in Chernobyl. Chernobyl was pretty much a worst case scenario – the reactor had a complete meltdown, and large amounts of radioactive iodine gas were released into the ecosystem. Yet despite this, the actual effects on human (and animal and plant) life were minimal.
I know that it is one of the objectives of the company to have every employee watch ‘an Inconvenient Truth’, the climate change documentary by Al Gore, and I would recommend that if our company is to press ahead with Nuclear power, we should educate our staff on this also. The documentary called Nuclear Nightmares by BBC Horizon was very insightful, and I have to admit that after seeing it, I was amazed by how much information I was utterly unaware of. If the general public had this level of knowledge, I am sure that the case for Nuclear Power would be much much stronger.
If you haven’t seen this documentary already, I would strongly recommend a view. If possible, I would highly recommend this to show to employees. This could start the transfer of knowledge that may lead to Nuclear Power becoming more accepted among the general public.
If you cannot get hold of a copy, the following link is a rough transcript of the horizon episode, and contains the majority of topics discussed in the episode:
At the end of the day, even if the general view is correct, and Nuclear Power is as dangerous as the media would lead us to believe, what would you say is the worse scenario;
* Running a 2 MWe Nuclear Reactor that generates 50-60 tonnes of spent fuel per year (based upon 25-30 tonnes of spent fuel. or three cubic metres per year of vitrified waste for a 1000 MWe, light water type reactor will produce). This waste would be dealt with in a highly controlled manner, and has no effect on global warming.
* Running a 2 MWe Coal reactor (such as Cottam) that pumps out over 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year into the atmosphere and is more or less completely incontrollable. We would have no control over the waste produced here, short of bottling the 10 million tonnes of gas to keep it under our control and out of the atmosphere.
As a final example of how the hype of the media and the flaws of the LNT model has affected, the Horizon episode shows how the LNT methodology is used to justify keeping 200,000 British sheep - located on hilly land - labelled too radioactive for human consumption as a consequence of the Chernobyl accident 20 years ago. What consumers are not generally told is that if they were to eat chops from these sheep every day for a year their additional annual radiation exposure would be equivalent to half of one dental x-ray.
If we educate our staff, they in turn will help educate their friends and families, and in much the same manner that we’re hoping to spread word on Climate change with an Inconvenient Truth, I believe the Horizon episode would help change the view of the public if given enough exposure.