How Safe is Nuclear Power?

Have the dangers of nuclear power been exaggerated and nuclear power is actually the safest power source?

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It has become popular in recent years particularly due to activists such as Michael Shellenberger to claim Nuclear power is really safe and that the outcome of accidents such as Chernobyl was been greatly exaggerated.

Who should we believe in this debate? To make some quotes from different sides on the argument.

From the Guardian:

In a series of reports about to be published, they will suggest that at least 30,000 people are expected to die of cancers linked directly to severe radiation exposure in 1986 and up to 500,000 people may have already died as a result of the world’s worst environmental catastrophe.

But the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and World Health Organization have a very different take on the matter:

only 50 deaths can be directly attributed to the disaster, and that, at most, 4,000 people may eventually die from the accident on April 26 1986.

This has been the dominating account that people like Shellenberger have pushed. But a lot of this account does not add up. Nikolai Omelyanets, deputy head of the National Commission for Radiation Protection in Ukraine says:

Studies show that 34,499 people who took part in the clean-up of Chernobyl have died in the years since the catastrophe. The deaths of these people from cancers was nearly three times as high as in the rest of the population.

IAEA and WHO have apparently provided no explanation for this anomaly. They have just ignored it.

In the Rivne region of Ukraine, 310 miles west of Chernobyl, doctors say they are coming across an unusual rate of cancers and mutations

Nearly one in three of all the newborn babies have deformities, mostly internal,” said Alexander Vewremchuk, of the Special Hospital for the Radiological Protection of the Population in Vilne.

What to make of this? Why such different conclusions. My impression is that the IAEA and WHO are looking at the Ukraine population as a whole. In such a large group the effects of Chernobyl will be dwarfed by all sorts of other problems caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

However it seems when you look at specific populations, e.g. those involved in cleanups or close to the fallout area such as the Rivne region you see major anomalies. To me this seems more credible.

When the whole society changes, you cannot compare that whole population to what could have been. It makes more sense to use that population as the standard, and measure sub populations within against this population. Those most exposed to Chernobyl should be measured against those people not as clearly exposed.

The other aspect is what proof do you need? If people keep dying ever time a suspected mass murderer is present in an area, it is reasonable to suspect him being the cause. But that does not mean that one necessarily has enough proof to put him in prison. You got to have technical evidence.

However in such a situation it would be crazy to rule out that the mass murderer is the cause of all excess death, simply because we don’t have the DNA evidence, finger prints etc.

Chernobyl seems to be a similar case. Finding the smoking gun is hard, but the frequency of anomalies means there is a very high probability that Chernobyl is to blame.

A problem with the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is that the organizations stated goal is to promote the use of nuclear energy. Can we expect an organization with such a mandate to give a fair assessment of the outcome of Chernobyl?

They have received a number of criticism. Meanwhile it is not like organizations such as Greenpeace does not have an agenda as well. To promote environmental issues, they will often exaggerate.

My personal position is that there are too many things which have not been explained properly to draw solid conclusions. The difficulty of reaching a conclusion is IMHO a case against nuclear power.

We poorly understand the effects of radiation. We cannot easily see it.

Since I originally wrote this story, my position on nuclear power has shifted some. I am still skeptical, but I wrote this article on rethinking nuclear power. Basically my current stance is that it does not make sense to be against all forms of nuclear power. I prefer that we focus on renewable energy, but based on everything I have learned about Small Modular Reactor and Micro Modular Reactors, these will be safe enough and can actually complement renewable power very well, because they can load-follow very well. In essence they can work as batteries, thus deal with the intermittence of renewable energy.

It is healthy to be skeptical to nuclear power, but it is also unreasonable and close minded to not listen to some of the arguments made on the other side. To be clear, I don’t think the problem here is primarily the renewable energy crowd being close minded. I think all fans tend to be insular. Most nuclear fans I interact with on social media are quite dismissive of renewable energy.

But reality is often somewhere in the middle. Nuclear fans have to accept that renewable energy isn’t going away any time soon. It is already a big part of the energy mix in many countries, and will continue to take a bigger share.

At the same time renewable fans have to accept that not every single nuclear reactor design is bad and dangerous. Nor can we simply assume that problem of intermittence of renewable power will be solved. Sure at the moment we can burn gas to deal with it, but that is not a long term solution.

Yes batteries may be our long term solution. I am hoping it will be. But we cannot know that for sure. It would be silly to exclude nuclear power as an option. Emerging small modular reactors from companies like Moltex use thermal storage to give up to 12 hours of energy storage. This may very well end up as the cheapest energy storage system.

Written by

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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