Daily Archives: March 31, 2011

Nuclear?

People are frightened of radiation. It conjures up fears of cancer and noone wants that. But most people have a very poor grasp of relative risk, and in any case are badly informed. The panic in Japan over the leaks there is partially justified of course, but it is still an order of magnitude more panicky than the risks deserve (for most people, not workers at the plant). And outside of Japan, any attempt at looking at the bigger picture seems to have been abandoned. To believe everyday media, nuclear is terrible and should never again be used anywhere ever under any circumstances. But the reality isn’t so bad.

Since it was first used, nuclear power has only killed a few thousand people, compared to millions killed by coal power and oil power and hundreds of thousands by hydro. In terms of deaths per gigawatt hour, (or years of life)  it is the safest energy source by a good margin. But radiation has been handled in media in such a way that people are now terrified of it far more then is really deserved. But politics has always been about perception, never reality. So now nuclear power is threatened even though it is still the safest and most environmentally friendly way of producing energy for the time being. The safety bar has been raised so far for it that it is too expensive to make, so other sources compare in the marketplace much better than they really ought.

This is bad news for the environment. If man is causing some of the climate change, and if it is CO2 related (as undoubtedly we are and some of it is, the main disagreement out there is on degree and mechanisms), then it will help to avoid generating any more CO2 than is necessary. Nuclear is a good option in that case. All the renewables have their own problems. Wind causes problems for birds, whales, humans and lots of other creatures and also disrupts weather patterns if scaled up. Historically, I have personally been in favour of solar photovoltaics, but solar panels absorbs more sunlight so they add to the overall albedo and cause warming directly as well as generating electricity. Estuary power causes obvious major ecosystem changes. Hydro-electric dams have often burst and killed lots of people. Bio-fuels increase food prices and cause extra deaths via increased poverty effects, beside leading to deforestation. Nuclear isn’t safe or green but then neither are the others.

But now the plot thickens. Because the risks of nuclear that were so clearly demonstrated in Japan are mainly associated with the use  of uranium or plutonium. But now the Chinese are working on thorium based nuclear. Thorium is much safer than other nuclear solutions used today. It can be used without many of the problems associated with today’s stations, waste disposal, meltdowns, leaks and lack of fuel. Thorium is relatively common (as common as lead) so won’t run out for many centuries (of course we will have better solutions still by even the end of this century). Various issues have prevented its adoption before in the West, but if China can make it work well, it may prove a valuable solution to clean energy, as well as solving some of the political issues with sourcing fuel, since it is available in many places.

However, if public perception of nuclear power overall cannot be improved, even thorium based power may not be politically acceptable. Sadly, many so-called environmentalists are so locked into anti-nuclear prejudice that it would be hard to see them ever changing their positions, and no amount of facts about environmental benefits will change that. While they hold influence, the environment seems doomed to suffer.

Advertisements