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Joseph Mariathasan: Nuclear power – an update

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On Monday 12 November, Oxford University emeritus professor of physics Wade Allison will give a public talk at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology in Oxford, entitled “When fear kills: the case of nuclear energy”. His talk – and the arguments that are expressed – demand a wider audience than just Oxford medical students.

Allison, together with Anton van der Merwe, a professor at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, wrote a letter published in the Financial Times on 29 October making the case that policymakers should focus on building nuclear plants. The reasons are quite stark.

Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator at the FT had argued that, in order to minimise the risk of catastrophic climate change, net greenhouse gas emissions needed to be reduced rapidly to zero.

But, the academics ask, how may this be achieved with any confidence? It can’t be by relying on alternative energy sources, for two reasons. First, low energy density from alternative sources means that unfeasibly large – country-sized – installations of solar panels, wind farms and hydroelectric systems would be required. These would be immensely damaging to the environment.

Second – and, they argue, more serious – is the problem that alternative energy sources only provide an intermittent supply, which requires renewables to be backed up by carbon fuel generators. “No storage technology on the scale required to overcome this intermittency is available or likely,” Allison and Van der Merwe state.

While many would disagree with this view on the potential for large-scale electricity storage by batteries, this is a debate that needs to be undertaken more widely. There clearly is a role for alternatives such as wind and solar, and the more they can be used in an effective manner, the better for society. However, they are not a panacea for energy strategy and it is difficult to see how they can fully replace fossil fuels by themselves.

Fukushima Daiichi power plant

Credit: International Atomic Energy Agency

An inspector visits the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in 2013

The solution, say Allison and van der Merwe, is nuclear power. Particularly following the Tohoku earthquake in Japan in 2011 that damaged the Fukushima nuclear plant, this type of energy has had a bad press.

Wade Allison has devoted recent years to countering the nuclear ‘phobia’, not only in public but also among engineers, physicists, doctors and other scientists whose views are often hampered by the contrast between the physical and biological sciences.

His book Nuclear is for Life, published in 2015, makes the case for nuclear power by arguing that fear of radioactivity is absurdly high, given actual evidence of its health risks. The reasons are more to do with the history – the initial military-focused development of nuclear energy and the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – than actual science.

Allison has pointed out on numerous occasions that even the most catastrophic nuclear accidents, such as at Chernobyl and Fukushima, caused few deaths (43 following Chernobyl, none after Fukushima). This is clearly a much better safety record than fossil fuels: coal mining is notorious for the health hazards caused by particle emissions, quite apart from the thousands of deaths of workers in mines over the years.

The problem for nuclear power is that unjustified fear of radioactivity has resulted in onerous regulations, which in turn have made nuclear energy unnecessarily expensive. Society’s attitudes to acceptable levels of radiation are massively out of kilter with the reality of the risks and the behaviour of radiation damage on living things.

The current approach to the impact of radiation on life is based on a fallacy; namely the idea that the damage caused is a linear function of the exposure – if you double the exposure, the damage is doubled. Clearly, when exposures are large enough, people and animals die of radiation sickness. But what if the exposure is millions of times smaller, close to background levels of radiation or less?

Allison points out that the protection of life is statistical on two levels: those of cells and individual organisms. Natural selection has determined that protection against the effects of radiation damage is devolved to the cellular level and at low and moderate doses is essentially complete.

The current approach is the Linear No-Threshold (LNT) model of the relationship between radiation exposure and damage to health, which says a low dosage will cause commensurately less damage but still some damage. It leads to the conclusion that if millions of people are exposed to radiation, no matter how low a level, there is an expectation there will be a certain number of deaths arising directly from the radiation exposure, and the number will be a function of the dose.

This, says Allison, is completely false and has meant that the guiding principles of safety led to radiation levels being set within a small fraction of naturally occurring levels. This is unrelated to any risk, but comes from a political wish to say that the effects of radiation have been minimised.

Clearly, Allison’s views on the safety of nuclear power are controversial to many. Yet the arguments that he and Van der Merwe raise in their letter are so important to future energy strategy and the control of global warming that there needs to be a much wider appreciation of the true risks of nuclear power, and hence an appreciation of what the implications of the wider use of nuclear power would be.

For investors, that means nuclear power should not be written off as an investment opportunity. But before any investment can become attractive, there first needs to be a complete reappraisal of nuclear safety requirements in the light of actual scientific knowledge rather than post-war nightmares.

Perhaps entities such as the EU, through its initiative on sustainable finance, should be prepared to reappraise the economics of nuclear power in the light of safety requirements based on science fact, rather than science fiction.  

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  • Nuclear power station

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