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.

© Mark Lynas
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