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Dr Lovelock, or, How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love Nuclear Energy

November 13, 2009

nuclear mushroom

I’m thinking dirty thoughts. Naughty, wicked, dirty thoughts. Behind these innocent blue eyes I’m thinking about something so dirty it would need to be locked up in a specially made container for thousands of years before it was safe to release. So dirty, it’s nuclear.

Nuclear energy is a funny one isn’t it? It sort of resides, along with paedophiles, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter and Roger Moore’s turn as James Bond, in the box in our brain labelled “Wrong and bad – no more analysis needed.” And so we don’t try and analyse it. With so many other more pressingly ambiguous issues keeping us up at night – like string theory and Lady Gaga’s gender, it has been easy enough to let nuclear energy waft quietly along in the same paradigm it has existed in for the last half a century. Safe in the knowledge that teenage activists the world over were keeping its, obviously, evil growth in check.

But lately something odd has started to happen. Greenies, greenies so green it makes your teeth hurt, have been coming out in support of nuclear energy as a way to combat climate change. There have of course always been people lobbying in favour of nuclear energy but we somehow automatically intuit that they are as untrustworthy and self serving as David Cameron in bicycle shorts. Even when various scientific agencies talk about it being the best available low carbon energy solution it’s hard to swallow. However when people like James Lovelock, one of history’s towering environmentalists, who spent most of his career being ridiculed for his theory that earth is a living being, comes out all guns blazing in support of nuclear energy then perhaps it is time for a small revision of the facts.

For a start, how many people died as a result of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986? The worst nuclear accident the world has ever seen. Flick back through your memory and have a quick guess. 1000? 5000? 30000? Or how about 56? This number seems incongruous with all the news reports we watch and poignant articles we read in the Sunday papers which seem to suggests that great swathes of the population of Eastern Europe, and their offspring, are still being struck down by the never ending effects of the nuclear disaster.

Lovelock demands we look a little closer at the figures. There is indeed a direct link between radiation and harm done to humans which isn’t disputed at all. So he notes that it is entirely possible to make a completely true claim like ‘400,000 deaths will be caused by exposing the entire population of Europe to ten millisieverts of radiation’.

But the fact that people die is not important – what is important is when they die. 10 millisieverts will indeed cause you to die – approximately four days before the end of your natural lifespan. Which, let’s be honest, makes the original figure a great deal less dramatic. On average, radiation from Chernobyl reduced the lifespan of all the people living in Northern Europe by 1-3 hours. That’s right, 1-3 hours lost from your life. The average Californian looses 70 hours a year to being stuck in traffic. A multi agency study of those areas and people directly affected by the accident, published in 2006, concluded that “there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure 14 years after the accident. There is no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality or in non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure.” This suggests that our deep and unwavering fear of the danger of radiation is ever so slightly, slightly misguided. It also suggests that a nice, kind, person needs to have a little chat with California about this new fangled invention called public transport but that’s another story.

What is even more fascinating is the thought provoking mental leap Lovelock then makes about dealing with what is, arguably, the most contentious aspect of nuclear energy – the radioactive by-products. Lovelock actually suggests that we should locate the areas of nature most in need of conservation and then dispose of nuclear waste in those locations. Yes you read that correctly, no it wasn’t a typo. And he is absolutely serious. Google earth your albino tigers and silver backed gorillas and bang – X marks the spot for a little radioactivity. What’s more it’s not actually as completely bloody insane as it first appears. The fact we have such an irrational fear of radioactive material combined with its relatively minor side affects means that it is an excellent mechanism for preserving nature from humanities unstoppable ravaging and outright destruction of the environment. Although Lovelock has offered to store a year’s worth of the UKs nuclear waste under his house he believes it is that safe, most people get a bit paranoid schizophrenic about being anywhere near it, which makes it a highly effective deterrent. And as human beings are far more of a threat to the environment than a little nuclear waste in Lovelocks eyes, it’s a perfect solution.

Now being part of a generation that grew up with Springfield’s three eyed fish and the glowing green isotopes stowed away in the shirt of TVs favourite four fingered hero, nuclear energy as environmental protector seems deeply counter intuitive to me personally. But maybe I need to get over that a little bit, as nuclear energy, in reality it is very little more than the outcome of a few cute atoms bumping into some spunky little neutrons, indeed, it is a naturally occurring phenomena. But then again cyanide, hemlock and arsenic are all naturally occurring so that’s not really much to toot your horn about is it?

I should note at this point that having petulantly spurned proper education for degrees in useless things like politics and law, I am in no way positioned to either confirm or disavow Lovelocks take on nuclear safety – although I admit that it does seem to hold some water. But I think we can agree generally that unless someone gets all Hiroshima on our asses again (and let’s be honest these days there are lots more novel ways to cause that sort of mass devastation) the worst possible threat nuclear energy represents is another Chernobyl or another 56 deaths.

Now I’m sure those 56 people didn’t particularly appreciate being dead but it’s time for a little perspective. Over 300,000 people die from climate change every year. And 99% are in developing countries. So here is the rub. Even if we were guaranteed a Chernobyl sized accident every year, something not even the most ardent anti-nuclear activists would argue is likely, do we have the right to opt out of nuclear energy?

In so much as we are the major contributors to climate change, the effects of which will disproportionately affect developing countries – do we have the right to disregard nuclear power because of the small danger it may or may not pose to us in some hypothetical situations? Especially when the fact of the matter is, climate change poses very real and very predictable dangers to people in developing countries.By demanding the right to live in nuclear free zones, while doing precious little else to reduce our carbon output, are we in fact equating the lives of just 56 developed world citizens with the literally hundreds of thousands of deaths of developing world citizens?

An old Chernobyl joke goes like so: “How do you make chicken Kiev? Well, first you heat the city to 400 degrees….” The irony these days is by not giving nuclear energy a truly critical appraisal, we are effectively dooming not just one city, but the entire planet.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. cabbageeater permalink
    November 13, 2009 4:09 pm

    I am completely gob smacked and speechless, there is so much I want to say about this article…I think I’ll start with – are you fucking kidding me??? I find this article highly offensive and misleading! (NO offense Edwina – I still think you rock but I want to kick Lovelock’s teeth in – or alternately LET HIM bury nuclear waste under his home!!)

    First – Most of the findings quoted are taken completely out of context of the full report. The ‘key findings’ you’ve highlighted are exactly those published on the World Nuclear Association website, who purportedly are ‘representing the people and organizations of the global nuclear profession’. That’s like me believing studies that smoking is actually GOOD for you – no really, 10-15 cigarettes a day can IMPROVE your health! – funded by the Phillip Morris. Well, if they say so it must be true right?

    I digress, but perhaps some more snippets from the study might be of interest – like the fact that an area of more than 200 000 km2 in Europe was contaminated, and hundreds of thousand of people had to be evacuated and forced to move – causing irreparable social and community damage – but you know what, fine, who cares about a few hundred thousand refugees in eastern Europe right? Maybe you’ll be more interested to know that the Childhood thyroid cancer caused by radioactive iodine fallout is one of the main health impacts of the accident. “Doses to the thyroid received in the first few months after the accident were particularly high in those who were children at the time and drank milk (because the cows got radiated duh – but no one counts how many cows died do they?) with high levels of radioactive iodine. By 2002, more than 4000 thyroid cancer cases had been diagnosed in this group, and it is most likely that a large fraction of these thyroid cancers is attributable to radioiodine intake (note this group is only in the immediately surrounding areas – so not taking into account the 200,000 km2 radiation zone).

    I can go on and on and on…but for REAL facts do turn to the study and have a read. Listing figures like 56 dead is irresponsible and claims like “The fact we have such an irrational fear of radioactive material combined with its relatively minor side affects means that it is an excellent mechanism for preserving nature from humanities unstoppable ravaging and outright destruction of the environment” are Just. Plain. Stupid.

    In case anyone else is ‘confused’, and thinking an accident like this one once a year is really no biggie – here are just a few sites which you can access online for some nice visuals:

    http://therearenosunglasses.wordpress.com/2009/10/31/chernobyl-birth-defects/

    http://www.kiddofspeed.com/chernobyl-revisited/chapter7.html (photo essay)

    http://erikpemberton.org/2008/12/24/chernobyl-childrens-project-international/ (really nice photo of a cow)

    http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2008/04/meltdown_at_chernobyl_nuclear.php

    In sum – though trust me I would like to go on and on about this but my work colleagues are noticing I’m getting a little worked up here in my cubicle…nuclear energy is THE MOST RETARDED solution to environmental degradation. EVER.

  2. einsteinsdreams permalink*
    November 24, 2009 10:01 pm

    Ok my first point is essentially I don’t entirely disagree with you. But where as before I would have been whole heartedly on your side, having done some research I feel that the issue has become a bit more ambiguous in my eyes. All the statistics seem like comparing apples and oranges.

    Take nuclear waste – you can find statistics that say that the amount of nuclear waste per capita over a lifetime if all their energy came from nuclear sources would fit into a coke can. Versus the square miles of carbon that would need to be sequestered (something which they haven’t really totally perfected yet either) But generally nuclear waste seems to be more intensely bad than carbon emission. Small and very bad v large and not quite so bad. Apples and oranges.

    If you read the report Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Booklets/Chernobyl/chernobyl.pdf which was authored by the Chernobyl forum which is made up of the IAEA, WHO, UNDP, FAO, UNEP, UN-OCHA, UNSCEAR, and the World Bank and the governments of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine (all of whom i would have no trouble believing would lie through their teeth separately but probably aren’t cooperative enough to lie together coherently) they make a few observations.

    Of the 600,000 people who were most exposed to radiation- those who helped clean up the site known as ‘liquidators’ the possible increase in cancer is thought to be at most an additional 4000 deaths in addition to the 100,000 fatal cancers to normally be expected in this group.

    Among the 5 million residents in the near by areas increases in cancer mortality are thought to be less than one percent.

    Yes 4000 children or adolescents got thyroid cancer – but when caught early it isn’t fatal – only 15 (or possibly 9 depending on who you believe) died.

    And this is my whole point about the reporting of the issue. Yes having cancer is bad, and personally i would rather opt for some cake and nice cup of tea if i had the choice – but 4000 children having cancer is not the same as 4000 children being dead.

    Whether we still think that 4000 cancers and 15 childrens deaths is too high a price to pay is entirely a different matter, and one that i am not entitled to make.

    But we cant have our carbon cake and eat it too. If we arent willing to drastically alter our lifestyles in the developed countries (which apparently we arent) what are we willing to do?

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