The devil or the deep blue sea – our nuclear conundrum

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.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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9 Responses to The devil or the deep blue sea – our nuclear conundrum

  1. Thatcher says:

    Well argued, case well made. I’ve been anti-nuclear even longer than I’ve been pro-environment and I never really had much cause to doubt but that the nuclear industry is as much a part of the problem as the coal/oil sector. In fact, I’ve always lumped them in together and if anything, reckoned nuclear was the worst of the lot. The facts are clearly changing and I am adjusting (slowly, very slowly, this is not easy!) to the fact that I may need to completely rethink this one. Thanks for your lucid, non-preachy piece above. I accept that you’re not taking sides, are that you’re at least as committed an environmentalist as I am, and that’s why I’m prepared to listen to you and take some of what you say on board.

    Look forward to hearing more thoughts from other people on this. I quite like the idea of the environmental movement swinging in behind a greener/safer/non-uranium “ultra-low carbon” alternate energy plan. If it’s for real, we may need to rebrand thorium technology as “eco-clear” energy, I know it sounds corny, but language is important and selling ideas is the name of the game.

  2. windyarbour (@indyarbour) says:

    You focus in on the cancer statistics of direct survivors but you are readily ignoring the horrific birth defects experienced within the region. Why? They are directly related to the chernobyl disaster which has turned the area around the plant into a wasteland.

    The benefits of nuclear fission are outweighed by the potential impacts of a disaster such as was seen in chernobyl.
    Where failure is not an option, failure has occured twice. I believe the price of fission is too high to pay.

    Despite any technical difficulties, any emphasis on creating nuclear power for electricity production should be focused on development of fusion reactors or any solution which does not produce “apocalyptic” radioactive waste which renders the world uninhabitable.

    A reliable energy source which can spare the earth from global warming needs to be found but nuclear fission is not the answer.

  3. Aldas Nabazas says:

    let’s see what science has to say :

    Alternative? ever heard about abundance? no?

  4. Aldas Nabazas says:

    @Adam Smith

    When you meet another person what kind of questions arise in your mind?

    What’s my point? My point here is very simple: try to document everything you are thinking and then analyzing it. You will notice straight away that over 90% of it is just simple crap. Yes, George has the point and he’s trying to catch Helen on her words and it seems he’s succeeding. If you think that I am blindly following Helen , than please, think again, because my point of bringing her video was nuclear waste. Nobody wants to talk about nuclear waste. It would be really great if we could eat it and shit let’s say chocolate. Brilliant huh? unfortunately it doesn’t work this way.

    But before someone opens the mouth , please hear me out:
    If you want to build nuclear reactor in your backyard – please go ahead.
    If you want to kill yourself – please go ahead.
    If you want to chop of your arm and run in circles screaming – please go ahead.
    I have no problems with it. Why? Because every single one of us have a free will and we create/shape (electromagnetism) our own reality and we get what we deserve (gravity).
    If you say something , you are 100% correct.
    If John says something – he is 100% correct.
    If George says something – he is 100% correct.
    If Helen says something – she is 100% correct.
    I live on this planet for more than 34 years and I have never met a person I agree 100%.

    and finishing with George Monbiot he said: “You know you have only one life.” Question: “Can you kill consciousness?”

    P.S. If someone wants to talk about the need of more energy , then please show me your bills, I will show mine and then we will talk.


  5. John Gibbons says:


    Do you imagine the Chernobyl Forum “ignored” cases of birth defects associated with Chernobyl, and if so, why, exactly? The totality of deaths and negative health consequences have been closely studied. Mothers exposed to radiation in their first trimester are vulnerable to birth defects, some severe. Many early term pregnancies were aborted post-April 1986. As for birth defects subsequently, there is no evidence of the epidemic you allude to above, and we’ve had 25 years of observations to draw on. The survivors of Hiroshima/Nagasaki have been intensely studied and followed up for decades. Short-term horrific defects? Yes. Longer term epidemic of defects? No. And we have 70 years’ evidence here.

    These are the facts, and I’m sorry if they don’t fit with your assumptions. Facts can be uncooperative at times. Finally, the “wasteland” surrounding Chernobyl is now one of Europe’s richest zones of biodiversity. Animals other than humans have no bother coping with elevated radiation levels. Birds nest and breed in and around the remains of Reactor 4. The world is in the process of being rendered uninhabitable by the untrammelled burning of fossil fuels, not radiation. No need to conjur up imaginary threats; there are very real ones to worry about.

  6. John Gibbons says:


    Adam Smith addressed your initial comment; I have no idea what your last posting is about. You’ve had a few runs at making your point and so let’s leave it at that.

  7. Aldas Nabazas says:

    @John Gibbons

    You call it addressing? I call it ‘active slavery’ – when person relies on (obeys) someone’s opinion.

    So you have no idea what I am talking about. Not a problem let me help you:
    I take responsibility for what I think.
    I take responsibility for what I say.
    I take responsibility for what I do.
    Do you?
    If you look around you you will notice one simple thing. The majority of people don’t care about this planet, all they care is their lifestyle.
    But yes, I am sorry, you are correct, lets bury our heads in the sand and pretend nothing happened, and on top of that lets erase words freedom, abundance, unconditional love and etc. from vocabulary so we all can happily live in la la land.
    Good Luck.

    P.S. I am still waiting to talk to someone who shows his utility bills (electricity and gas). Common , what are you hiding? what are you afraid of?
    In your previous post “More power to us if we choose nuclear option” you said – “Guts are good, but brains are even better. We’re going to need both.” Yes, I totally agree with you, as we constantly keep ignoring the heart, let’s just have a surgery and cut it off. Wait! I have a better idea. Let’s just keep ignoring the heart so eventually it will atrophy naturally and the money we will save on surgery we spend on new i*crap, yay, clap clap clap.
    The strange thing is I understand you, you remind me myself 7 years ago and I have one thing to share with you and others – it’s never too late until you cross the point of no return.

  8. John Gibbons says:

    Good night and good luck. I let that last one up to see if a shred of sense could be extracted from it. I won’t be posting anything else of yours. Sorry about that.

  9. TomK1 says:

    Thanks for writing this, we recently had a Cork Skeptics meeting on Nuclear Energy, by prof. McInerney head of Physics UCC, he outlined the scientific facts not the myths. He explained what happened in Chernobyl, why no civilians should of died, if the Russians gave out Iron pills and told people not to eat contaminated food, instead the people where told the food was safe.

    Small levels of radiation is safe, but not to eat like smarties.

    People say the land is a waste-land which is false, third & forth generation animals there have no ill effects.

    At our meeting one person who was anti-nuclear for decades, said he was angery when he learnt first hand that the leaders of an anti-nuclear group he was involved, had no facts to support their cause, they had blatently lied spreading ‘fear of nuclear’

    Ireland should go Nuclear fast, allow research to create jobs here or just for Irish to leave Ireland and work in France, England, Scotland in their Nuclear industry…where Ireland is buying electric from (airtricity).

    btw more people in England die of the cold every year because they cannot afford the cost to heat their home, than people dying due to past Nuclear mis-management, no figures for how many die from breathing disorders due to the toxic waste released by coal-power stations.

    Also I once was against N-power untill I learnt real facts. New nuclear is nothing like (model-T cars) reactors.

    Imagine it’s nearly a hundred years since the first reactor test, and Ireland is still using Iron-age fuels.

    Plug watch out vid on youtube 🙂

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