Who’s afraid of Big, Bad Nuclear Power?

Historically, nuclear power has had bad press. The Chernobyl disaster, Three Mile Island accident and Fukushima-Daichi accident are infamous and tragic. Thousands of lives were affected and they illustrate the danger that nuclear power poses. No rational, ethical human could support their use. We have to stop using these monstrosities before they cause further devastation, right? Not so fast. Lets look at these disasters from a different viewpoint.

Chernobyl’s Reactor 4 following the explosion. Image Taken from Forbes.

At the most hopeful estimate, 4031 people are expected to have died as a result of the Chernobyl accident [1]. 31 as a direct result of the disaster, including plant staff and engineers on duty at the time of the explosion and many of the first firemen to arrive. Then another 4000 to be expected in the decades after to incident, attributed to excessive radiation exposure. Each of these individual deaths are tragic and many are admirably noble. Without the sacrifice, consciously or otherwise, of enlisted firemen, miners and normal people, the impact of this disaster would have been far greater.

Over 600,000 ‘Liquidators’ were recognised for their help in cleaning up the aftermath of the incident, in the highest estimates 60,000 of which will have died as a result of radiation exposure [2], [3]. Additionally, there have been many thousands of reports of birth defects in new born babies across the former Soviet Union and Europe. All that can confidently be said is that the death toll is unclear, the human loss however, is not.

Estimates of the total death toll of Chernobyl. Taken from [4]

Fukushima-Daichi and Three Mile Island, arguably the second and third biggest nuclear accidents, were far less harmful in comparison. The Three Mile Island accident produced an “average local radiation exposure equivalent to a chest X-ray, and maximum local exposure equivalent to less than a year’s background radiation” and has since experienced no deaths [5]. Fukushima experienced one single death attributed to lung cancer in a rescue worker [6]. “The maximum predicted eventual cancer mortality rate is 1,500 and 1,800, respectively, but with the strongest weight of evidence producing an estimate much lower, in the range of a few hundred.” [7]

Compare this now to a recent study [8] that found that burning fossil fuels was directly responsible for 8.7 million deaths in 2018. Now of course this is not all a result of energy production (open fire cooking and transport account for much of the problem, for example) but that’s still 1240 Chernobyls each year. The data here speaks volumes: low carbon energy is required if we want to exist on this planet and nuclear is the safest option to provide it. When the boundaries of science are pushed for the betterment of society, there are regrettably, inevitable losses. However ask yourself where would we be if we’d stopped building aircraft the day the Orville Wright died in 1908?

Cottam coal power station, which closed in September 2019. Other countries are not on the same trajectory. Image taken from EDF

It also frustrates me that nuclear fears are propagated further through the contemporary media. The HBO miniseries Chernobyl is the salient example that comes to mind and I have mixed opinions on the impact of this show. Firstly, it’s an extremely compelling, well-told and relatively accurate depiction of what happened at reactor 4 and it does a great job of illustrating the shortcomings of the communist ideology and the responsibility of the USSR in the disaster. A bureaucracy disinterested in safety and motivated only to maintain its façade of infallibility to the international community will take short cuts where it can. It goes without saying that an organisation like that should not be permitted to construct nuclear reactors.

“What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all.”

Valery Legasov, chief of the commission investigating the Chernobyl disaster.

Secondly, as a docu-fictional work, it lacks opposing popular media on the dangers of fossil fuels. A contrasting miniseries focussing on a few oil spills and the deaths from particulate pollution is a much harder sell – there is less romance in it. You could say that society’s nuclear fears have been commercialised, but perhaps that’s going too far…

The devastation caused by nuclear disasters is emotive and tangible, couple that with the enigmatic function of a nuclear power plant and it makes sense that there is a fear surrounding the topic. We should recognise though that this fear is disproportionate to its danger and that the effect that fossil fuels have on our health is far more covert and harmful. We shouldn’t be afraid of nuclear power because of past accidents. The sacrifices and losses from these disasters should motivate us to continue to work and transition towards safer, cleaner power.

Nuclear power is not as dangerous as you think, you’re just afraid of it.

How do you compare this image with the emissions of fossil fuel burning power plants? Photo by Wendelin Jacober on Pexels.com

1 – https://www.un.org/press/en/2005/dev2539.doc.htm

2 – https://www.who.int/ionizing_radiation/chernobyl/who_chernobyl_report_2006.pdf

3 – https://www.lemonde.fr/planete/article/2006/04/07/les-chiffres-de-l-onu-sur-les-victimes-de-tchernobyl-auraient-ete-sous-estimes_759215_3244.html

4 – https://ourworldindata.org/what-was-the-death-toll-from-chernobyl-and-fukushima

2 – https://academic.oup.com/…/article…/132/3/397/103678…

3 – https://www.abc.net.au/…/first-man-dies-from…/10208244

4 – https://www.sciencedirect.com/…/pii/S016041201530060X…

5 – https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0013935121000487

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