Tony Trewavas: Nuclear power opposition based on slogans and fear

Scotland needs a cohesive energy policy, writes Prof Tony Trewavas

Torness nuclear power station. Picture: Esme Allen

In 2007, Alex Salmond rejected any new nuclear Scottish power stations. Policies based on fear, rather than facts, may feel good, but they increase the overall risk by not educating the public. Successful democracy requires people understand the decisions they make; otherwise it becomes a loose cannon, with decisions based on slogans.

Accidents, when amplified by the media, induce fear far beyond realistic risk. At Fukushima none died from radiation exposure. At Chernobyl only 46 died as a result of radiation damage, an accident caused by faulty safety design and irresponsible neglect of safety procedures. Neither are applicable to western nuclear power where safety is paramount. Local wildlife at Chernobyl has actually burgeoned. In Hamburg in 2011, 54 died from eating organic beansprouts and 3,500 experienced kidney damage. This supposedly safe produce was contaminated with E.coli from clearly untreated manure; but which then is safer?

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What did subsequently kill thousands resulting from Chernobyl and Fukushima was the psychological trauma of enforced, and in most cases unnecessary, evacuation of local population by government edict and without explanation. Evacuation implied serious danger, ignorance of actual radiation risks led to depression, alcoholism and suicide. Good safety is a matter of distinguishing clearly those situations that are safe from those that are dangerous. Both Soviet and Japanese governments through inadequate understanding of radiation risks failed their people.

Chernobyl, where 'only 46 died as a result of radiation damage'. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Nuclear power is a green environmental solution. It generates no CO2 during electricity generation and very little during fuel processing and waste disposal. A western individual’s lifetime electricity use requires 3,200 tonnes of coal. A golf ball size of uranium can provide the equivalent and waste is of similar size. James Hansen, well-known climate scientist, has shown that currently nuclear power has saved two million lives by offsetting use of polluting coal and saved 64 Gigatonnes CO2 equivalent. But reaction to Fukushima saw closure of nuclear power stations in a number of countries and their replacement by coal; a healthy source of power replaced by an obviously unhealthy one. This regressive step is an inevitable failure of untrusted government to clarify real nuclear risks from imaginary ones.

The key to comprehension about risk is rate of exposure; intensity/unit time. Low exposure rates of background radioactivity are not only benign, they can cause reductions in cancer. As rates increase, the human body adapts and synthesises protective mechanisms (acting like vaccination) and definitely reduces cancer risk.

Cancerous cells are induced by damage to DNA. In each human cell/day about one million mutations occur, induced by oxidative damage because we respire oxygen. Every day all but one mutation is repaired; a natural protective mechanism. At the radioactive threshold, about 10-12 additional mutations are induced; swamped and thus rendered irrelevant by the million others.

Present uranium-fuelled power stations produce waste but they do so by design because uranium is cheap and abundant. Present reactor design uses 1 per cent of the fissile uranium before it is removed as waste. Fourth generation reactors, fast breeders, leave little or no waste, nothing for weapons proliferation and would require little enrichment of uranium for use.

Chernobyl, where 'only 46 died as a result of radiation damage'. Picture: Ian Rutherford

The fearties in this timid SNP government have again bowed to unrealistic fear in seemingly banning GM crops, fracking and synthetic gas. In not highlighting the potential advantages of these technological advances, it abdicates any leadership. By choosing only the unreliable sources of wind and solar for electricity generation, it has also ensured that essential backup to stabilise supply is used minimally, intermittently and thus inefficiently. Consequently it is no longer profitable and won’t be built. Scotland therefore loses the ability to generate its own stable electricity supply, the bedrock of economic growth and development. The decision to ban new nuclear power was foolish. Time to reconsider.

• Professor Tony Trewavas, chairman, Scientific Alliance Scotland