The dramatic events that unfolded at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclea power plant after last year’s tsunami are commonly referred to as “the Fukushima disaster.” We need look no further than this description to begin to understand the significant misconceptions that surround nuclear energy.
It was the tsunami, caused by the largest earthquake ever to strike Japan, that killed more than 16,000 people, destroyed or damaged roughly 125,000 buildings, and left the country facing what its prime minister described as its biggest crisis since World War II. Yet it is Fukushima that is habitually accorded the “disaster” label.
Although what happened was shocking, the events in the hours and days after a giant wave slammed over the nuclear plant’s protective seawall might be interpreted as a remarkable testament to nuclear power’s sound credentials. To be sure, the environmental impact on those living close to Fukushima may take many years to remediate. However, the response in many quarters — not least in Germany, Switzerland and other countries that immediately condemned and retreated from nuclear energy — once again typified an enduring lack of knowledge concerning two fundamental issues.
The first is safety; the second is radiation. We need to promote a much more inclusive and informed dialogue about both if nuclear power is to be assessed on its genuine merits, rather than dismissed on the grounds of little more than ignorance and intransigence.
Would the many people who would ban nuclear power also prohibit air travel? After all, the parallels between the two industries are central to the question of safety.
We are often told that air travel, statistically speaking, has a better safety record than any other form of transport. The numerous interrelated reasons for this might usefully be summarized by comparing an airplane to a bicycle.
We all appreciate that an airplane is a sophisticated device and that a bicycle is not. We also acknowledge that the consequences of an airplane crash are liable to be far more catastrophic than, say, those of a cyclist clipping a curb on his way home from the shops. Accordingly, designing and manufacturing an airplane is many times more demanding and thorough than designing and assembling a bicycle is.
The same can be said of the approximately 450 nuclear reactors around the world. The fact is that the industry’s safety record is second to none when measured against those of its rivals. Like airplanes, nuclear reactors are conceived and constructed to mind-boggling standards.
For all of the tension and fear surrounding the fight against a nuclear meltdown at Fukushima, we should not forget that the plant — and with it the notion of a nuclear-energy industry — was subjected to an extraordinary test, in the strictest sense of the word. Were it not for some design flaws that would not be repeated today, Fukushima might well have survived intact — and history would be so different.
Indeed, nuclear energy is a safer proposition now than ever before, but, for many people, the mere spectacle of an event like Fukushima — regardless of the outcome — is sufficient to draw the opposite conclusion. If a 747 crashed into a nuclear facility, we would be unlikely to hear calls for all airplanes to be outlawed, but the clamor for every reactor on the planet to be shut down immediately would probably be deafening.
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.
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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