Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Who's Afraid of Nukes? Not Me.

This is a good article on Persuasion about the safety issues surrounding nuclear power which are widely misunderstood. The problem with nukes is really about cost, which has both technical and political/regulatory aspects. Yet it is my distinct impression that the general hostility toward nukes among green activists and a large chunk of the left is really driven by safety concerns which, as the article shows, are vastly overblown.
Nuclear power deserves a fair hearing on the left. If the climate change problem is as large as most on the left believe, it makes no sense to rule out a potentially large source of (non-intermittent!) clean energy on specious safety grounds.
"Many experts believe that the world cannot approach zero-carbon emissions without the widespread use of nuclear power. Yet many in the public dread a nuclear accident or a terrorist attack on a reactor. How serious are these dangers?
First, some good news: A nuclear explosion using a power plant is impossible. The fuel is not enriched nearly enough to produce the required energy. The accidents at Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011 were not nuclear blasts, but chemical fires or explosions caused by steam or hydrogen gas. The risk in an accident comes from direct radiation and radioactive fallout. Let’s look at those separately.
Several hundred nuclear reactors exist for research and medical purposes, as well as 440 commercial power reactors and an untold number powering ships. All emit radiation, but shielding protects the tens of thousands of people who work around those reactors. Years after Fukushima, the Japanese government had attributed only one death to radiation. The only certain cases of serious radiation poisoning from a reactor were in the Chernobyl disaster, the worst nuclear accident in history. But those Soviet reactors were badly designed, shoddily built, lacked proper safety shielding, and the operators did everything wrong. The steam explosion ejected huge quantities of radioactive material into the atmosphere, yet the only deaths from direct radiation were about 60 people working at the site. Modern designs are far safer. Even with poor design and no shielding, direct radiation from a disaster would only affect those very near (i.e. plant workers). The reason is that radiation loses potency by the square of the distance it travels: The intensity at 200 yards is one-quarter of that at 100 yards. In short, direct radiation is not a serious hazard beyond the reactor proper. An explosion at a chemical factory or a fire at an oil refinery is a vastly greater danger.
Chernobyl spewed massive quantities of radioactive particles into the air, and the wind carried those particles over much of Europe. Although most of the radiation from that fallout was at levels below natural background radiation, some predicted up to a million deaths from cancers. Nearly 35 years later, we know that no such tragedy came to pass. The percentage increase of fallout-induced cancers has been so small that there is no clear, measurable increase in cancer rates with one exception, treatable thyroid cases. Studies show about 20,000 such cases in Ukraine, Belarus and parts of Russia, caused by iodine-deficient children drinking milk contaminated with radioactive iodine. Most of these cases could have been prevented had the Soviets distributed iodine tablets. For perspective, these health effects are orders of magnitude less than the harm from the Bhopal chemical leak of 1984, which killed at least 18,000 people and permanently disabled an additional 50,000. The groundwater in the area is still undrinkable today."

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