Twenty five years ago, in the early hours of April 26, 1986 a botched safety test led to a massive explosion at one of the four nuclear reactors at Chernobyl in Belarus. This was the world’s most serious nuclear event since the US air force dropped nuclear weapons on the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in August 1945.
In the quarter century since the Chernobyl disaster, a powerful narrative has built up to the effect that nuclear power is simply too dangerous to be used. Among the environmental community in Ireland and elsewhere, opposition to nuclear power became conflated with opposition to nuclear weapons. And who in their right minds would want but to limit the development and distribution of nuclear weapons?
For decades, we have been told over and over again that Chernobyl “proved” once and for all the case against nuclear power. It was against the long shadow cast by Chernobyl that the damage to the nuclear power station at Fukushima in Japan (after it had been hit by a massive earthquake followed by a mega-tsunami) seemed to trigger a tipping point in galvanising both public and political opinion to once and for all rid the world of the menace of nuclear power.
Nowhere has this been more clearly expressed than in Germany, with Chancellor Angela Merkel (a trained physicist) doing much of the running – a move that looked suspiciously like Merkel’s CDU attempting to block the rapid rise in the German Green party’s poll numbers, rather than a re-think of the science.
The BBC’s long-running ‘Horizon’ series has no counterpart in Irish journalism. Here, the editorial line is guided by scientific advice and it eschews shouting matches in favour of evidence-based research. Back in July 2006, Horizon took a long, hard look at the (then) 20th anniversary of Chernobyl and what the real story was. It examined claims by Greenpeace that the eventual death toll would be 100,000 (this proved to be entirely fact-free). By then, the verifiable death toll stood at 56, or less than the number of people who die on Britain’s roads every week.
I am old enough to well remember April 1986. The notion of invisible but deadly plumes of radiation sweeping across Europe was genuinely alarming, bordering on terrifying. People were scared, and naturally the media had a field day. Fear sells newspapers and boosts TV ratings like nothing else. All this is, I believe, not an unreasonable reaction. But as fear subsides, we have to look coldly at the facts, because fear is itself a corrosive pathogen that, over extended periods, can cause real and measurable harms. And if that fear turns out to be irrational, then these harms are being inflicted for no good reason.
Horizon used as its principal scientific source a grouping known as the Chernobyl Forum, an international confederation of scientific bodies, including several UN agencies. “When people hear of radiation they think of the atomic bomb and they think of thousands of deaths, and they think the Chernobyl reactor accident was equivalent to the atomic bombing in Japan which is absolutely untrue,” Dr Mike Repacholi, a radiation scientist with the World Health Organisation (WHO) told the BBC.
The 200,000 Japanese killed by nuclear weapons in 1945 died as a result of a combination of the effects of massive blasts and extremely high levels of radiation – running into thousands of millisieverts. In the case of Chernobyl, most people in the affected region received radiation doses below 200 millisieverts, a far lower radiation dose. The evidence from the Chernobyl Forum suggests it is insufficient to trigger the huge spike in cancers once widely predicted.
“Low doses of radiation are a poor carcinogen,” Professor Anton Brooks, who has spent 30 years studying the link between radiation and cancer, told Horizon back in 2006. “If you talk to anybody and you say the word radiation, immediately you get a fear response. That fear response has caused people to do things that are scientifically unfounded.”
One cancer that did most certainly spike as a result of the Chernobyl blast was cancer of the thyroid, a cancer to which children are most susceptible. Around 2,000 cases were identified arising from Chernobyl. The good news is that this is the most curable cancer of all, with a five-year survival rate better than 99.5%, meaning fewer than one in 200 people treated for thyroid cancer will die within the next five years. Thyroid cancer is also preventable by the timely distribution of iodine tablets (remember Joe Jacob’s tablets?), something the Soviet authorities, in their botched attempts at a cover-up, failed to do.
In the emotive language employed around ‘Chernobyl Children’ appeals, you will rarely hear anyone mention that the overwhelming majority of children who developed thyroid cancer survived and have grown up to be of normal health status and with no noticeable spike in birth defects or cancers among their offspring. For many of these children growing up, the fear of cancer and the stigma of being a labelled a ‘Chernobyl child’ may have been a far more real threat to their long-term health and well being.
To mark six months since Fukushima, and in light of the renewed surge in anti-nuclear lobbying, Horizon returned to this theme on Wednesday night, in a one-hour programme entitled: ‘How safe is nuclear power’, hosted by nuclear physicist Professor Jim Al-Khalili (no, he’s not a lobbyist for nuclear power, and no, he doesn’t work for the nuclear industry).
Over 80,000 people have been evacuated from the exclusion zone around Fukushima, yet the radiation levels in and around the plant right now are the equivalent of the added dose of radiation you would be exposed to by having two CT scans in a 12 month period. The respected environmental author and campaigner Mark Lynas put this into stark context in a recent article.
Quoting UN studies, Lynas argues that people living today in Tokyo could increase their life expectancy by moving into the Fukushima ‘exclusion zone’. Yes, this sounds outrageous, but that’s where the evidence points (the many carcinogenic risks associated with living in heavily urbanised areas easily pose a greater health risk than elevated background radiation found in the vicinity of either Chernobyl or Fukushima).
Engaging in scaremongering and ignoring science carries its own specific risks. The Chernobyl Forum made the unsettling finding that the mental health impact of Chernobyl was “the largest public health problem created by the accident” – a conclusion, Lynas continues, of great significance for Fukushima. “In particular, this suggests that ideologically-motivated anti-nuclear campaign groups – some of which continue to stir up scientifically unwarranted fear of radiation in the affected Japanese population – may increase the trauma of the displaced people, and worsen their mental and physical health as a result”
And here’s the rub. A few months back, Adi Roche, flanked by Ali Hewson (neither of them noted scientists) regaled the Late Late Show for a free run in apocalyptic scaremongering. RTE didn’t see fit to have anyone on the panel to address or challenge Adi Roche’s litany of factual errors and gross distortions, and, as usual, the host hadn’t a clue about the science and clearly hadn’t been briefed (or more likely, wasn’t interested). This is the ‘tear-jerker’ slot on the show, and why ruin a good yarn with some uncooperative facts?
Learning from Chernobyl and Fukushima is important. Both were serious incidents, yet thankfully the main lesson learned from Chernobyl is that humans (and other animals) can comfortably tolerate elevated background radiation levels with very little increased risk. (And if you truly believe in ‘zero cancer risk’, then you had better never eat red meat, live in a built-up area, drink alcohol or engage in a very long list of other unremarkable activities which will increase your lifetime risk of contracting a cancer, however marginally).
There is a profoundly serious flip-side to rejecting nuclear power, and that is: what exactly are the realistic alternatives? Germany’s 17 nuclear plants generate 140 terawatt-hours annually, or 22.5% of its electricity needs. Phasing them out by 2022, as is now mandated, means Germany replaces these missing terawatts by… commissioning new coal-burning plants. Its renewables program continues to impress, but is utterly peripheral in terms of producing the massive stable energy streams needed to power an advanced industrial country with 80 million people and heavy industries.
As Professor Al-Khalili explored in last night’s documentary, serious research into cleaner, safer and more efficient civilian nuclear energy options, such as thorium, was killed off by the politicians decades ago. As the Cold War raged, they were far more interested in uranium-based ‘dual-use’ technology that could be readily tweaked to supply weapons-grade plutonium. Any attempts at rehabilitating nuclear power have been stymied by genuinely well-meaning but misinformed environmentalists.
One extremely promising ‘greener’ alternative to uranium is thorium, but without intensive scientific research, we will most likely never get to find out. Ireland, perhaps uniquely in the world, has a statutory ban on even investigating our nuclear options – a legacy, not of some principled stance but rather, of political cute-hoorism and cynical Brit-bashing populism aimed at Sellafield. This ban has not, however, prevented Ireland importing nuclear-generated energy from the UK via the interconnectors.
Renewables and energy efficiency will remain significant but overall small players for at least the next 50 years. The ever-expanding energy demands of industrial civilization ensure that. But 50 more years of ever-increasing dependence on fossil fuels guarantees the collapse of the biosphere and a die-off of most species, including humans, on a scale far beyond the worst nightmares you could conjur up.
Time is short. Options are few. Right now, the choice appears to be between wishful thinking (renewables etc.) and near-certain ecocide (á la fossil fuels). There has to be a third way. Yes, it’s a bitter pill for many to swallow, but nuclear energy is not alone our least worst option, I firmly believe it’s humanity’s last throw of the dice.