Wed, Mar 14, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Fukushima accident fuels misconceptions about nuclear power

We should promote an informed dialogue about safety and radiation if nuclear power is to be assessed on its merits, rather than dismissed because of ignorance

By Martin Freer

Remember, too, that Fukushima was built in the 1970s and that the technology on which it was based dated from a decade earlier. Its successors are radically different in how they work, as is the regulatory framework, which sets astonishing new benchmarks for the care and quality required at every stage of the process.

The case against nuclear power is deeply rooted in concerns over safety in general and radiation in particular. The Fukushima accident, having reinforced too many opinions and reshaped too few, makes it vital that we try to bring clarity to these issues, especially in those countries, including the UK, where the notion of a sustainable energy policy remains undetermined.

RADIOACTIVE WORLD

While we know the corollaries of high levels of radiation exposure, what happens at the other end of the scale is less clear. The world is full of radioactivity — walls, concrete, even bananas contain traces — and our bodies have adapted to it. In countries like Brazil and India, people live in environments that have 20 to 200 times the radiation commonly found in the UK, apparently with no negative genetic effects. Some experts even argue that we may need a degree of radioactivity to stimulate our immune systems.

Of course, there remain concerns around the vital issues of waste disposal and proliferation. Again, consensual debate is required.

However, that requires formulating a roadmap that tells us where we stand and what we must do. We need to create the necessary culture of dialogue within industry and academia, and we need to encourage people to think and reflect more. Above all, we need to enhance the public’s grasp of the energy sector as a whole.

Currently, there is too much “I know” and “This is what I firmly believe,” frequently from influential people, in cases where there is no incontestable right or wrong. Fukushima is one of them.

It is still not too late — not quite — to start couching the broader discussion of nuclear energy in language that will inform rather than alarm and in terms that will nurture well-balanced judgements rather than entrench long-held biases.

Martin Freer is a professor of nuclear physics at the University of Birmingham and director of the Birmingham Center for Nuclear Education and Research.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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