Standort: / Meldung: "Who to Trust on Nuclear Risks?"

Chris Cummins

Letters from a shrinking globe: around the day in 80 worlds.

26. 4. 2011 - 14:52

Who to Trust on Nuclear Risks?

And are we in danger of jumping out of the nuclear frying pan and into a more dangerous coal fire?

Never has a Chernobyl anniversary seemed more relevant. 25 years after the meltdown in the former Soviet Union, the worst nuclear accident in history, a new generation is being confronted with the frightening pitfalls of the nuclear energy industry.

denkmal for Tschernobyl

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A memorial near Chernobyl for victims of the nuclear disaster

The severity of the ongoing emergency at the Fukushima nuclear plant, now described as a partial meltdown, was recently raised to a maximum of seven on the international scale. It’s the first time that has happened since Chernobyl. There is admittedly a lot of room at the top - the radiation leaks from Fukushima, including water heavily contaminated with iodine and caesium being released into the Pacific, is expected to be between 5 and 10% of the fallout from Chernobyl and it is not spreading in the same way. Chernobyl was so destructive because the reactor was on fire and sent a radioactive ash cloud over Europe, casting isotopes across 40% of Europe. Plutonium, the most severe nuclear pollutant with a half-life of nearly 25,000 years, has been found on the soil of the site of Fukushima, but not outside.

The Spectre of Chernobyl

The horror of Chernobyl still haunts Europe. Radiation is terrifying - waves of invisible, scentless pollutants potentially sowing the seeds of cancer. And it seems that much of the European public is strongly anti-nuclear. The day after Fukushima announced that it was having problems, a 70km long anti-nuclear-human chain gave a very strong message to the German government which then made a dramatic U-turn in nuclear policy. Austria is, of course, already nuclear free, but it is surrounded by nuclear power plants. A Der Standard survey published over the Easter weekend, showed that 70% of Austrians want their government to do more against nuclear power and the majority believe Austria has been damaged by Chernobyl. The train I took this weekend - the ÖBB IC 648 - has been renamed "Atomkraftfreileben!" and the time-table leaflet inside featured an advert for the RAUS aus EURATOM popular petition at the weekend.

man points out the contaminated zone

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An official in Belarus points out the area most affected by the Chernobyl fall-out

Despite this massive public concern, some unlikely voices have been defending nuclear power. Guardian columnist and prominent environmental journalist George Monbiot has announced himself as a reluctant nuclear proponent much to dismay of many of his colleagues in the Green Movement and much to the anger of many internet posters. For journalists, it is sometimes braver to challenge public opinion and become a villain than to challenge authority and become a hero.

Monbiot is defending nuclear energy because of its low-carbon credentials. In the climate change debate, nuclear energy was always sold to us as a stop-gap solution. It should provide us with our growing energy needs as we slowly wean ourselves off our addiction to fossil-fuels and develop renewable sources. Everyone seems to agree that these sources are the future but don’t have the capacity to fill the gap yet. As Monbiot’s colleague at The Guardian, science editor Damian Carrington has put it like this, "If existing nuclear power stations were closed down today, their 13% (and falling) of global electricity generation would almost certainly be replaced by dirty coal which dumps both carbon and radioactive elements into the atmosphere." Is that a trade-off we should make? Are we in danger of making a knee jerk reaction that will, as Monbiot sees it, throw us "out of the nuclear frying pan and into the coal fire.”

Melanie Windridge on the energy dilema

Dieses Element ist nicht mehr verfügbar

I spoke to science writer Dr Melanie Windridge, a physicist and science communicator from the UK. She is involved in the development of futuristic nuclear fusion, but not fission, of which she insists she is not a fan, but she says that there is no evidence yet that a single person has received a lethal dose of radiation at Fukushima, whereas the annual impact of traditional coal energy has risks that are well-established. Coal-related air pollution from power plants is globally responsible for more than 100,000 deaths per year, not to mention the thousands killed every year in mines. According to the WHO, a further 1.5 million are killed by burning stoves at home. Coal contains both of uranium and thorium, and when coal is burned into fly ash which means according to a report in Scientific American that "estimated radiation doses ingested by people living near the coal plants were equal to or higher than doses for people living around the nuclear facilities."

cherbobyl doctor

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A Belarusian oncologist points out shows me cancer statistics

Despite these statistics, Windridge thinks we are more scared of radiation than coal fumes because it is invisible and because nuclear power is still relatively new: “Coal is something that we are very familiar with. Even if we see the smog fumes we don’t think so much about what it is doing inside our lungs because we have been using it for centuries.”

The problem is this: if we talk about 'acceptable' risks then we have to understand the real risks. We should make our decisions based on facts not fear. That is why examining the impact of the world's worst atomic accident at Chernobyl is so important, but, as a layperson it is very hard to understand the science surrounding radiation.

25 Jahre Katastrophe von Tschernobyl

Monbiot says the solution is to go to the "best available science" and he points to a body created to give an overview of what science says about health impact of nuclear energy. It's called the UN Scientific Committee of the Effects of Atomic Radiation. Monbiot compares it to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change by pulling in as many peer-reviewed scientific papers from as many different areas of radiation study as possible to try and understand the real impact.

This body has concluded that 9,000 people will probably eventually die due to the fallout of Chernobyl. It says the worst impact has been thyroid cancer, a throughly unpleasant but eminently treatable cancer, of which there have been 7,000 cases, largely in children, whose thyroids are particularly sensitive and who drank milk contaminated with radioactive iodine in the immediate aftermath. Iodine has a half-life of 8 days and those cases could have easily been avoided if the children had been prevented from drinking the milk or given iodine tablets.

An overall death toll of 9,000 means a terrible disaster. It means more people died for example than in the 9/11 terror attacks, an event that changed the political world; but for many the figure of 9,000 is also surprisingly small when you think of the scale of the disaster and that some 95,000 liquidators were exposed to massive doses of radiation. So, should we be reassured?

sign at chernobyl

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The Exclusion Zone At Chernobyl

No says anti-nuclear campaigner and physician Helen Caldicott, who has written a book called "Nuclear Energy is Not the Answer". She is neither surprised nor reassured by the findings, she is outraged. She has called UN's scientific assessment of the Chernobyl disaster "The biggest medical cover-up in the history of medicine." She bases her argument on a 2009 report, "Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment" Compiled by an author called Alexey V. Yablokov, the report suggests that close to 1 million people have already died from the effects. It estimates that not 7,000 but 58,000 people have developed thyroid cancers and Caldicott says many wear what has been called the "Chernobyl necklace" a hideous scar left when the thyroid is removed. She says the Yablokov paper is the first to bring together over two decades of research published in Slavic literature and now translated into English. Caldicott has accused the IAEA and the World Health Organisation of ignoring it.

Between Rational Fear and Blind Panic
Examining the risks of Fukushima

What Science Can We (Should We) Trust?

The problem is that even the body that published the Yablokov research, the New York Academy of Sciences, has sharply distanced itself from this research. This is what the academy says on its own website: "In no sense did Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences or the New York Academy of Sciences commission this work; nor by its publication do we intend to independently validate the claims made in the translation or in the original publications cited in the work. The translated volume has not been peer reviewed by the New York Academy of Sciences, or by anyone."
Monbiot has accused Caldicott and other anti-nuclear activists of “cherry-picking data” and in a frank exchange on a Guardian podcast of "parading" the victims of congenital deformations who were born in the area of Chernobyl "as in a medieval circus" without "any evidence” that the deformities are related to the disaster. He basically accuses her of exploitation and fear-mongering.

How Best To Understand Radiation?

The accusations of cherry picking can be used by both parties. Caldicott is also angry that nuclear proponents oversimplify radiation effects by comparing doses of radiation to normal background levels of cosmic radiation. Chernobyl can't be described as having made 40% of Europe radioactive because Earth is already radioactive. Radiation is universal. It's emitted by rays of the sun and the rocks that we walk on. Granite, the rock found in south west England is particularly radioactive. Using such statistics, Windridge comes to the conclusion that, “…the radiation dose received by drinking Tokyo water for a year would have been less than that from moving to Cornwall and living there for a year.”

old man in the contamination zone

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Ivan, a man living in the Chernobyl exclusion zone and drinking water from his well

Yet Caldicott warns that the UN science doesn't pay enough attention to internal emitters of radiation that can build up in the food chain and, „…enter the body, these elements – called internal emitters – migrate to specific organs such as the thyroid, liver, bone, and brain, where they continuously irradiate small volumes of cells with high doses of alpha, beta and/or gamma radiation." She says it is inaccurate and misleading to use the term "acceptable levels of external radiation".

On the other hand, Laurence Williams, a Professor of Nuclear Safety in the John Tyndall Institute for Nuclear Research, points out that we are subjected to internal radiation in the very food that we eat. The potassium in our body, scientists say, leaves us subject to 15 million radioactive disintegrations per hour. Muesli, it seems, is particularly radioactive and all of this is considered harmless.

Once again the layman’s head explodes. What should we believe? Many scientists argue that demystifying radiation would help the public have a more rational debate on this subject – and, as Germany has shown, in democratic countries the future of nuclear energy will be decided by public opinion. Yet as Franz Kainberger, a radiologist at the AKH in Vienna told Profil magazine, “The diverse studies about the numbers of victims from Chernobyl have been misused in both directions.” What do they say about lies, damned lies and statistics?

chernobyl house

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A small house in the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

Can we Afford to

As Damian Carrington puts it, "This is not an issue that can be resolved with cold facts alone, for the simple reason that many of the facts are not known." It is still only a matter of decades since we split the atom and Caldicott argues that it might take several generations to see the genetic impact of radiation.
Everyone seems to agree that renewable sustainable energy would be the best long term solution for the future. But there is disagreement over whether it is a viable short term version. Professor Williams has argued that some forms of renewables have such a low energy density and that the farms have to be spread over such a large area that they can’t cover the shortfall that a nuclear phase-out would bring. He also points out that after a while it would become a question of affordability. If renewables, at least in the short term, are more expensive than fossil fuels, how much are we prepared to pay for a nuclear phase-out. When prices rise, civil unrest often followers. Will politicians really replace nuclear with renewables?

There is also the question of energy security. Nuclear power stations are attractive to northern governments because, unlike clean solar power for example, they can be built at home and so external politics can't disrupt your supply.

My Trip to Chernobyl

5 years ago I went to visit the affected area on Belarus near Chernobyl to look at that impact myself. I spoke to doctors and I saw children with cancer. In almost every case parents were convinced that the illnesses were due to the Chernobyl fallout, which was understandable, but their doctors usually suggested that apart from thyroid cancers and such a link couldn't be proven medically. I met young mother Anya who was suffering from cancerous growths, her two daughters, 2-year old Sasha and 10-year old Natalya, suffer from brain tumours. A third child has already died and the doctors say there is nothing they can do to save Natalya. I asked Anya if she thinks the illnesses are related to Chernobyl. Yes, she answered, without blinking.

chernobyl children

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Medical experts however disagree - brain tumours are not thought to be caused by radiation and have been decreasing in Belarus since the Chernobyl disaster. There are such unfortunate families in other parts of the world. Once again, as a layman, it is impossible to judge I just know that if I was in Anya’s position and my children were ill, I would come to the same conclusion she did, whatever the experts might say. We are all only rational to a certain degree. For all my faith in peer-reviewed science, I ate and drank as little as I could in southern Belarus. Do I condemn fears of radiation? No.

disabled children

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Disabled children in Belarus

What I did see, and what is often forgotten in this argument, is that 20% of Belarus' land has been rendered unusable agricultural because of the radioactive isotopes. That is a crippling statistic. And it will remain unusable because the isotope Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years. And this longevity is not only an issue for nuclear accidents. The nuclear industry has offered no convincing solution for the problem of long-term storage of nuclear waste. In Brussels, I met Brook Riley, climate justice and energy campaigner, of Friends of the Earth. He says he can’t understand support for nuclear power until the storage issue is resolved:

"It’s like getting in a plane and taking off before a runway has been built for you to land on."