This week marks the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, and this year the 5th of the Fukushima disaster – “the two greatest nuclear accidents the world has ever seen.” And it turns out what you don’t know about both can kill you.
Easy ones first, so let’s start with Fukushima, where “following a major earthquake, a 15-metre tsunami disabled the power supply and cooling of three Fukushima Daiichi reactors, causing a nuclear accident on 11 March 2011. All three cores largely melted in the first three days.
So let’s start by having you guess how many people died of radiation since the accident. Any ideas? The answer is: none. Zero. Not one. “There have been no deaths or cases of radiation sickness from the nuclear accident…” That’s the good news.
Official figures show that there have been well over 1000 deaths from maintaining the evacuation, in contrast to little risk from radiation if early return had been allowed…
About 90% of deaths were for persons above 66 years of age. Of these, about 70% occurred within the first three months of the evacuations…
The premature deaths reported in 2012 were mainly related to the following: (1) somatic effects and spiritual fatigue brought on by having to reside in shelters; (2) Transfer trauma – the mental or physical burden of the forced move from their homes for fragile individuals; and (3) delays in obtaining needed medical support because of the enormous destruction caused by the earthquake and tsunami. However, the radiation levels in most of the evacuated areas were not greater than the natural radiation levels in high background areas elsewhere in the world where no adverse health effect is evident, so maintaining the evacuation beyond a precautionary few days was evidently the main disaster in relation to human fatalities.
Turns out that what officials didn’t know about radiation helped to kill over 1,000 people. But that’s not the worst effect of not knowing. Across Japan and around the world, construction and operation of nuclear power plants either slowed, paused or ceased altogether, prompting a turn to “renewables” like wind and hydro. This despite rocketing European power prices making electricity a luxury good in a continent in which thousands of folk die every for lack of heat through winter; despite the deaths of around 100 people since 1990 due to wind turbines; and despite the hydro dam in Fukushima province burst by the quake flooding 1800 homes and causing an unkown number of deaths.
So the wider reaction to Fukushima has killed people too—many more than the number (zero) who died in the initial nuclear disaster.
Writing in the Guardian this week, David Robert Grimes argues "it's time to dispel the myths about nuclear power. We need more than ever to have a reasoned discussion on the issues.”
Even now, widespread confusion over these disasters still blights rational discussion on energy production [which is necessary for human survival and flourishing]; too often the debate becomes needlessly acrimonious, reliant on rhetoric in lieu of facts. Yet as climate change becomes an ever-encroaching factor, we need more than ever to have a reasoned discussion on nuclear power. To this end, it’s worth dispelling some persistent myths.
The events in the Ukrainian town of Pripyat on the morning of 26 April 1986 have permanently etched the name Chernobyl, and all its connotations, into the public mind. With a dark irony, it was a poorly conducted safety experiment that was the catalyst for the worst nuclear disaster in history. The full odious sequence of events that led to the accident would constitute an entire article. In essence, however, the mixture of flawed design, disabled redundancies and a tragic disregard for experimental protocol all feature heavily in the blueprint of the disaster. The net result of this errant test was a massive steam explosion, replete with enough kick to blow the 2,000 ton reactor casting clean through the roof of the reactor building….
Soviet construction and thire response helped both cause the disaster and exacerbate it.
Chernobyl was a perfect storm, a damning tale of ineptitude leading to needless loss of life. It was also unequivocally the world’s worst nuclear accident. To many, it is also heralded as proof-positive that nuclear energy was inherently unsafe, a narrative adopted by many anti-nuclear groups. The word Chernobyl became synonymous with death on a massive scale. But perception and reality do not always neatly align; in the wake of the disaster, the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) and others undertook a co-ordinated effort to follow up on health effects. In 2006, after two decades of monitoring they outlined the health effects; of the firefighters exposed to the huge core doses and incredibly toxic smoke, 28 died from acute radiation sickness. A further 15 perished from thyroid cancer. Despite aggressive monitoring for three decades, there has been no significant increase in solid tumours or delayed health effects, even in the hundreds of thousands of minimally protected cleanup workers who helped purge the site after the accident. In the words of the 2008 UNSCEAR report: “There is no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality rates or in rates of non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure.”
It added: “The incidence of leukaemia in the general population, one of the main concerns owing to the shorter time expected between exposure and its occurrence compared with solid cancers, does not appear to be elevated. Although most highly exposed individuals are at an increased risk of radiation-associated effects, the great majority of the population is not likely to experience serious health consequences as a result of radiation from the Chernobyl accident. Many other health problems have been noted in the populations that are not related to radiation exposure.”
Astonishing, no, that sentence I’ve highlighted, coming from the 2008 UN follow-up report on the disaster: “There is no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality rates or in rates of non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure.” I bet you’ve never heard that before. Yet …
To this day, a 30km exclusion zone around the reactor has been maintained for precaution, despite the radiation level in this boundary being far below that which would cause damage. Unmolested by human hands, the Chernobyl exclusion zone has become an incredible natural wildlife habit and a growing tourist attraction.
But for ideological opponents of nuclear power, this reality is largely ignored…
The truth is too inconvenient. Yet if safety and clean air is what you’re after (and, if you’re of that disposition, lower carbon dioxide emissions) then nuclear has to be a viable option.
Yet as I have expanded upon previously for this paper, ideological opposition is hard to overcome and nuclear is no exception. In the wake of Fukushima, Germany acquiesced to demands from lobby groups to shut down its nuclear sector, building heavily polluting fossil-fuel plants in their stead. Japan too suspended its nuclear grid, becoming the second-largest net importer of fossil fuels in the world. Some ostensible environmental campaigners lauded this, oblivious to the fact these decisions condemned the environmental to further damage. If this is “victory” for the environment, it is a resoundingly pyrrhic kind. Shutdown of the plants in Japan has led to not only increased pollution, butrolling blackouts and protests. By contrast, France has for decades produced 75% of its energy through nuclear, and enjoys the cleanest air and among the lowest carbon emissions of any industrialised nature.
The IPCC stress that nuclear power must be considered if we are to halt climate change, with some estimates suggested nuclear capacity needs to double if we are to stave off the worst ravages of climate change. Even so, resistance to nuclear remains, and scare-stories about Chernobyl and Fukushima are too often employed as an empty rebuttal by those unwilling to countenance the situation we face.
Nuclear energy is complicated, has drawbacks, and like any form of energy production it has risks. But it is also clean, safe and hugely efficient. If we truly want to have a rational discussion on how best to power our world, we need to confine ourselves to facts rather than fictions and weigh up the advantages and disadvantages without recourse to ill-founded ideological radiophobia. Our very future depends upon it.
NB: While warmists talk about a carbon “footprint,” it’s appropriate to understand that every form of energy production has its own “deathprint” – “the number of people killed by one kind of energy or another per kWhr produced..” Forbes has done the research: