Nuclear energy: clean, reliable and powerful
Physicist Wade Allison expertly demolishes fears about radiation. If only he was equally as sceptical about the fear-fuelled climate-change panic.
This article is republished from the March 2011 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.
The coverage of events at the nuclear plant in Fukushima, Japan – where there have been problems with reactors and nuclear fuel stores after the earthquake and tsunami – has highlighted our society’s extreme sensitivity to all things nuclear. It seems you only have to mention radioactivity and the media goes into meltdown.
Wade Allison’s book, Radiation and Reason, is an attempt to alleviate those fears. First published in 2009, the book explains what radiation is, where it comes from, why it can be dangerous and why, in most situations, it is not. Allison is a nuclear and medical physicist at Keble College, Oxford. Having taught and researched elementary particle physics, he began teaching a course on applications of nuclear physics and became involved in research on medical imaging, eventually writing a book on radiotherapy aimed at physicists rather than medics.
Radiation and Reason came out of a concern that fears about radiation were getting in the way of exploiting nuclear power as a means of preventing climate change. ‘Because the subject involves nuclear physics and radiation on the one hand, and biology and medicine on the other, there aren’t many people who span both sides of that question’, he tells me. ‘So I decided I should stand up and be counted.’
As Allison notes in the preface to his book, ‘While it always seemed clear to me that radiation safety was somewhat alarmist and unbalanced, in earlier decades the apparent freedom to opt for fossil fuel as the primary source of energy meant that there was no special reason to confront public perceptions of the issue. But now the situation has changed’.
A central element of the book, in terms of radiation and safety, is a discussion of whether or not there is a threshold at which point radiation is dangerous. For decades, the assumption has been that the risks followed a ‘linear, no threshold’ or LNT model. In other words, radiation starts causing harm even at very low levels and the health risks increase proportionately to the size of the dose. On that basis, we should be alarmed at any and every release of radioactivity into the environment and must take extraordinary precautions to prevent that from happening.
Allison argues that the evidence does not bear out this model. Instead, he argues that radiation is just one of many threats that our bodies face, which also include infections and poisonous chemicals, for which we’ve developed a variety of defence mechanisms. As long as we don’t face too many of these problems at the same time, these defence mechanisms can handle them. In Allison’s view, therefore, there is a radiation safety threshold.
Allison compares radiation to other forms of energy we experience, like sunshine, music and waves on the surface of water. ‘At low levels, many are quite harmless and even beneficial to life’, he writes. ‘Extreme levels can cause damage in almost every case – very loud music can damage hearing, and too much sun causes sunburn. However, a little sunshine is positively good for the skin by promoting the production of important vitamins. Similarly, music that is not too loud may be positive and uplifting.’
Most of the time, we’re only exposed to radiation in very small quantities. There is a natural background level we face all the time. About half comes from radon gas, a naturally occurring radioactive gas that is emitted from the tiny amount of uranium present in many rocks. About 12 per cent comes from cosmic rays and 13 per cent from gamma rays (also from rocks). About 15 per cent, on average, is medical – from x-rays, CT scans and radiotherapy. Just under 10 per cent is ‘internal’. That is, it comes from within us because the food we eat contains a tiny amount of radioactive isotopes and becomes part of our bodies. We are irradiating ourselves.
Allison is quite clear that none of these things is a problem. Indeed, doses of radiation given in the treatment of cancer can be very large but, properly targeted, should kill cancer cells without harming normal tissue beside it.
So how does that compare with big incidents like the explosions at Chernobyl or Fukushima? Allison argues that while the cumulative doses received by workers at Chernobyl or those living in the regions around the plant were significant, for the most part they were received over a long period of time, allowing their bodies to deal with the ill-effects. Even after the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the number of additional deaths from cancer was surprisingly small. A study was conducted from 1950 onwards of the bomb survivors and just 0.7 per cent of them died from cancers relating to radiation exposure from the bomb.
A more level-headed approach to radiation would have benefits beyond the question of nuclear power. As Allison writes, ‘a relaxed radiation safety regime would have benefits in diagnostic imaging, where current limits too easily discourage patients from accepting procedures that would be in their best interest’.
But Allison’s overriding concern is climate change. If we keep on using fossil fuels, he argues, we will heat up the planet and cause far more harm than would ever be possible from nuclear power. Allison argues that we need to avoid economic instability, but we also need to avoid climate change. ‘Either of these could lead to widespread unrest and political turmoil, if the right choices are not made now.’ He continues: ‘Prosperity without carbon emissions implies a comprehensive switch in our sources of energy… there are many solutions – wind, tidal, solar, improved efficiency – but the most powerful and reliable source is nuclear.’
Nuclear should indeed be taken very seriously as part of our energy future. Allison is right to stress its reliability and safety. It is also very clean. While fossil-fuel energy sources dump their millions of tons of waste products into the atmosphere, the amount of nuclear waste is very small and solid. It might be dangerous, but it is at least all in one place to be managed.
The trouble is that Allison’s argument pits one scary prospect – climate change – against another – nuclear meltdown. While Allison concludes that the solution is to embrace nuclear, others will take the view that both fossil fuels and nuclear should be avoided and that we should simply live with having less energy in the future. At the very least, given the incapacity of governments actually to make a decision and stick to it, we could be in a situation where decisions are simply constantly put off and this could have dire consequences.
For example, for decades, UK governments have rejected nuclear power, preferring to talk up wind. But with many British nuclear stations on their last legs and wind power clearly not up to the job of providing the massive amounts of reliable, low-carbon energy the country needs, opposition to nuclear has been replaced with tepid acceptance. Even then, there is a threat of a supply shortfall emerging before nuclear power plants can be built. The problems at Fukushima have now created further delay in that process. There is a distinct possibility of some users being asked to do without electricity from time to time in the next few years.
The behaviour of the German government is even more striking. Having decided, just a few months ago, to extend the life of the country’s ageing nuclear reactors, the CDU / FDP coalition panicked after events in Japan and took some of these plants offline – despite claiming that these plants were among the safest in the world. Even China, which has been very enthusiastic about nuclear, seems to be talking about scaling back plans for further reactors. While governments flip-flop in this manner, a sensible energy policy is impossible.
It would be far better to make a positive case for nuclear: that we are going to need lots of energy in the future – far more than we use now – and we will need to take advantage of all of the potential sources of power. Nonetheless, Radiation and Reason is well worth reading as a rebuttal of the scary claims made about nuclear.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.