Opening speech at nuclear debate

This is my opening statement in the Intelligence Squared emergency debate on nuclear power, supporting the motion ‘It’s got to be nuclear’, held at the Royal Geographical Society in London on 14 April 2011.

Let me start by making an admission. Fukushima has profoundly shaken my confidence in nuclear power.

We have seen the first major radiation release in a Western-built civil nuclear power station ever. This is far worse than Three Mile Island, and as you may have heard, is now considered as equivalent on the nuclear incident scale to Chernobyl, even though so far much less radiation has been released. We have seen triple partial meltdowns, the loss of coolant and fires in spent fuel ponds, the possible breach of containment in the reactor 2 suppression chamber and substantial releases of radioactive iodine and caesium into the sea and onto land. No-one should be complacent about the scale of the decommissioning and decontamination challenge facing Japan at Fukushima. I am certainly not.

However, if there is any good to come out of this, perhaps it will give the world a chance to properly put its fears about the risks of nuclear power and radiation into some realistic context at last. All the different units like sieverts, becquerels, grays, rads and so on are extremely confusing, but I think people have got the general message that as things currently stand, Fukushima should be a non-fatal accident. Those who have died at the plant so far have done so from the tsunami, not from radiation, even though several workers have received substantial doses that may endanger their health in the longer term. The science in this area is extremely controversial, so we cannot say with any confidence what will happen.

One of the ways we can try to understand the possible long-term impacts is to look at the only previous level 7 accident, which was of course Chernobyl. I have been to the Chernobyl reactor site and to the neighbouring abandoned city of Pripyat, and when I was there I talked to the UN staff member who coordinated the Chernobyl Forum report, which brought together the mainstream expert scientists from several different agencies including the World Health Organisation, the IAEA and the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation. She was very clear, as have all the main reports been, that the current death toll from Chernobyl stands at less than fifty, though with several thousand likely eventual cancer cases in populations so large that the deaths will never be statistically identifiable.

She told me, in very clear terms: ‘No-one was born deformed as a result of Chernobyl’. Nor has anyone provably contracted leukaemia from Chernobyl. The UNSCEAR report concludes, that apart from largely treatable thyroid cancer, “there is no evidence of a major public health impact related to ionising radiation 14 years after the Chernobyl accident”. This is an extremely important scientific conclusion, which is why hardly any anti-nuclear activists accept it. Greenpeace, for example, rejects this consensus science and prefers its own report, written by its own hand-picked experts, which inflates the death toll into the tens or even hundreds of thousands. There is a whole victim industry which has grown up around Chernobyl, aided and abetted by the anti-nuclear movement. It is this victimisation, it turns out, that has done real harm to the affected people, by labelling them as doomed and thereby increasing psychological stress and harmful patterns of behaviour. This is the greatest long-term health impact from Chernobyl, and we need to be careful not to repeat this mistake by exaggerating the dangers of Fukushima.

I am not saying radiation is not risky. As we can see in Japan, things can go badly wrong, and damage the lives and health of many people. But we need to compare this with other energy sources to get a true sense of the relative risks of nuclear. In 2010, for example, there were 25 major energy –related fatal disasters, in coal mines, oil refineries and the like. I bet the only one you heard about was the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which killed 11. Did anyone hear about the 91 miners killed in a coal explosion in Russia on May 8? Or the gas explosion in China on 14 May which killed 21? Or how about the oil pipeline explosion on 19 December in Mexico which killed 27? To date, all of these were far more deadly than Fukushima. Even renewables and energy efficiency are dangerous. People die making steel for wind turbines and fall of roofs when installing solar panels. One study I’ve seen concluded that building accidents made energy-efficiency in draught-proofing houses more dangerous in Sweden than nuclear power. As I say, we need to keep our sense of risk in proper proportion, rather than allowing ourselves to be scared out of our wits by false demons raised by the powerful and vocal anti-nuclear lobby groups.

None of this would matter much, of course, if we weren’t desperate to generate as much low-carbon power as possible in order to avoid the damaging impacts of global warming, something which all of us – pro and anti – will I’m sure agree on tonight. Here too I’d like to stick to the science. We would also probably all agree that the IPCC is the most authoritative voice on climate change. Well, on p.269 of the mitigation section of the Fourth Assessment Report, the IPCC gives us a quantified figure for the current carbon savings of nuclear. To quote: “Nuclear power currently avoids 2.2 to 2.6 billion tonnes of CO2 per year if that power were instead produced by coal,” (end quote) and 1.5 billion tonnes if the substitute is coal and gas mixed. So those who oppose nuclear power would seemingly have us dump billions tonnes of additional CO2 into the already overloaded atmosphere. And they call themselves environmentalists!

Even turning partially away from nuclear will have consequences for the climate. Germany is already importing more coal, thanks to having unnecessarily switched off 7 reactors in order to placate the German Greens. Within a year, that will mean another 50 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, and more deaths from air pollution, mercury and even radioactive contamination from trace isotopes in coal smoke and fly ash. I defy any green to look me in the eye and defend coal as a less risky energy source than nuclear. If Japan were to phase out its nuclear fleet, I calculate that another quarter of a billion tonnes will be emitted. Sure, these could be replaced by wind turbines, but these would need to cover 2.5% of Japan’s entire land area, or about ten thousand square kilometres. And that would be to replace low-carbon nuclear with low-carbon wind, when our real challenge is to replace high-carbon coal with anything else we can get our hands on. If China turns away from nuclear, the consequences for the climate don’t even bear thinking about, and I say that as someone who has spent a long time looking at the worst impacts of global warming, on rainforests, glaciers, storms and sea levels.

In admitting that they exaggerated the dangers of nuclear, many campaigners have fallen back on a position that nuclear is too expensive and that we can’t afford it without public subsidy. In my view, economic debating points are always the last refuge of someone who has lost the wider argument. Indeed, there are strong economic arguments for doing absolutely nothing about climate change. Can anyone show me a single wind farm or solar plant anywhere in the world that is not wildly expensive when compared to fossil fuels, and not supported by some government tax or other incentive scheme? Of course not. But I support massive spending on renewables, as on nuclear, because of the pressing need to get rid of as much fossil fuel from our energy mix as possible, as quickly as possible.

And finally, when having this sort of debate, we should avoid arguing about 1960s-era technology, as has been seen to fail at Fukushima. Friends of the Earth informs me that they support research on thorium reactors, so why not fourth-generation uranium reactors? Just to give one example of an exciting new technology under development, the ‘integral fast reactor’ could potentially run whole countries using only existing depleted uranium and bomb-grade plutonium, and keep the lights on for hundreds of years. So no need for any more uranium mining, and no fears either of peak uranium either. Even better, IFR plants could burn up much of the existing stockpile of nuclear waste, producing power by reducing the volume and lifetime of the waste we already have to deal with. If this isn’t worth putting serious effort into developing, I don’t know what is.

So my final plea to the other side is, let’s get real about the relative risks of all energy technologies, and let’s respect the science on radiation as we respect the science on climate change. Then we can perhaps make a properly informed choice about where to put our money in order to most successfully tackle global warming.

8 comments

  1. Robin Smith says:

    Are you not going to ask about root cause of climate change

    And then how 100% nuclear power will not make the lot of the planet any better even if it remedies climate change, if we insist in ignoring root cause?

    I believe nuclear will be like an enormous labour saving device for all of the planet. Increasing our power to produce wealth dramatically. Solving the climate question.

    But if root cause persists, climate change will be superseded by even worse calamity in the end. Or the decline of this civilisation.

    What is this root cause? Private property in land and resources.

    The thing that compels normally sensible, even wealthy people to destroy the planet giving them life.

    You may find this ridiculous. But have you thought about it with care yet?

    How much land do you own?

  2. Carlos Serra says:

    Let’s get real about risks of producing energy with ANY source.
    For instance, let me know how risky is producing energy with sun, wind and water, please.

    By the way, electricity produced by photovoltaic plants in Spain is cheaper than buying it from the grid. Please, get informed before writing abour renewables becauses showing off some mistakes is, simply, embarrasing.

  3. soren dalsgaard says:

    From Osaka: Japanese are now dealing with real time problems, ands not some academical discussion of technology.
    the debate more questions are coming up – of where to go in the future – where as the mainstream opinion only deals with questions -of damages control -and back to business as usual.
    The Muslim world now have its “green revolution” – and so the Industrial world are facing its “green revolution”. The diagnoses of the past technology are fating away – and new innovative “technology” are in many ways already there just to be implemented. This “green revolution” are a much greater challenges that what happened in Germany and England 150 years ago. The problem with the old technology is not only pollution – what ever fossil or uranium are the resources – or the illusion of course global worming. It is that the old technology do not create jobs – for common people – the growing population of the people planet are screaming for a physical economy based of real work –
    The problem of the nuclear plant are not “safety of Reginald” I believe that 4th generations reactor are “safe” – but it is only providing jobs for a class of “elite workers”.
    What is needed is a new concept of social and human Wales – shortly a Spiritual awakening.The present technology and money system are turning people in to “physical machines and moral robots” – But we cane turn this planet in to a perfect working ecological satellite – based on the old technology – but the price would be a fatal loss of Individual Liberty – a psychical work – and Isolation form higher levels of consciousness and beings of the Universe.
    Is that so hard to accept?

  4. Barry Woods says:

    “….Fatal loss of individual liberty -.. is that hard to accept…”

    I think you will find, that yes it will be hard to accept and the general publiuc will just say no..

    In Australia, union leaseds that have previoulsy supported climate change legislation are coming up against concerns from their union memebers in the various heavy industries affected by the carbon tax that is proposed…

    Union leaders are now saying, not ONE job lost due to this legislation in those industries.. and will withdraw political support.

    Pileke jnr’s iron law of economics vs envirnomentalism at work..
    And of course China will continue to burn all the coal that Australie exports to China, whilst China burns all it’s own coal production as well, over ten times Australias imports.

    Green utopian dreams of energy policy are over…

    There would appear to be an interesting ‘discussion’ starting between pragmatic technologically aware environmentalists, like Mark and George Monbiot and those green’s that seem to think simply stating we want a green renewable future by 2020, will somehow magically happen despite engineering reality.

    I expect this new ‘discussion’ will be bitter and vitrilolic

    (if CiF comments are anything to go by – one comment that got deleted ref – nuclear – How MUCH did they pay you – George?)

  5. Barry Woods says:

    sorry for typo’s… Easter holidays, 3 kids around (under 7’s) !

  6. Joffan says:

    Mark, you say “Friends of the Earth informs me that they support research on thorium reactors”, but I am familiar with this tactic. They will attempt to appear reasonable while still working to prevent any actual construction or indeed extension of nuclear power plants. If thorium power plants seem to be within a year or two of construction, or there is an actual application to build someting that they can intervene on the approval for, I regret to tell you that -absent a true change of heart – they will discover all sorts of reasons to oppose it to the hilt.

    This answers your rhetorical “why not fourth-generation uranium reactors?” Those are too close to reality; too close to the actually reactors proposed for construction now, too hard to differentiate from their mortal enemies. If fourth-generation, why not third-generation?

    Cynical? yes, but as the internet has reduced the potential for outright falsehood, they have switched to other methods to oppose nuclear power – and this is a recognisable part of that response. Amory Lovins does something similar – talks about willingness to consider nuclear , but then jumps straight back into the myths when the crunch comes.

  7. Dennis says:

    “The accident caused the deaths, within a few weeks, of 30 workers and radiation injuries to over a hundred others. In response, the authorities evacuated, in 1986, about 115,000 people from areas surrounding the reactor and subsequently relocated, after 1986, about 220,000 people from Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine. The accident caused serious social and psychological disruption in the lives of those affected and vast economic losses over the entire region. ”
    http://www.unscear.org/unscear/en/chernobyl.html

    So it looks like the worst impact of the Chernobyl disaster was not the death of 30 workers, but the displacement of over 300.000 people and the social and psychological disruption.

Post a comment