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4 May 2006

Why Nuclear Power is a Non-Response to Peak Oil – Part 3 – because if it Goes Wrong it Goes Really Really Wrong…

chernobylAt James Lovelock’s recent talk I attended at Dartington, he was asked by the enraged woman in front of me how he could possibly justify nuclear power in the light of what happened at Chernobyl. She worked with children from the area, and felt he had downplayed the scale of what happened there. He replied rather glibly that only 70 people had died there, and they were mostly the firemen and emergency services people who attended the fire, but that no-one else had died that could be directly linked to the disaster. His point was that far more people died in London in the 1950s from inhaling coal fumes and other pollutants, and that the C02 from burning fossil fuels could ultimately kill us all. This appalling dismissal of extensive human misery has recently been challenged.

chernobyl2The BBC recently reported that a new study from Greenpeace has put the figure of deaths that can be directly attributed to the Chernobyl accident at actually more like 93,000. The figure is more than 10 times the estimate that the UN put forward of 9,000. The reason for the discrepency is that the UN study only looked at the area immediately around Chernobyl, while the Greenpeace study looks at all of Europe.

Indeed the Greenpeace figure of 93,000 is their estimate of actual fatalities, only about one-third of their figure of 270,000 for the total number of cases of cancer. The initial study by the UN was criticised for not looking at the full picture, and rightly so. It is similar to studies on the side effects of vaccination which define a health problem directly caused by the vaccination as one which appears in less than 14 days from the date of vaccination. Therefore many problems that arise after that time are dismissed as being unconnected, making mass immunisation seem less harmful than it is (but that’s another argument altogether!).

A recent programme on BBC Radio 4, which is unfortunately no longer on their website, called Chernobyl Story, visited the area 20 years after the disaster with a woman who had been born their but had not been back since the explosion there. It was very moving, but the thing that struck me most was the interview with the man who was the head of the emergency services operation on the day. He said that he regarded the explosion not as a disaster but as a success, because it showed how human ingenuity had stopped the accident being far, far worse than it actually was. He intended to mark the 20th annniversary by meeting some old colleagues at the site and drinking champagne.

lovelockTo state that Chernobyl was a trivial accident and that only 70 people died is outrageous. What actually happened was that the disaster spread radioactive material across Europe, several million people still live incontaminated areas, and 270,000 people may contract some form of cancer as a result of it, of which 90,000 may well die. This is not a minor event. This was an outrage and something which every effort should be made to avoid repeating.

Some people argue that Chernobyl was somehow the ‘bad apple’ that somehow tarnishes the name of all other nuclear plants, as though it was a one-off accident. Wikipedia features a list of nuclear accidents which I suspect is only scratching the surface, and is of course only the ones that made it into the public domain. Within every nuclear power station is a potential for disaster and destruction that it completely unacceptable. Lovelock, whose book seems to now be seen as the definite argument for nuclear power, is wrong, nuclear power is dirty, dangerous and is not in any way a part of a sustainable energy future.

Categories: Energy, Technology

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Chris Vernon
4 May 8:33am

I agree with most of the points Fleming makes in his recent paper and am convinced that new nuclear build is not in the best interest of the UK or the world. However whilst saying Chernobyl was a trivial accident and that only 70 people died is certainly outrageous one does need to consider just how serious that 90,000 figure is compared to deaths per kWh directly from the coal cycle or from CO2.

I suspect, though I haven’t looked up any numbers, that nuclear has a lower death rate per kWh than coal in the past and looking forward coal is the largest single contributor to anthropogenic CO2 so must pickup considerable responsibility.

There are many compelling arguments against the nuclear cycle but I’m not convinced safety is the strongest.

4 May 3:14pm

I do think the longterm safety argument is still a strong one. The Irish Greens highlight the centralised argument in their recent repost. Nuclear would create a handful of jobs for specialised consultants rather than the thousands of local jobs that could be creatied in renewables. This is a strong argument for us in the localisation ‘movement’. See this from their report ‘Previous Generation’. It lists 10 reasons why nuclear power makes no sense for Ireland see

“A centralised and subsidised state solution versus tens of thousands of Green jobs

At the moment more energy is wasted in our centralised electricity transmission and generation system than is used heating every house and apartment in this country. These
losses come from waste heat sent up power station chimneys and in power used up in transmission power lines. Nuclear power would only further enforce this wasteful centralised system. The alternative Green vision is where thousands of local generators provide power and heat for local homes and businesses. This system is much more efficient, cleaner and cheaper and will create tens of thousands of jobs throughout the country. The nuclear option sends the two to three billion construction cost out of the country to an overseas contractor. “

8 May 1:04pm

behind all the arguements for and against nuclear power must lie the conflict between centralisation or localisation. Centralisation equals central power and control of our society. Those currently with this central power will probably see nuclear power as a means to keep it and even increase it. The fact that it is not the best solution for efficiency and safety is more a side issue for such people.

8 May 9:07pm

I think you *are* overlooking his point though. Millions — not hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands — millions of people are dying from fossil fuel use.

Here in the States, an alarming number of children in urban areas have asthma. Many deaths can be directly attributed to smog and air pollution, including deaths caused by cancer. Have you ever been to Los Angeles? Did you know that most people in LA should have a striking view of the mountains? What’s blocking that view is poison caused by fossil fuel use.

On a grander level, carbon production is probably the worst environmental problem in the history of the world. In no way can nuclear pollution come close to the danger of carbon pollution. At its best, it’s killing millions of people. At its worst, it will lead (and is now) to such tremendous global warming that it threatens the very survival many species, including the Human species.

So yes, nuclear pollution is bad. But the point that nuclear pollution is carbon-free and smog-free can’t be overlooked, because while nuclear power really goes back when it does go back, fossil fuel always goes bad.

In a way, coal and oil slowly boil the frog. When nuclear pollution happens, it happens all at once, but it actually isn’t as bad.

Jason Cole
8 May 9:40pm

“But the point that nuclear pollution is carbon-free and smog-free can’t be overlooked”

Sorry but that’s a common misunderstanding of many environmentalists, Lovelock included.

Investigate the nuclear fuel cycle, how much energy is required to mine, mill and separate the fuel. Investigate what happens to all of the “tailings”. David Fleming wrote an excellent paper on this.