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Nuclear power is our safest bet

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 3500 experienced kidney damage. This supposedly-safe produce was contaminated with E.coli from clearly untreated manure; but which then is safer?

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. Fear did not prevent death; it prevented life.

Nuclear power is a green environmental solution.  It generates no CO2 during electricity generation and very little during fuel processing and waste disposal. 3200 tonnes of coal provide for a Western individuals lifetime electricity use. 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.  It will be seven million saved by 2050. 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 that will increase mortality.  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. Radiation from rocks, cosmic rays and light surrounds us. Low rates of light exposure healthily increase vitamin D; at higher but safe rates, a protective layer of melanin is synthesised. But cross a threshold, increase to sunburn level and in some unfortunates skin cancers result, killing about two thousand in the UK each year.  Compress the low and safe daily exposure rate over a year into a day, now making it 365 fold higher and extreme skin damage would result.  The importance of understanding risk based on rate is thus easily comprehended.

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. Like light exposure, there is a critical threshold rate, estimated from numerous sources. It is at least one hundred to two hundred times UK background rate. But 20,000 who live in Ramsar, Iran experience these threshold rates throughout life with no ill effects. Beyond the threshold, and as with light, cancer rates start to rise as exposure rates increase.

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. The discovery of DNA repair mechanisms over 50 years ago, saw three Nobel prizes awarded last year. 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% of the fissile uranium before it is removed as waste. 4th generation reactors, fast breeders, leave little or no waste, nothing for weapons proliferation and would require little enrichment of uranium for use.

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, Chair, Scientific Alliance Scotland

The Scotsman - June 2016