Green Party nonsense pt2: nuclear power and the problem of the precautionary principle

Now run a generator off it and heat your house
Now run a generator off it and heat your house

Since I’ve already ruined my chances of ever leading the warriors of the Green Party in glorious revolution, what with saying that the vandalism of publicly funded scientific research is pretty much not cool, I’ve decided to throw caution to the wind.

From the Greens’ energy policy, I read this:

The Green Party is fundamentally opposed to nuclear energy, which we consider to be expensive and dangerous. The technology is not carbon neutral, and being reliant on uranium it is not renewable. We consider its use, moreover, to be elitist and undemocratic. There is so far no safe way of disposing of nuclear waste. To a degree unequalled by even the worst of other dangerous industries, the costs and dangers of nuclear energy and its waste will be passed on to future generations long after any benefits have been exhausted.

This statement is problematic on a number of levels. I don’t like the idea of being “fundamentally opposed” to one of the most obvious available options for keeping our lights on. If it is shown to be safe and economic, then we should use it. It’s not a moral issue; it’s just one more tool, which we can use well or badly, safely or unsafely. Also: how can an energy technology be “elitist”? I literally don’t know what that means. Is it elitist because it’s hi-tech and third-world countries can’t easily make their own? Well, so are iPads, then, and Toyota Priuses. Or does the word “elitist” just mean “bad” in Green-land, in the same way that “natural” means “good”? [Edit: I can’t believe I didn’t pick up on “undemocratic” as well. Since when are power stations democratic institutions?]

As for it not being renewable: well, neither is sunlight or the wind, if you’re taking a sufficiently long view. Eventually the Sun will consume the last of its hydrogen and expand into a red giant, probably blasting the Earth to its constituent atoms as it does so. But that’s quite a long way off, so we don’t worry about that. In the shorter but still decently long term, even if no more uranium deposits are found (although they will be) and no more efficient ways of using it developed (although they will be), “total identified resources are sufficient for over 100 years of supply”, according to the IAEA. That ain’t nothing.

“Carbon neutral” is a bit of a red herring as well in this case. It’s true, nuclear power is not carbon neutral. But it’s much less carbon positive, if that makes sense, than fossil fuels. The perfect is the enemy of the good, as the saying goes: just because something isn’t the best possible, doesn’t mean you should ignore it if it’s an improvement over what is available. Furthermore, there is potential to improve the carbon emissions of nuclear; if it is made economically attractive to do so, companies will do it themselves. Targeted carbon taxes, or an auction of carbon credits, would work; certainly the latter did for industrial sulphur dioxide emissions.

But this is all a side issue, isn’t it? It’s about safety. Nuclear power is unsafe. Look at Chernobyl, look at Three Mile Island, look at Fukushima. It’s dangerous, as the Greens say, and its cost, dangers and waste will be “passed on to future generations”.

But as Prof Paddy Regan says in our paper today, that’s false. Chernobyl killed about 50 people (28 people in the immediate weeks after; an estimated 19, according to the WHO, died of radiation-induced cancers in the following 20 years). Three Mile Island killed, and indeed harmed, precisely nobody. And Fukushima was the most ridiculous of all: as a vast earthquake and tsunami killed 15,000 people, the world’s attention was focused on a meltdown in a 40-year-old reactor which, again, killed no one at all. As Prof Regan points out, it led to absurdities:

The Italian foreign ministry, for example, recommended that its citizens flew out of Tokyo to avoid potential radiation exposure in the first couple of weeks following the Fukushima leak. While the radiation levels in the Japanese capital rose significantly above normal, they remained lower than the typical average background radiation levels in Rome, leading to the bizarre situation of individuals being relocated to places with higher radiation levels than those they were leaving.

He also points out that the waste from the “natural reactor” at Oklo in Gabon, which underwent a spontaneous nuclear reaction in its uranium-rich deposits two billion years ago, has moved less than 10 metres from where it was formed. “If this is what happens in nature’s random geological disposal site, a carefully chosen, geologically stable deep storage facility for vitrified nuclear fuel waste would seem safe to me,” says Prof Regan. Meanwhile, in the last 40 years, tens of thousands of people have been killed by failures at hydroelectric dams; hundreds more have died in coal mines, and of course thousands every year in the US alone from respiratory problems caused by fossil fuels. But the fear of “radiation”, evident in the nonsense scares about “electrosmog”, trump the very real dangers of other energy sources. (There’s another interesting piece to write some day about our evolved fear of “contamination”; since the 1940s or so “radiation” has been mentally filed under “poisons”, and therefore any at all is bad. But this piece is long enough already.)

The “precautionary principle”, the idea that a new technology or policy should not be employed until we can be sure it is safe, sounds very reasonable. But as always, it’s more complicated than that. Everything we do entails not doing something else; in this case, not using nuclear, in the short term at least, means more coal, more shale gas, more fracking, to maintain energy demands (and cutting energy use would cause its own problems, of course). Is that safer? Nuclear power has risks, of course it does. But so does everything, and nuclear power has clear potential benefits. The trick is to calmly and sensibly assess those risks and benefits, not pull up the drawbridge out of misguided fear.


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