This group brings together the best thinkers on energy and climate. Join us for smart, insightful posts and conversations about where the energy industry is and where it is going.

Post

Learning the Right Nuclear Energy Lessons: A New Paradigm for the Future

nuclear protest in Ukraine

Last month we talked about Fukushima two years on and focused our discussion on making sure we remember the real people whose lives continue to be severely impacted by this accident.  This month, as we also remember Chernobyl on its 27th anniversary, I wanted to talk about the legacy of these events and focus on learning the lessons that are necessary to make the industry stronger and, most of all, improving its support amongst the public.

There have been a number of important positive reports recently that can lead to a better understanding of the consequences to the public of nuclear power.

The first being a study by Japanese researchers who found that internal radiation levels in the population around Fukushima are very low.  “Some 99% of residents of Fukushima prefecture and neighbouring Ibaraki have barely detectable levels of internal exposure to cesium 137, a group of Japanese researchers has found. Of the remaining 1%, all showed levels well below the government-set limit.”  Of interest, the levels are much lower than following the Chernobyl accident and indicate low levels of contamination in the food.  This builds on the recent WHO study I reported on last month that says the risk of adverse health impacts from radiation to the Japanese population is very low.

Second, a study was published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology by Pushker A. Kharecha and James E. Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University Earth Institute.  They found that nuclear power has saved an estimated 80,000 lives annually – 1.84 million in all – since widely introduced in the 1970s and could save another 5 million if construction continues at a decent pace due to a reduction in air pollution.  Nuclear power has also reduced carbon emissions by 64 Gt over the same period.  This study is important because it quantifies the benefits of nuclear power being clean compared to burning fossil fuels.  Its author, James Hansen is considered an environmental activist who has taken hard positions on a number of environmental issues.

And finally a new draft document by the US Environmental Protection Agency that “would change its long-standing advice to state and local governments about how to limit long-term exposure to radiation after a reactor accident or a “dirty bomb” attack. By reducing the projections for how much radiation exposure is likely in the years after such an episode, the proposal could also reduce the amount of contaminated land that would have to be abandoned.”  This is critically important because finally there is starting to be a discussion on how to best respond in the event of an accident in addition to how to prevent accidents in the first place.

So why talk about reports such as these?  Because I think they are a critical step to ensuring we learn the right lessons following Fukushima.  This will lead to improving the response following accidents, and then ultimately starting a meaningful dialogue to reduce the public fear of nuclear power.

In the industry we often see the focus continuing to be on how to both reduce the risk of accidents in the first place and then ensure that even when there is an event there are no releases of radiation to the environment.  These post-Fukushima lessons learned fall into three broad categories:

  • Reducing the risk of an accident by building better protection against such hazards as earthquakes and tsunamis
  • Ensuring continued cooling of the reactors following an event through the use of portable accessible temporary power to replace safety systems that may have been damaged or destroyed on site; and
  • Better Severe Accident Management Guidance (SAMG) so that even after a severe accident there would be no releases. This includes such protections as hardened vents and recombiners to lower the risk of hydrogen explosions and various sorts of strategies for in-containment retention of any melted core.

But while this is all good, it is not going to get us to the solutions we need as it only goes part of the way there.  We also need to demonstrate that we have clear and effective strategies so that even if there are releases we can protect people and keep them safe.  This means a better understanding of the real health risks of radiation exposure so there can be clear guidelines on when to evacuate and of even more importance when to allow people to return.  And there also needs to be clear guidelines for remediation of land following any amount of contamination and how to go about it.

The latter is absolutely necessary because when it comes to public safety and hence public support, the real issue with nuclear power continues to be fear.  While most people would probably accept that nuclear power provides safe and clean electricity under normal operating conditions; the real fear comes from the belief that even if the risk is small, the consequences of a nuclear accident are too severe to be tolerated by society.  And as long as this belief holds, no matter what the industry does to reduce the risk of an accident, the fear will never change.  The more emphasis we put on trying to make it almost impossible for there to be an accident with releases, the stronger the belief that we must do this because the consequences of releases are just too severe to even contemplate.

This makes nuclear a hard sell to the public because the consequence is seen as real while the risk is less relevant.  People evaluate risk by focusing on the severity of consequences and considering their perceived control over them.  Some people are afraid of flying and not driving even though we all know the risk of dying in an auto accident is significantly higher than in a plane crash.  Why?  In part because we all believe that we are good drivers (control) and even if we have an accident we can survive because not all individual car accidents kill people (severity).  Therefore we can convince ourselves that we likely won’t have an accident and even if we do, it won’t be a bad one.  On the other hand, we may fear flying even though we know the risk is small because we also know that if we are the unlucky ones to be on the one plane that does go down, then we will surely die.  And so it goes for nuclear.  While safe most of the time, the public believes that IF there is an accident our communities will be destroyed by contamination and we will either die or even worse our children and grandchildren may also die from cancer in the future.

This is why need a change of paradigm.  What studies such as the ones above actually show is that:

  • Safely operated nuclear plants save lives every day by not polluting our environment as does burning fossil fuels.  These are real lives saved and the numbers are big.
  • Radiation is not as dangerous as most people think especially at low levels of exposure.  While it is a carcinogen, it is a far less potent carcinogen that many others we see in our everyday lives from many forms of pollution.  In fact we use radiation in medicine to save lives by both diagnosing illness and treating diseases such as cancer.
  • Following really bad accidents such as Fukushima; where the entire area was devastated by a huge natural disaster that made it increasingly difficult to manage the nuclear accident at three reactors at the same site; we have still been able to protect people from radiation.  The result being that to date not even one person has died from it; and studies show the risk of dying in the future to be too low to measure.

But we also know that through extreme fear people have died being evacuated in haste; that people have had their lives disrupted with extreme fear of not knowing if they will have health impacts or not; and that governments do not have clear and effective guidelines for how to remediate following such an event leading to fear causing irrational decisions that actually further fuel the fear. And that is why we need more effort on managing consequences and improving accident response.

So let’s learn the right lessons and start the hard work of changing the paradigm.  Let’s demonstrate to the public that they don’t need to be afraid; that nuclear accidents are very rare; that even when the next accident happens (and it will) that we can effectively keep the public safe from health impacts and protect their homes and their families.

Let’s explain to the public that while the risk of a nuclear accident is much lower than being in a plane crash (and air travel is very safe), so are the consequences.  Because we also know that if we are in a plane accident we will most likely die.  What we need to know is that even after the worst possible nuclear accident we will likely not die – and that our families and children will not suffer serious health impacts.

This is the big change.  Understanding that the risk of a nuclear accident is low and the consequences are indeed manageable is essential to reducing the fear that is so strong amongst the public.  And only without fear can nuclear power fully achieve its potential as the way forward to producing clean abundant energy for a better society.  Now this would be a great lesson learned from Fukushima.

Milton Caplan's picture

Thank Milton for the Post!

Energy Central contributors share their experience and insights for the benefit of other Members (like you). Please show them your appreciation by leaving a comment, 'liking' this post, or following this Member.

Discussions

Jesse Parent's picture
Jesse Parent on May 2, 2013 9:01 pm GMT

Yes; with all the talk of renewable energy taking a hit from the develpment of shale gas & tight oil, nuclear is only further put on the back burner. Where are the APA, Energy Tomorrow, Vote4Energy ‘s for the nuclear energy sector? I think it will be very hard for nuclear innovation or even generic advancement here in the US – yet is there a lot of potential in the US? Absolutely. 

James Hopf's picture
James Hopf on May 4, 2013 2:20 am GMT

The consequences of a worst-case nuclear accident are indeed very low.  Fukushima is the only significant release in non-Soviet nuclear’s entire 40+ year history, and even it will have no measurable health impact.  In fact, in terms of public health (and eventual number of deaths), the consequences of Fukushima are far less than those inflicted DAILY by worldwide fossil fueled power generation (i.e., ~1000 deaths every single day, plus global warming).

In terms of economics, much of the economic “cost” of Fukushima is a result of the undue fear of radiation, and the associated absurdly strict requirements/reactions.  Despite that, Fukushima is estimated to cost on the order of $100 billion, which is several times lower than the ANNUAL economic (let alone health) cost of fossil-fueled power generation.  Also of note is the fact that if you divide Fukushima’s cost by the ~100 trillion kW-hrs generated so far by nuclear, you get an “accident cost” of only ~0.1 cents/kW-hr.

Given that there will be no measurable health impacts from Fukushima, I think saying that people “most likely” won’t die is not going far enough.  It would be more accurate (and simple) to say that they WON’T die (period).  Other key lessons are that radiation exposure from nuclear in general is orders of magnitude lower than what people get from natural background, and even in the case of a severe accident (and living in the “contaminated zone”) they are only getting a dose on the same order as what they get from natural background.  Finally, people need to be told that choosing fossil fuels over nuclear (as is now being done in Japan) results in risks to their health that are orders of magnitude greater than any associated with nuclear.  Shutting down nukes increases environmental harm and risks to your family’s health.

Get Published - Build a Following

The Energy Central Power Industry Network is based on one core idea - power industry professionals helping each other and advancing the industry by sharing and learning from each other.

If you have an experience or insight to share or have learned something from a conference or seminar, your peers and colleagues on Energy Central want to hear about it. It's also easy to share a link to an article you've liked or an industry resource that you think would be helpful.

                 Learn more about posting on Energy Central »