Risks of Nuclear Power

Nuclear power fits well with an ideology of state control of energy sources in a few locations.  Renewablesare a drag for state energy planners.  So consequently, any place that has nuclear power also has a nuclear lobby that's well financed and well connected.  But I still think the only ethical approach is to make rational choices based on deaths in the millions or billions rather than on the power politics you want to promote.

Number of deaths from Chernobyl

The 4000 deaths is clearly wrong.  It's authoritative - published by no less than the WHO.  Unfortunately, that estimate is jointly published by the International Atomic Energy Agency with which the WHO is required to consult on all things nuclear.  Anything the nuclear agency writes off on is unlikely to be anywhere close to correct - not on costs, not on risks, not on deaths.  

Mr. Yablokov'sstudy is clearly biased but still worth considering.  Yablokovis a senior executive in Greenpeace Russia, but he did publish a paper on excess cancer deaths in the areas around Chernobyl (which is where the one million number comes from) which was published by the New York Academy of Sciences, a respected organization.  

George Monbiot, in his new kick of defending nuclear power, pointed out that correlation does not necessarily mean causality and dismissed that paper.  My sense is that if you have a nuclear catastrophe followed by excess deaths, assuming causality is reasonable.  Dismissing it is a lot less reasonable, unless you have a better explanation for all those excess deaths.  The true nuclear death toll may be higher still, because we no longer have a control sample that's uncontaminated by radiation.  Cancer deaths are on the rise all over the world and one theory about the reason is that we are awash with exposure to low levels of radiation, in large part due to nuclear power and routine emissions.  In my opinion, while both estimates are biased, the true number is more likely to be closer to one million than 4000. However climate change causes 400,000 deaths annually now and will easily climb into the millions each year within a decade or so, so it's clearly the bigger killer to watch for.

I should also point out that one of the deadliest power sources out there is hydro power, competing with nuclear if you trust the one million figure, and vastly exceeding nuclear deaths if you don't.  The Banqiao dam failure in 1975 alone killed at least 170,000 people.  These are not questionable statistical deaths, and there was a massive coverup in China to minimize the perceived scale of the problem, so the actual deaths may be higher.  No other dam failure killed anywhere close to that many people, but deaths in the thousands from a dam breach are not uncommon.  This is not due just to poor third world planning either.  Italy and the United States have had deadly dam breaks.  And consider the Three Gorges Dam, built to a scale that causes earthquakes in an already geologically active area - there are millions of people downriver from the dam who would perish within minutes of a dam breach if it happened suddenly in a storm.

I've seen the pictures of Chernobyl deformities and it just gives me a negative feeling about anti-nuclear activists.  They're like the anti-abortion campaigners showing pictures of dead fetuses to prey on our gross reflexes.  The fact is that there has been no statistical increase in deformities around Chernobyl.  So while I can't prove that radiation from the Chernobyl disaster did not contribute to any one deformity, I do know that in a series of pictures of deformities, it is likely that every single one of them would have happened even if Chernobyl never existed.  We can easily find pictures of deformed babies in Ontario, or better yet from BC, which has no reactors.  Since those pictures will surely be extremely gross, should we conclude that absence of nuclear power creates deformities and use them to go on a parallel tirade?  It's sickening.


Gordon Edwards truly understands nuclear power, and I tend to trust his judgement on breeder reactors.  His writing tends to lay out arguments whereas in person I've found him more nuanced.  I asked him about breeder reactors years ago and he admitted to an intellectual curiosity about them, but was also quick to point out many of the falsehoods that proponents say about them, as well as some of the things they fail to mention.  The overall impression I came away with is that the current designs are not really workable, that there are serious risks with them as well, and that government investments could probably be put to better use elsewhere.  Nuclear power is inherently risky.  Early engineers understood that, which is why every reactor was built with several layers of safety mechanisms.  Over time, complacency tends to settle into any normally running plant, so that workers don't even bat an eye when some of the safety mechanisms stop working, and they get lax about testing all this, which is intentionally redundant and seems stupid.  It doesn't matter, the plant works perfectly.  The whole problem is that when it fails, it can often take out some safety mechanisms with it.  And if it fails when there is a general power outage, that can make other safety measures malfunction.  And an uncontrolled nuclear reaction, or even a controlled reaction without adequate cooling, or frankly even a shut down reaction still producing heat from the breakdown of nuclear products without adequate cooling, is a major and deadly disaster.

Apparently, during the blackout a few years ago, only one reactor in Ontario turned itself off the way it was supposed to, and I believe three reactors had to be shut down manually.  I would be very concerned about living in a world with a lot more reactors than we have now.

There are other kinds of complacencies that arise.  Low level nuclear waste is disposed of carelessly.  This is especially true of jurisdictions with chaotic government control, corruption or floundering economies. There were a bunch of Russian lighthouses on their northern coast that were powered by mini-reactors, and apparently all of them have now been stolen. http://englishrussia.com/2009/01/06/abandoned-russian-polar-nuclear-ligh...

There's a lot of low-level waste that has disappeared, presumably sold to radical groups for use in dirty bombs.  But there is even a problem that nobody keeps track of stuff.  A kindergarten in Russia was built on top of a low-level nuclear waste dump.  And in the United States, some builder used uranium tailings inadvertently as backfill in a housing development.

My biggest problem with nuclear power is actually how deadly the mining is, and it is almost always imposed on already disadvantaged native communities that are ignorant of the risks.  The associations of cancers with uranium mining are clear.  It seems to me an unfair burden on a population that usually doesn't benefit at all from the power produced.

Those are all reasons to oppose nuclear power that have nothing to do with climate change.  So I oppose nuclear power.  I just oppose climate change more.  And when those two objectives clash, my choice will always be to address climate change first.


I just looked up deformities from Chernobyl and there is new information which muddies the waters a bit.

The statement that there was no statistical increase in deformities came from another joint WHO/IAEA release dating to 2005.  So there are all the problems with that that plague anything with a nuclear industry rubber stamp.  The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (an anti-nuclear group, but one with more credibility than ENGOs) claims 10,000 deformities.  I glanced at the study.  It's not junk, but it is full of the standard equivocations.  Epidemiological studies are notoriously difficult in mobile populations so it's not unwarranted.  I suspect there are some deformities.  I suspect the anti-nuclear group is guessing high but within reason.  Another study published in Paediatrics in 2010, suggests that the rate of birth defects (not necessarily grotesque deformities to be paraded around to gross people out) may be more than double the European average in the areas very close to the Chernobyl plant.  The most common defects are things like small eyes, spina bifida and other neural tube defects.  However, the area that was chosen as a focus because it got one of the highest doses of radiation due to the wind patterns, also happens to have a very high rate of vitamin B deficiency and fetal alcohol exposure, so the causes of the birth defects are not necessarily all attributable to radiation exposure.  The authors of the study responsibly suggest that to understand the correspondence the actual exposure to radiation of pregnant women would have to be measured.  The authors seem to accept that there has been no statistical increase in birth defects if you look across Europe overall.

So it's probably wrong at this stage to say confidently that there was no statistical increase in deformities because it's possible that in certain areas the rates are elevated.  What I can say is that the reason for deformities is never known, that it remains questionable whether there was any increase in the rate of deformities following Chernobyl and that it is likely that a lot of the pictures displayed are almost certainly deformities that would have happened anyway.  I still find this graphic appeal to people's gut instincts morally repugnant.  If we knew that all or even most of these defects were caused by radiation exposure, I'd accept it.  But we don't know that and that's not the way it's presented.  It's more a "look at these gross pictures and tell me if you still support nuclear power".  The sources for these pictures are muted.  We can't even know for sure that the pictures are from the area and that they have not been doctored.  It seems unlikely to me that the parents of these unfortunate children agreed to have pictures taken so that their gross children could be made a part of a freak show put on by the anti-nuclear lobby.

Adriana Mugnatto-Hamu