Last week in my comments on energy provision and all that entails, I indicated I wasn’t a fan of nuclear fission as a means of production and it drew some comment. That was not unexpected as it is the policy of UKIP, at the moment, to include nuclear fission power generation as part of the energy production mix.
The comments generally suggested that concerns about a nuclear accident were overblown, that it was inconceivable not to include nuclear fission in the mix of productive capacity and that it could be viewed as simply a balance between different sorts of damage to the environment.
I understand the appeal of nuclear energy, or would do if it weren’t so expensive but I’m not sure we are equally familiar with the potential it has for widespread devastation, despite the clear instances of that in the recent past. I suppose it rather depends on what you regard as safe or acceptable.
The exclusion area around Chernobyl is still over 1000 square miles, bigger than greater London, or Manchester or Surrey. The human contamination is in the hundreds of thousands and death rates from that are still rising. The land is contaminated by material with a half life of 20,000 years so there will be no return to normality any time soon.
Similarly, but still being played out, the full effects of the Fukushima disaster remain unknown though contaminated water still floods into the sea affecting fish stocks and being carried around the globe. This catastrophe is not yet over and it is too early to say how damaging it will eventually be.
With these clear examples it is difficult not to conclude that nuclear fission power generation has the potential for widespread devastation when it goes wrong because it has already happened. Were these events to have occurred in the UK the consequences would have been and are unthinkable. When they are not close to home even significant disasters soon fade into memory and their impact wanes over time. If anyone is in doubt as to the degree of damage caused by the two nuclear disasters of Chernobyl (for example) and Fukushima (for example) there is a great deal of detailed information easily available, so check it out.
If one accepts that such technology does have a potential for devastation, to then support the use of it can only mean that the risks of such a disaster happening here have been completely allayed.
The nuclear PR is fundamentally based upon predictions of infallibility; a worrying facet to begin with. Whilst acknowledging that massive failures have occurred in the past we are, or at least the supporters of the nuclear fission option, are satisfied by assurances that current or future constructions could never go wrong because…
There is a mass of supportive reasoning, ‘we don’t get earthquakes’, ‘these faulty power stations were 50 years old’ (completely missing the point that in 50 years a power station built today will be 50 years old also), and so on. It is a plausible and comprehensive PR attack refuting any possibility of catastrophic failure based upon information supplied by people with an inherent interest in the nuclear power business.
However, they might be right, so how much reliance should we place on such assurances?
The consistent thread through all failures and breakdowns and particularly these major disasters is that the causes were unforeseen. That is a very important word. By definition one cannot protect oneself against the unforeseen so as the causes of the Chernobyl and Fukushima destructions were unforeseen it is a distinct possibility that any future nuclear disaster would also likely be caused by the ‘unforeseen’. Therefore the built-in safeguards designed to counter the foreseen may not be as adept at the same task when ‘surprised’ by that which nobody ever considered being a threat.
We have foreseen every possible threat except the unforeseen.
It is possible that multiple nuclear power plants could operate from inception to decommissioning with no major disaster befalling them and us. It is not, however, guaranteed and could never be so.
The next question is, therefore, if we do have a disaster how to we cope with it and how could we minimise the impact? One clear option is to put the power station somewhere where the impact of a disaster would be ‘recoverable’ in a national sense but I’m not sure how well that will go down with the residents of Somerset.
Nuclear fission power generation will always have a risk attached. How big that risk is or how much weight one gives to it will depend upon a number of factors, not least of which is the PR offensive of the nuclear lobby. The industry dedicated to building and running these enterprises commands huge resources and their sphere of influence is wide and material in determining the future of the technology. They are not likely to weigh their interest and ours impartially so a distorted picture will always appear from that source.
On balancing aspect of the equation is the question ‘do we need it?’ If we take a longer term and more practical approach to the reduction of our reliance on fossil fuels it can be argued that we don’t and never will need to take this risk. Whatever we do in the UK over the next 50 years or so we will not materially affect the rate of global warming even if the human factor were to be proven as some would like. As has been said many times China and the US dwarf our ‘polluting’ capability so that does give us some leeway to choose a new direction.
There is no doubt that eventually we will need energy from sources other than fossil fuels. It is also true that a suitable technology is not yet available to provide this so another question arises.
Is the likelihood of a nuclear disaster free zone in the next 50 years greater or less than the probability that we will develop safe and effective renewable energy sources over that same period? How do these two probabilities compare and if it is more likely that we’ll be able to develop the renewable technology is that not the route to go? Between now and then we do have significant coal and gas resources that we can use to provide this ‘breathing space’ and not rely upon the enormously risky though ‘convenient’ nuclear option.
Were we to increase effort in the development of effective alternative energy production that too could drive a whole new industry with all the manufacturing and export opportunities that would ensue?
Fortunately this is an argument that is simple in principle and each individual can make up their own minds as well as any ‘expert’.
One thing, though, is certain and that is with a proliferation of nuclear fission reactors throughout the world there will be another disaster somewhere, sometime. Let’s just hope it isn’t here.