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The Nuclear Danger

Entry 1282, on 2011-03-29 at 16:15:26 (Rating 3, Science)

The recent problems surrounding the Japanese nuclear power plants, along with the two famous historial nuclear accidents: Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, often make people comment that nuclear power is not a good option. Many people in New Zealand say they are glad we are nuclear free, from both weapons and power generation. But how real is the threat from nuclear power?

Is the threat of a nuclear accident really as bad as some people think? It seems to me that a lot of the fear is generated from ignorance. The word "nuclear" is scary to most people. When you go to the hospital for an MRI scan do they mention the real name for the technique is nuclear magnetic resonance imaging? Is it just an accident that the "N" word has been dropped?

The fact is that many countries cannot realistically provide the energy they need any other way apart from nuclear so it's here to stay whatever you think of it. And the accidents which have happened have all involved old first generation plants, some of which were poorly constructed and maintained (read about Chernobyl some time - it would have been funny if it wasn't so serious) and many of which were run beyond their original expected life.

And concerning the recent events in Japan. How many people died as a result of the earthquake, the tsunami, and the nuclear problem? That's right, despite the amount of news coverage of radiation leaks, not a single person has been killed or even seriously injured by radiation. But the tsunami killed tens of thousands. Should we be scared of water instead?

Even the grossly mismanaged Chernobyl disaster only resulted in 31 confirmed direct deaths. WHO suggests it could reach 4000 and Greenpeace are suggesting 200,000 (although their obvious political bias greatly reduces the credibility of this figure). Sure that's bad - even one death is bad. But it's a small number compared with other disasters which have happened. I heard that living near a storage pond for waste from a coal fired plant produces the same risk as smoking a packet of cigarettes a day. How many deaths does that cause which we don't even hear about?

There has never been a major problem with a second or third generation power plant and new technologies of the future will make nuclear power look even better: safer, more efficient, producing less waste, producing less material which could be used for weapons, and a lot more environmentally friendly than the alternatives.

The people who say they genuinely care about the planet should be encouraging research and construction of modern nuclear power facilities. If some of the promise of future technologies can be realised (and I'm not even starting to talk about fusion here) then our oil based civilisation can be revolutionised. Electric cars are the future of transport for example, but plenty of cheap electricity (generated without producing a lot of atmospheric carbon) will be needed. Nuclear power is the best way to achieve this.

How many people know that coal fired power plants produce more radiation than nuclear plants? Oak Ridge National Lab showed that the effective dose is 100 times higher from a coal plant and that after 100 years of operations coal plants worldwide would have released 830,000 tons of uranium into the atmosphere! Sure, I agree that nuclear can create a much greater immediate hazard if things go wrong, but the radiation from burning coal is a factor which many people don't even consider.

Nuclear power is one area where I disagree with traditional "left-wing" or "green" dogma. Of course there are many others as well (although I also agree with a lot of their core beliefs) which is one reason I resist those tags being applied to me. We should look at all technologies as a whole. They all have good and bad points. Concentrating on the bad while ignoring the good, or ignoring the bad in alternatives, is not a good way to reach the most sensible conclusion.

I'm not saying nuclear power is something we don't need to worry about. Old plants should be decommissioned when their safe life is over. Very strict regulations should be applied to all plants. And if there are safer alternatives we should use them. But we need to look at all the facts and not just reject a useful technology because its name contains that one scary word "nuclear".


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