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Three Mile Island

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Nuclear Madness

21 November 2012

Nuclear Madness

By Gwynne Dyer

After the loss of 10 million American lives in the Three-Mile Island calamity in 1979, the death of two billion in the Chernobyl holocaust in 1986, and now the abandonment of all of northern Japan following the death of millions in last year’s Fukushima nuclear catastrophe, it is hardly surprising that the world’s biggest users of nuclear power are shutting their plants down.

Oh, wait a minute…This just in! Nobody died in the Three-Mile Island calamity, 28 plant workers were killed and 15 other people subsequently died of thyroid cancer in the Chernobyl holocaust, and nobody died in the Fukushima catastrophe. In fact, northern Japan has not been evacuated after all. But never mind all that. They really are shutting their nuclear plants down.

They have already shut them down in Japan. All of the country’s fifty nuclear reactors were closed for safety checks after the tsunami damaged the Fukushima plant, and only two have reopened so far. The government, which was previously planning to increase nuclear’s share of the national energy mix to half by 2030, has now promised to close every nuclear power plant in Japan permanently by 2040.

In a policy document released last September, the Japanese government declared that “one of the pillars of the new strategy is to achieve a society that does not depend on nuclear energy as soon as possible.” In the short run, Japan is making up for the lost nuclear energy by running tens of thousands of diesel generators flat out, and oil and gas imports have doubled. In the long run, they’ll probably just burn more coal.

The new Japanese plan says that the country will replace the missing nuclear energy with an eightfold increase in renewable energy (wind, solar, etc.), and “the development of sustainable ways to use fossil fuels.” But going from 4 percent to 30 percent renewables in the energy mix will take decades, and nobody has yet found an economically sustainable way to sequester the greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels.

The truth is that as the Arctic sea ice melts and grain harvests are devastated by heat waves and drought, the world’s third-largest user of nuclear energy has decided to go back to emitting lots and lots of carbon dioxide.

In Germany, where the Greens have been campaigning against nuclear power for decades, Chancellor Angela Merkel has done a U-turn and promised to close all the country’s nuclear reactors by 2022. She also promised to replace them with renewable power sources, of course, but the reality there will also be that the country burns more fossil fuels. Belgium is also shutting down its nuclear plants, and Italy has abandoned its plans to build some.

Even France, which has taken 80 percent of its power from nuclear power plants for decades without the slightest problem, is joining the panic. President Francois Hollande’s new government has promised to lower the country’s dependence on nuclear energy to 50 percent of the national energy mix. But you can see why he and his colleagues had to do it. After all, nuclear energy is a kind of witchcraft, and the public is frightened.

The tireless campaign against nuclear energy that the Greens have waged for decades is finally achieving its goal, at least in the developed countries. Their behaviour cannot be logically reconciled with their concern for the environment, given that abandoning nuclear will lead to a big rise in fossil fuel use, but they have never managed to make a clear distinction between the nuclear weapons they feared and the peaceful use of nuclear power.

The Greens prattle about replacing nuclear power with renewables, which might come to pass in some distant future. But the brutal truth for now is that closing down the nuclear plants will lead to a sharp rise in greenhouse gas emissions, in precisely the period when the race to cut emissions and avoid a rise in average global temperature of more than 2 degrees C will be won or lost.

Fortunately, their superstitious fears are largely absent in more sophisticated parts of the world. Only four new nuclear reactors are under construction in the European Union, and only one in the United States, but there are 61 being built elsewhere. Over two-thirds of them are being built in the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China), where economies are growing fast and governments are increasingly concerned about both pollution and climate change.

But it’s not enough to outweigh the closure of so many nuclear plants in the developed world, at least in the short run. India may be aiming at getting 50 percent of its energy from nuclear power by 2050, for example, but the fact is that only 3.7 percent of its electricity is nuclear right now. So the price of nuclear fuel has collapsed in the last four years, and uranium mine openings and expansions have been cancelled.

More people die from coal pollution each day than have been killed by fifty years of nuclear power operations – and that’s just from lung disease. If you include future deaths from global warming due to burning fossil fuels, closing down nuclear power stations is sheer madness. Welcome to the Middle Ages.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 9. (“In a policy…coal”; and “The tireless…power”)

 

Chernobyl: The Numbers Game

20 April 2006

 Chernobyl: The Numbers Game

 By Gwynne Dyer

April 26 is the 20th anniversary of the explosion and fire in the Chernobyl-4 nuclear reactor, so the long-running dispute over how many people actually died as a result of the accident is back. And now the growing public argument in Western countries about ending the de facto ban on new nuclear power stations has lent wings to the debate.

Last Tuesday the World Health Organisation published a report estimating that 405 people died in the first decade after the accident, almost all of them former plant workers, firefighters and soldiers who were exposed to massive radiation doses in the initial explosion or during the nine-day struggle to put out the fire in the reactor core. But over 200,000 people were involved in some aspect of the clean-up operation, and some of them as well as some people living near the site will also develop cancers from their lesser exposure to radiation sooner or later.

The WHO’s best estimate is that about 9,300 people will eventually die from Chernobyl-related cancers. Greenpeace International, on the other hand, has just issued a report predicting that the number of cancer deaths directly attributable to Chernobyl will ultimately reach 93,000.

This is as much an argument about the future as the past, since the outcome of the revived debate in the West about the desirability of nuclear power depends heavily on the public’s perception of the risks involved. It’s not how the debate SHOULD be settled, but both sides know that it’s how it will be.

The West effectively abandoned building new nuclear power stations after the accident at the Three-Mile Island reactor in the US in 1979 (which killed nobody) and the Chernobyl accident in 1986 (which killed quite a lot of people). Few existing plants were shut down, and in a few countries, notably France and Japan, nuclear energy continues to supply most of the nation’s electricity, but the global population of big nuclear power reactors has fluctuated in a narrow band between 400 and 450 for the past twenty years.

Now there is a new wave of reactor-building in Asian countries where rapidly growing economies have created a huge demand for electricity, and few voices have been raised against it in those countries. Even in the West, the debate has been re-opened as concern about global warming has grown. Apart from hydro-power, which is only available in certain areas, nuclear energy is the only available short-term option for producing very large amounts of base load electricity without adding to the greenhouse gases that cause the warming.

The real arguments for and against nuclear power are about complicated technical and financial issues. Would the same amount of investment in “renewables” like wind power produce as much electricity, and how do you allow for the fact that the wind does not always blow? Would investing in techniques like “sequestering” the carbon-dioxide output from conventional coal, oil and gas-fired power-plants (capturing it and pumping it into underground reservoirs) be a better way to spend the money — and how soon could such technologies be available on a large-scale?

Those are the real issues, but everybody involved in the argument knows that “safety” will be what decides the outcome in the public debate. Since Chernobyl is the only accident involving a nuclear power plant in the past fifty years that has killed any members of the public, just how many died has become a bitterly contested question. Unfortunately, it is also a hugely misleading one.

There is no doubt that thirty people died in the immediate struggle to contain the accident, twenty-eight of them from massive radiation overdoses. Of the 139 people who were treated for acute radiation sickness, another nineteen died. But after that, all the other deaths attributed to Chernobyl are statistical inferences. That doesn’t mean they did not occur, but it does mean that the range of plausible conclusions, given the state of the medical and demographic data in the affected area (Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia), is very wide indeed.

Moreover, predictions about the “final death toll” are almost meaningless, because everybody dies eventually, and about 30 percent of people in developed societies die of cancer. Whether it’s ultimately 9,300 or 93,000 people who die as a delayed effect of the Chernobyl accident, they will mostly die from cancers that develop late in their lives, only a few months earlier than they were statistically likely to anyway.

The massive hydrogen-bomb tests in 1962, which released about a hundred times as much radiation as Chernobyl into the atmosphere, had a similar effect. Worldwide, the average radiation dose from those tests was ten milliSieverts, roughly the same as most people living within a few hundred kilometres (miles) from Chernobyl received in 1986. Ten milliSieverts of radiation is calculated to shorten a person’s lifespan, on average, by four days — but averages lie. What those tests really meant was an early death for an unlucky few, and nothing for everybody else.

In the case of nuclear power, the number of lives that might be at risk from accidents is certainly only a tiny fraction of those that are at risk from global warming, but that’s not how the argument will be pursued in public. The debate will be mostly about the alleged dangers of nuclear power, not about whether it is really the best way to produce huge amounts of power without also producing huge amount of carbon dioxide.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. “The West…the warming”