SONE Publications

February Newsletter No262

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Wise words from SONE’s Patron, James Lovelock. He may be right in saying that, after giving up fossil fuels, the world will go on messing about with renewables before giving them up for nuclear. But is there enough time? Is the world’s socio-economic fabric strong enough to survive the coronovirus and then the wasted effort that James predicts? I suggest that we should press the case for adopting the nuclear solution right away!

Fukushima, a tragedy of misunderstanding ten years on

The fact that the 2011 Japanese nuclear “disaster” caused no casualties suggests that public perceptions of nuclear power are misinformed – a conclusion only reinforced by other evidence. This matters because no other primary source of energy can match it as a complete replacement for fossil fuels in the coming decades.

Natural science is unyielding. Its truth is unmoved by a democratic vote – and people resent its authoritarian tone. They like to express an opinion. But without some appreciation of the science that shapes their environment they can easily lose confidence in the event of an accident so that the social structure collapses in fear and distrust. The tragedy of Fukushima Daiichi was a clear example. Today, ten years later, public policy is still in the thrall of an irrational fear of nuclear science, not only in Japan, but elsewhere around the world.

The coronavirus has shown how much all nations have in common and the benefit to all of trusting in science. To overcome the virus everybody needs the vaccine. But climate change poses an even greater global threat. A worldwide ban on the use of carbon fuels as our source of energy is a first step – but they need to be replaced if the Industrial Revolution is not to founder. There is only one choice that might spare our economy and society.

The popular reaction is to revert to the natural energy sources used in earlier centuries – wind, water and others driven by daily sunshine. But, being weak, these must be deployed on a vast scale to harvest sufficient energy. Such “farms” desecrate large areas of land and sea, while also being vulnerable to extremes of weather. Worse, they are unavailable for random periods lasting for many days, far longer than can be bridged by any likely storage technology. Frequent prolonged breaks in electricity supply are inevitable if society chooses to rely on renewables without fossil fuel back-up.

The only energy source known to science and available on the required scale is nuclear, a million times more intensive than carbon and a billion times more than renewables. Available 24/7 its plant is compact and resilient; its fuel sufficient; its safety record exemplary and its environmental impact likewise. Existing plants are reliable, and many new designs, small and simply constructed, are in development. Only this power source can provide a zero-carbon future worldwide.

There is one major obstruction, the phobia of nuclear technology, is shown in the response to the Fukushima Daiichi accident. That developed in three stages: first an exceptional earthquake and tsunami; second a nuclear accident at the power plant itself; third a virulent popular aversion to nuclear power by Japanese society that infected worldwide opinion and triggered a switch to fossil fuels that persists today.

The first stage was a natural disaster for which Japan prepares its people exceptionally well. Despite the high death toll the social contract was not damaged. In the second the power plant itself was destroyed and there was an escape of radioactivity as the workers succeeded in releasing the physical pressure in the reactor. However, there was no radiation casualty among the workers or any member of the public. The exposures they received were small compared to those regularly used beneficially in medical clinics, and to those received at other accidents. Measurements confirm that no future health consequence is to be expected for anyone, as was already evident within a few days. At that time residents should have returned home and the other nuclear plants in Japan restarted.

The third stage of the Fukushima accident was the most serious, locally and globally. The authorities had no plan for a radiation accident – they understood that one should not happen. When it did, the panic spread upwards to the Prime Minister and the head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, both personally averse to nuclear power – and the media fanned the flames. The inept evacuation caused 1600 premature deaths, particularly among the elderly. The damage to mental health, family and social relationships was widespread resulting in divorce, alcoholism and suffering. An obsession with apportioning blame and the disbursal of large compensation payments created further discord, as did an expensive and largely ineffective clean-up operation.

A foundation of popular scientific and medical education, including familiarisation with radiation, would have prepared the population – as it did for the earthquake and tsunami. If only the Japanese public had understood why low and moderate exposures to radiation are harmless – even beneficial, as in a clinic. Although this has long been known, few nations have assimilated it and so the panic that followed Fukushima spread unchecked around the world.

There is a difference between natural science – what we understand about the world we live in – and technology – the way in which science is employed in industry and human affairs. The science of nature changes slowly and is worthy of deep trust and wonder – beyond money, law and employment. Technology, by contrast, can be exciting, fast moving, speculative and mistaken. These two are often intentionally confused to promote a message. Commercial interest often adopts the excitement of science to entertain or sell a speculative scheme. This is unfortunate. Some steady public confidence in the natural science of nuclear should be established if fossil fuels are to be replaced reliably.

“But what about the waste?”

After a public talk on nuclear power there is the opportunity for questions. This would be welcome, except that the first question is invaribly the same, “What about the waste?”, as if this was the Achilles Heel of the nuclear case – which of course it is not. Nevertheless, we need to optimise our reply.

This month Kirsty Gogan Alexander gave a spirited answer on social media that was widely applauded. Before adding my own points here is what she wrote:

“Firstly, the cost of managing spent fuel is a marginal cost, and we are really good at it – there has never been any harm caused to people or nature by civil nuclear spent fuel.

Secondly, we expect that spent fuel would (and should) be recycled.

Thirdly, can we all please remember that waste from fossil fuels is today causing 4 million premature deaths per year (air pollution) AND potentially catastrophic climate change. This is the public health and environmental disaster we should be focused on.

Disproportionate focus on nuclear spent fuel is enabling continued harm from fossil fuels.

Furthermore: we would be happy to make an analysis of cost associated with waste streams from a range of energy sources, including solar and wind, coal and gas. I am confident that the costs of nuclear waste management would be highly competitive with all of the above – although nuclear would be the only source that takes full responsibility for these waste streams, and accounts for these costs.”

To these points I would add four more, no less significant in my view.

Firstly, because nuclear fuel has an energy density some million times higher than fossil fuel, very little fuel is required and so there is correspondingly little waste. It’s tiny.

Secondly the waste is essentially all solid and easily contained, unlike the gas freely released by burning fossil fuels. Where to put it? Keep it cool for a few years, vitrify the fission products and bury them 100m under my house, if you like! It is no more of a problem than many other toxic wastes. In fact chemical wastes retain their toxicity for ever while radioactive wastes decay away.

Thirdly, it is far less significant than human biological waste, for example. Of that there is about a kg per person per day, instead of a kg of nuclear waste in a lifetime. The human waste also is best reprocessed, but is so dangerous that we teach children to deal with it already at age two, and mishandling it is responsible for many thousands of deaths a year. Potty training is not a matter for the UN – perhaps it should be!

Fourthly, it is a choice whether we reprocess spent nuclear fuel now or later. It is an economic option that will change with technology, but it is not “the problem” that the media go on about. Nor is the decommissioning of a plant after 80 years or so. A wind turbine or solar farm has to be decommissioned after 20 years and those materials cannot be reprocessed. What should happen to them? Bury them? And where is that discussed?

Resilience and security – the expected and the unpredictable

Modern life depends on confidence and the ability to predict. If these are lacking society takes out insurance, although this just transfers the uncertainty down the line to insurers and underwriters. Such insurance comes at a price. The weather is notorious for its unreliability, and energy sources that depend on it have to be backed by others whose reliability is not in doubt. Such standby capacity comes at a price. Its capital cost and maintenance is a standing charge. That raises the question whether it would be cheaper and more environmental to save on installing the weather-dependent source and use solely the more reliable source that doesn’t need back-up.

The climate is changing and will continue to change for some hundreds of years, even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases now – that would just prevent making matters even worse. Not only will average temperatures and rainfall patterns continue to change, but the incidence of extreme weather events will alter too in ways that are largely unpredictable, except in so far as this is happening already. Arrays of solar panels are trashed by hail stones and hurricanes, and disabled by dust and sand storms. Wind turbines are exposed under exceptional conditions, too, especially off-shore, and much of their cost is taken up by ensuring that they can survive in predicted conditions – but these are not predictable.

Nuclear power plants are more resilient. They have a small footprint and can be sited locally, close to conurbations and industry where they are needed, thereby reducing the dependence on the nationwide grid. They can be more easily protected against terrorists and foreign powers, too.

The wind farms around the coasts of Britain that Boris Johnson likes to talk about would be easy targets – a skittle alley for a foreign power. With their enhanced web of dispersed undersea interconnectors it is hard to imagine any way in which the UK could possibly be made more vulnerable! The Prime Minister seems intent on a policy of minimising the security of the UK.

Interests and jobs obstruct the right decisions

And why, you may ask, are sensible decisions on energy not based on common sense and simple scientific evidence?

Two reasons.

First, vested interests. Today, industry and the financial world are busy tying themselves in knots to attach some value to the discredited fossil fuels assets that remain in the ground and previously underwrote much that markets treasured. They are engaged in desperately “greenwashing” every asset that might be thought environmental and sustainable. They have some way to go yet and have still to realise that nuclear technology is the corner stone of the coming new industrial revolution. Giving up on fossil fuels will be painful in the short term, but as soon as they adopt nuclear a bright future will be ahead. Some nations will act before others. In the last industrial revolution the UK acted first, quickly followed by USA. This time China seems to be among the leaders but others can join.

The second reason is employment. Especially at a time of uncertainty people will do anything, say anything, believe anything, if only it offers a good job – and similarly for retaining one. This has always been the greatest block to getting the truth widely accepted although it has seldom been articulated as well as by Upton Sinclair:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

If vested interests weigh on the judgement of older generations, the influence of the employment market should be a concern for the younger generation too.

Wade Allison, Hon. Sec.
13 February 2021