A few years back when James Lovelock came out in favour of nuclear energy, the wailing and gnashing of teeth among environmentalists was something to behold. It was understandable.
After all, Lovelock was the man whose theory of the earth as a living organism (the Gaia hypothesis) inspired millions to adopt the new creed.
Green outrage at Lovelock’s volte-face was softened when he explained that he still believed man’s activities were slowly frying the planet. It was just that nuclear energy was the only clean energy available in sufficient quantity. It was clean because it didn’t produce much, if any, of that ghastly carbon dioxide stuff.
Only slightly mollified, some still grumbled that now many countries would plan to build more nuclear power stations. Indeed, for a while sanity prevailed and they did – including South Africa.
Then along came a tsunami and its effects on the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. Attacks on nuclear energy sharply increased. So loud was the noise that the German government pulled the plug on its plans for expanding nuclear electricity generation.
Other governments did not go as far, but tried to keep quiet. The French, who have long depended for 80 percent of their electricity needs on nuclear plants, continued to sell power surpluses to the Germans.
This situation is interesting, because if carbon dioxide is the poison the green lobby says it is, nuclear is clearly the way to go. Lovelock was right.
Since a green guru like Lovelock can change his mind, those who think more, shout less and doubt mankind’s puny power can much affect the climate are beginning to re-examine anti-nuclear myths designed to scare the daylights out of us.
n Myth 1: All nuclear radiation creates horrific burns and then kills people. That is what the world thought after Nagasaki and Hiroshima were bombed with nuclear weapons back in 1945. Radiation burns on the survivors were so terrible that pictures of them were suppressed. However, we have learned a lot more since then. Public fear should have modified as a result. The myth is regularly freshened up in the media, the embers regularly stoked up by environmentalists.
n Myth 2: All radioactive materials take many thousands of years to degrade to a safe state. Not true. Some do. Some don’t. Some are safe to humans within days.
n Myth 3: All radioactive waste is so toxic and takes so long to become safe that it is impossible to dispose of it safely. We used to think so, but we now know better. Most nuclear waste is very low level and is safe for humans to handle within a month. The very high level waste that comes out of a reactor core is so small in volume that a year’s worth will fit in your bathroom. It can be safely stored until it is harmless.
n Myth 4: All nuclear waste is of no possible economic use. Not true either. Quite a lot of it degrades into substances worth much more than gold.
n Myth 5: Nuclear power stations are filthy. Nope. Modern ones are silent and almost pristinely clean.
n Myth6: Nuclear power stations emit poisonous gases. No. They emit nothing. The cooling water that goes back into the sea was never in the reactor, only in the steam turbines.
n Myth 7: (South Africa specific) Koeberg is in a potential earthquake zone and should one big enough happen, it could crack open and spill poisonous radiation. This myth is true and false. Koeberg is in a potential earthquake zone, it is true, but the risk is very small. However, the whole plant rests on a rubber platform. It is designed to shake not break, even in an earthquake more powerful than Fukushima. It can also take higher tsunamis and survive.
In the unlikely event of a large earthquake damaging Koeberg to the extent that radiation is released, Cape Town probably would not survive the earthquake either. Don’t lose sleep over the possibility.
n Myth 8: All nuclear power stations run the risk of blowing up like Chernobyl, threatening to burn a hole through the earth like Three Mile Island or being flattened by tsunamis like Fukushima. All of this is untrue or highly unlikely.
Chernobyl was built in the 1950s. It was hopelessly out of date and poorly maintained; it was unsafe, and built by the Russians to provide fuel for bombs. Electricity generation was secondary.
Three Mile Island did not melt down.
Fukushima was not a nuclear accident. It was not even directly caused by the tsunami. Things went wrong because of poor disaster management.
One can almost hear the whine of turbocharged anger building up to demolish the above and probably add more nuclear myths. So be it.
However, those who hate the thought of nuclear power generators should accept that nuclear-powered electricity fits into their “carbon dioxide is a deadly climate poison” argument. Coal-fired power stations certainly do not. Neither does wind generation. Photovoltaics have a lot of catching up to do. They do have a chance, though.
Human ingenuity being what it is, one day there will be a power generation solution that does fit green demands. However, we don’t know when and most of us don’t fancy doing without electricity while we wait. There are already interim – and even potentially permanent – solutions to electricity shortages that seem on the cusp of becoming realities.
Some are better than others. Some foretell neighbourhood power stations. Others hold promise of off-grid living for other than the rich or eccentric. Some offer the prospect of as great a change to the way we live as cellphones.
There is no need to be crying “Nuclear Wolf”. Complain about the cost, by all means. Shout loudly about corruption too, but relax about nuclear power.
Be comforted by the fact that no Frenchmen glow in the dark and check all doomsday projections with someone who has a degree in mathematics.
Keith Bryer is a retired communications consultant.