Post-Fukushima... post-nuclear? As we approach the first anniversary of the tsunami that shook the world, three experts share their divergent visions of the future.
Ionising radiation is used extensively in medicine at a mild dose level in a CT, PET or SPECT scan. In a radiotherapy course a high dose is used to kill cancer cells. Parts of the patient’s body near the tumour get a high dose and yet recover. Many people benefit from such treatment, yet this radiation is in principle no different from that found near the Fukushima plant, and the size of this dose is a thousand times greater than the annual dose used to define the Evacuation Zone.
This curious state of affairs has arisen because, for the environment, authorities have set radiation regulation levels as low as possible, as recommended by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP). This was a political imperative in the Cold War days – before the dangers of fossil fuels were appreciated, there was no strong reason to challenge these unjustifiably cautious regulations.
Much has changed in the 21st century. We understand how biological cells can repair themselves against radiation damage. This leads us to expect that little or no harm results from low levels of radiation, as confirmed by long-term medical records from Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and subsequent nuclear accidents. Medical information and peer-reviewed data are openly available on the internet. There is now a fair understanding of questions and no secrecy.
So what next? The anachronistic radiation “safety” levels should be relaxed as a priority. A more robust appreciation of nuclear radiation would benefit mankind – a matter for education. Its beneficial use in medicine is accepted. Its beneficial use in energy should now be added for the health of the planet. The use of radiation as an effective method of preserving food, approved by the World Health Organisation, could replace energy-consuming refrigeration. Nobody has died from radiation at Fukushima – and it may be expected that nobody will.
The cooling of the nuclear reactors at Fukushima is the immediate priority. It will be some time before the area is fully under control. The Japanese government and TEPCO (the Tokyo Electric Power Company) are not being fully open and honest with the public about events at nuclear reactors. Yet it must be emphasised that the major impact of the tsunami was the devastating loss of life, and the destruction of towns, villages and factories along Japan’s Eastern seaboard. Fortunately not one life has been lost from radiation at Fukushima.
The British government recognises that, even in the face of the accidents that have taken place at nuclear plants, the loss of life per unit of electricity produced is easily the lowest from nuclear power of all large-scale electricity-generating mechanisms. In the same week as Fukushima, a further 30 coal miners lost their lives. Will Greenpeace call for an end to all coal-fired stations as a result? Nuclear power is an essential element, alongside renewable power sources and energy efficiency measures, in de-fossilising the British electricity grid. I welcome the interim report of Dr Mike Weightman on the implications of Fukushima for the British nuclear industry. The safety of nuclear power depends on learning from accidents. A key lesson here may be to allow for the possibility that extensive flooding may occur causing a power shutdown in the auxiliary system, disabling the cooling process. Passive cooling may be a future necessity for nuclear plants.
There will be serious challenges for those countries which now choose to switch away from nuclear energy. Reducing greenhouse gases stimulates a country’s economy, cutting fuel imports and creating employment. Fukushima does not place a technological block on the future important role of nuclear power alongside renewables as we move away from fossil fuel usage to avoid the worst impacts of global warming.
After over six months, the Fukushima plant is still not under control, it continues to pose a deadly threat to all who live in its shadow; deadly radioactive contamination continues to leach into the ground as well as the sea. There is no end in sight for this emergency. With a full meltdown of three reactors and damage to highly radioactive nuclear fuel in several storage pools, there is no way to achieve a complete clean up.
Greenpeace’s own scientists have recently confirmed that radiation levels in schoolyards 60km away are above permissible levels. Parents and children should not have to choose between radiation and education. When it became clear that the Fukushima plant was in trouble, the authorities introduced an arbitrary 20km radius evacuation zone but failed to admit that radiation was drifting beyond this in a wind-defined pattern. Greenpeace’s teams are finding dangerous levels of radiation in seafood caught off the coast.
Attitudes in Japan are changing too. While three-quarters of the country’s reactors are not running, there are no blackouts even at times of peak electricity demand. A key government renewable energy bill was passed by the lower house of parliament. Opinion polls show that 75 per cent of the population favours a nuclear phase-out and the replacement of reactors by safe, renewable energy technology. Nuclear power is dangerous, expensive and supplies only around 13 per cent of global electricity needs. Nuclear accidents can be prevented by embracing a future without it. Natural forms of energy are not only being explored but renewable growth is already outstripping coal and nuclear worldwide, and supplies about a fifth of the planet’s energy needs.
Backed by efficient energy use, renewable energy sources render the debate over whether or not nuclear power is worth the risk redundant. It is not necessary, period.