After Fukushima, almost every country with nuclear power stations paused to consider its position. France and Japan announced plans to reduce their dependence on nuclear energy; Germany, Italy and Switzerland renounced it altogether. China put its plans on hold until they could be reassessed (Fukushima Fallout, SiS 51).
The response of the UK was completely different. Only a day or two after the tsunami, when the situation was spiralling out of control and no one could know what the consequences would be, the government got together with the nuclear industry, not to consider what lessons could be learned from the events at Fukushima but to put out propaganda to allay any fears the public might have. In an email from the Department of Business, Industry and Skills dated 13 March (the tsunami struck on 11 March) we read We need to ensure the anti-nuclear chaps and chapesses do not gain ground on this. We need to occupy the territory and hold it.
The campaign continues. If you go to a meeting on energy, on sustainability or on climate change, you are almost certain to find a speaker confidently proclaiming that nuclear energy is both perfectly safe and the only way we can keep the lights on without destroying the planet.
To put things in perspective, according to the nuclear industry, nuclear power plants provided 13.5 percent of the worlds electricity production in 2010, compared with close to 20 % of the global electricity delivered by renewable energies in the same year. In total energy terms, renewable energies accounted for 16 % of the global energy consumed, whereas nuclear energy accounted for only 5.2 %. Obviously, nuclear energy is not the way to keep the lights on, and it could well destroy the planet with toxic and radioactive nuclear wastes; while the potential for solar and wind alone have barely been tapped (see Green Energies - 100% Renewable by 2050, ISIS/TWN publication).
As for safety, apart from the pile up of nuclear wastes, there have been major incidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima; and less well known ones at Windscale in the UK, and many other places. But the lobbyists are doing their best to convince us that none of these were serious enough. George Monbiot, for example, insists that the number of deaths due to Chernobyl was at most 58 , when even official sources estimate thousands (see The Truth about Chernobyl, SiS 47). And according to the President of the Royal Society of Chemistry the public is only worried about nuclear energy because of the grim way it is presented in film and television dramas. Lets say yes to nuclear and no to Dr Nos nonsense, he writes.
And with regard to economics, nuclear plants are notorious for coming in very late and massively over budget, which is why so few have been built in Europe and the USA over the past twenty or so years (see The Real Cost of Nuclear Power, SiS 47). The two currently under construction, at Ulkiluoto and Flamanville, are doing no better. No country has yet solved the problem of how to dispose of radioactive waste so no one knows how much this will add to the cost. The estimated cost to the UK taxpayers of dealing with the waste that has already been generated was £73 billion in 2008 and rising (see The Nuclear Black Hole and other articles in the series, SiS 40).
The evidence on both safety and cost is clear and we and others have been bringing it to everyones attention for a long time (see for example Close-up on Nuclear Safety, SiS 40). That hasnt stopped the lobbyists, of course. They insist that it can be safe and cheap, Just look at France.
Whatever the UKs experience of nuclear power may have been, we have only to look across the Channel to see an example of success, or so we are told. In response to the 1973 oil crisis, France, which has very little in the way of fossil fuel resources, committed itself to nuclear power. Today it has 58 reactors in operation and these produce over three quarters of the countrys electricity and allow it to be the worlds largest exporter of electricity as well. And whatever problems other countries may have had, the French, well known for their skill in dealing with advanced technology, have done this safely and cost effectively.
It is certainly true that France has a lot of nuclear reactors; that it relies heavily on nuclear power and exports electricity to its neighbours; and that so far it has not had a major disaster.
It is also true, however, that the French nuclear industry is a continuing financial and ecological disaster, despite the fact it has received massive hidden subsidies from the taxpayer. It is wildly over-capacity, with the result that it must export electricity cheaply to other countries when demand is least and buy it back at expensive prices (at net loss) when demand is high, and shut down production over the weekend for good measure. The French government has done its best to encourage the French to squander electricity for water and space heating; a thermodynamic nightmare as far as efficiency is concerned. The truth is that some 73 % of final energy in France is actually provided by fossil fuels; and still three million households are cold in winter and considered to be in fuel poverty.
And while they have not experienced anything on the scale of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl or Fukushima, they have had their share of incidents serious enough that they and their neighbours should be quite worried. The French government had also done its best to conceal the radiation levels from the Chernobyl accident from its own citizens.
To expose these French nuclear myths, we have enlisted the help of Susie Greaves who lives in France and has followed the nuclear industry closely for many years. She will dispel any illusion you may have that the French experience should encourage the UK or any other country to rely on nuclear energy in the future (see French Nuclear Power Not Safe, and The True Costs of French Nuclear Power, SiS 53).
Over the past year or so, the lobbyists have been attacking the report of Yablokov and his colleagues on the estimates of deaths associated with Chernobyl. This actually represents progress, because until recently they simply ignored it.
There is one particular argument we find especially worrying: the lobbyists criticise Yablokov for conflating the figures for cancer with those relating to other conditions. As the latter are not known to be associated with radiation, they say, this gives a false picture. In fact, anyone who actually reads the report will find that Yablokov deals with the two in separate sections. He provides a clear estimate of about 250 000 deaths due to cancers.
Cancer is by no means the only disorder that can be caused by radiation. Birth defects are another, and many of the data cited in the report are concerned with children. To give just one example, the Lothian region of Scotland received more radiation than most of the rest of the UK, and there were significantly more babies born there with Down syndrome in 1987, the year after Chernobyl.
Even if a condition is generally accepted to have some other primary cause, radiation can contribute to it, for example by accelerating its progress or preventing the body from combating it effectively. This raises a very important issue. Chernobyl was a disaster, but it was also in effect a potentially very important experiment. Yablokov and his coworkers collected data from a very large number of small regions, many in the former Soviet Union, some in other countries. They were able to compare the incidence of many conditions in areas that had experienced high levels of radiation with similar areas that had not. For a whole range of diseases that have not been considered to be linked to exposure to radiation, there is now epidemiological evidence to suggest that they are.
That does not constitute a proof of cause and effect, just as the work of Doll and Bradford Hill did not prove that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer. But it is a strong indication that there is a connection, and it should be the starting point for more research. Instead, in their anxiety to discredit the Yablokov report and so conceal the true scale of the Chernobyl disaster international agencies including the WHO are deliberately ignoring a unique set of data that could lead to a better understanding of many diseases and of the dangers of ionising radiation. That is unconscionable.
Article first published 17/02/16
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