Scientists need to educate the public over nuclear power safety
As the UAE’s permanent representative to the IAEA, Hamad Al Kaabi knows that what happened to Fukushima almost three years ago is critical to perceptions of his own country’s nuclear plans
When Hamad Al Kaabi set off for last week’s meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, a place 8,000 kilometres away is likely to have dominated his thoughts – Fukushima.
As the UAE’s permanent representative to the IAEA, Mr Al Kaabi will know that what happened to the Japanese facility is critical to perceptions of his own country’s nuclear plans.
The UAE's first reactors are now being built on the coast at Barakah, 300 kilometres west of Abu Dhabi city, by a South Korean consortium. If all goes to plan, around a quarter of the Emirates’ energy consumption will be met by nuclear power by 2020.
But the disaster at Fukushima cast a long shadow over the very idea of nuclear power. It remains second only to the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, but its implications are at least as serious.
What happened to the Ukrainian reactor was the result of a series of almost unimaginable human blunders. Its design was fundamentally flawed, making it susceptible to overheating. Its operators performed an unauthorised experiment that involved disabling its safety features.
And when the inevitable explosion took place, there was no “containment vessel” to prevent the radioactivity spreading far and wide.
In contrast, the Fukushima reactors were based on a tried and tested design, protected against both earthquakes and tsunamis, and had containment vessels.
Yet the “impossible” still happened. A devastating magnitude-9 earthquake struck this supposedly low-risk site on March 11, 2011.
Barely an hour later, a towering 14-metre tsunami struck, overwhelming the 10-metre seawall and swamping the reactors.
Acting together, these two natural phenomena succeeded in undermining the design safety features, leaving only the containment vessels to prevent utter devastation.
The lesson seems clear – when it comes to nuclear power, even the impossible cannot be ignored.
Anti-nuclear campaigners worldwide seized on the event. Last month saw demonstrations in Indonesia against plans to build more reactors, despite the power blackouts blighting the area.
Even a former chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission spoke out against nuclear energy. Gregory Jaczko, now at Princeton University, said last month that the lesson of Fukushima is that society is not willing to tolerate accidents that are beyond prediction.
And why should we? What happened at Chernobyl and Fukushima was appalling, and if the nuclear industry cannot prevent them happening again, should we not abandon nuclear energy?
It is into this heated debate that some cold facts need to be brought in. The most important of these is that there is a huge gulf between perceptions of the consequences of Chernobyl and Fukushima and the reality.
Ask people to estimate the numbers of deaths from the radiation released by the Chernobyl explosion and figures often soar into the thousands. In fact, it led to around 60 direct deaths, which, while tragic, is barely half the toll in Ukraine’s coal mines every year.
Thousands of extra cases of cancer were caused by the radiation released, but the “C-word” obscures the fact that these are almost entirely thyroid cancers – which are rarely fatal. To date, the number of fatalities from these long-term effects is around 15.
As for the horror stories of deformed babies and mass outbreaks of leukaemia, these have proved entirely unfounded. While cases of both have occurred, there is no evidence they are at anything other than the “background” level.
As a UN report into the health effects of Chernobyl put it: “Claims have been made that tens or even hundreds of thousands of persons have died as a result of the accident. These claims are highly exaggerated.”
It’s a similar story with Fukushima. When the almost unimaginable scenes of devastation appeared, media reports warned of vast numbers of radiation-related casualties.
Yet according to the official UN report, not one of the almost 25,000 workers involved suffered any acute effects from radiation.
As for longer-term effects such as thyroid cancer, these are likely to be so rare as to be undetectable against the general background.
Citing such statistics seems almost callous in the face of the undoubted suffering of those affected by these events. These people may not have been afflicted by the horrors invoked by campaigners, but they have unquestionably suffered severe mental anguish.
In both cases, fears of the radiation risk led to tens of thousands of people being moved from their homes. Their communities were broken up and their livelihoods destroyed. Parents feared for the health of their children and unborn babies.
Although these fears may have been unfounded, the consequences were anything but. Indeed, these constitute the real threat from a nuclear power disaster.
In the months following the Chernobyl disaster, doctors noticed a rise in the numbers of abortions in some European countries affected by the fallout. The IAEA estimated the total number of terminations at more than 100,000. Anxiety levels and rates of psychosomatic illnesses also soared.
The same has been seen in Fukushima. According to the Japanese government, more than 1,600 people have since died from causes “related to the disaster”, such as stress and even suicide. Fear of radiation can be far more devastating than radiation itself.
The failure of governments to tackle the misplaced fear of radiation is one of the greatest public health scandals of our time. It is leading to untold misery, even death, among thousands of people. If left unchecked, it could cause many more unnecessary deaths by robbing nations of a vital source of power.
The fact is that the world needs nuclear power, as there is no short-term alternative. For all its failings, it is still the most reliable high-density, low-carbon source of energy currently available.
Tragically, those failings have been grossly exaggerated. A reactor explosion is rare, but it feeds into our worst nightmares.
The failings of the alternatives – from gas explosions to deaths incurred during fossil-fuel extraction – are so routine they rarely make headlines.
Some deserve wider circulation: how many realise that the world’s coal-fired power stations dump a hundred times more radiation into the environment – via isotope-rich fly ash – than nuclear power stations?
Should we empty all homes around coal-fired stations? Of course not – the risk is trivial.
The risk of nuclear accidents should never be dismissed as trivial. The industry must learn the lessons of Chernobyl and Fukushima.
And we can do our part by recognising that with nuclear power, our biggest fear is fear itself.
Robert Matthews is visiting reader in science at Aston University, Birmingham
Updated: April 5, 2014 04:00 AM