Ivo Vegter: Nuclear energy is extraordinarily safe

A lot of opposition to nuclear power is motivated by fears over the safety of nuclear reactors. Chernobyl and Fukushima scared the pants off people. But they’re wrong. Nuclear is by far the safest form of energy on the planet, bar none.

South Africa has had plans to build several new nuclear power stations for a very long time. Since the late 1990s, the government has had plans to build 9,600 GW worth of nuclear power stations, which amounts to about 10 units, or five power stations the size of South Africa’s only commercial nuclear power station, Koeberg.

The process was derailed when president Jacob Zuma took office. Three power stations had gone to tender, and two bidders were selected, namely Westinghouse and Areva, from the US and France, respectively. Zuma placed these plans on hold, and at some point allegedly entered into an agreement with Russia’s Rosatom to build a fleet of nuclear power stations in South Africa.

This wasn’t entirely accurate. South Africa had entered into intergovernmental agreements with the United States in 1995, with South Korea in 2010, and with Russia, China and France in 2014, agreeing to co-operate in the field of nuclear energy. None of these amounts to an agreement to actually build nuclear power stations in South Africa. Figures of $76-billion and $100-billion were bandied about, but these reports appeared to have no basis in any actual proposals. No proposals for nuclear power station builds have yet been requested by government.

In April 2018, two South Africans won a major global environmental prize for bringing and winning a court case against the government over its nuclear procurement programme. They were Makoma Lekalakala, from Earthlife Africa, and Liz McDaid, of the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute.

The high court ruling set aside three of the intergovernmental agreements, involving Russia, the US and South Korea. It also set aside the government’s determination that new nuclear generation capacity was required and needed to be procured. This means that any new nuclear procurement process will have to start from scratch, complete with parliamentary debates and public participation.

The environmental organisations claimed it as a victory, but the case was decided on procedural grounds, not on grounds of nuclear safety.

When Cyril Ramaphosa took office in early 2018, he was quick to say South Africa could not afford new nuclear power stations. This is trivially true. The government has no money for anything, really. But again, environmental groups celebrated.

In future columns, I intend to address the question of whether nuclear energy is affordable as part of the energy mix in South Africa, and whether or not renewable energy, or indeed anything else, can substitute for nuclear power if South Africa wishes to reduce emissions from electricity generation.

The opposition to South Africa’s nuclear programme has been driven by environmentalists, and nuclear safety is a major reason for public opposition against individual nuclear build locations. To date, five sites have been identified, in Thyspunt near St. Francis Bay in the Eastern Cape, Duynefontein near Cape Town, Schulpfontein and Brazil on the west coast of the Northern Cape not far from Springbok, and Bantamsklip between Hermanus and Cape Agulhas in the Western Cape. The first two have had environmental impact assessments done.

The risks with nuclear are just too high,” declared McDaid in a newspaper interview in April 2018.

I believe that if people have the facts, they will choose differently. This is what we are doing through our campaigning. For example, there is so much we don’t know about the future impacts of nuclear waste, which continues to grow every year. Koeberg alone generates approximately thirty (30) tons of high-level waste per year – all stored at the plant. Furthermore, the Chernobyl disaster, which happened 39 years ago this week, and Fukushima still continue to provide evidence of the enormous risks of nuclear.”

If she’s so big on facts, let’s consider some facts. Starting with the fact that Chernobyl didn’t happen 39 years ago, but 42 years ago, on 25 and 26 April of 1986. For someone who spent her life campaigning against nuclear power, you’d think that this date would be engraved in her mind.

To work out how safe energy is, anecdotes are not useful. Like photographs, they can be arresting and scary, but they do not provide any understanding of the big picture. What you really want to do is look at statistics.

Brian Wang, a futurist, lecturer at the Singularity University and the popular author of the NextBigFuture website, has done the rather complicated sums in this very well-sourced article. He calculated the number of deaths attributable to a particular source of energy, per unit of energy produced. The results are dramatic.

Coal kills a lot of people. Not only does it kill coal miners, but it kills the rest of us because of particulate pollution. Coal in the US (10 deaths per TWh) is far, far safer than coal in China (325 deaths per TWh), thanks to better mine safety and clean air regulations, but still, coal is dirty and deadly.

Oil, which accounts for 40% of the world’s energy use, comes in second. It is also a pollutant, and drilling for oil is a very dangerous job. Biofuel, biomass and peat make up third spot, again largely because of pollution.

Hydro is extremely safe, and if you substract only a single catastrophic dam failure in China in 1975, its death rate drops to 0.1 per TWh, rivalling the safety of wind and solar.

Yet the winner, at 2.5 times safer than even solar power, is nuclear power. It provides more than 10% of all the world’s electricity, yet it has killed almost nobody.

Many opponents of nuclear power point to Chernobyl, as McDaid does. The point isn’t that failures are common, they argue, but that when they happen they are so catastrophic.

That’s like pointing to an aeroplane or train crash, and concluding that flying or rail transport is more dangerous than, say, walking, cycling or driving a car. Even though train or plane accidents can be big and scary, these modes of transport are statistically far safer than any other. The plural of “anecdote” is not “data”.

Worse, the examples don’t even support the argument. Chernobyl was an old reactor design, built and operated by the engineers of the Soviet Union, which was never renowned for its high regard for safety, and was soon to collapse.

Today’s third-generation nuclear plants are not built to Soviet safety standards, but are many times safer.

Many environmental groups estimate the past and future death toll of Chernobyl to be as high as a million people. That is absurd. It is way out of line with the official death toll, which amounts to 28 people who died as a result of radiation exposure during or after the Chernobyl disaster, and about 15 cases of thyroid cancer in children.

There is a great deal of uncertainty about the potential future death toll, even among sane experts. To date, Chernobyl has been blamed for a “substantial fraction” of 6,000 reported cases of thyroid cancer, although the actual size of that fraction is not disclosed. There is little evidence of any measurable health effects beyond this.

From decades of research, the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) reported, “...it can be concluded that although those exposed to radioiodine as children or adolescents and the emergency and recovery operation workers who received high doses are at increased risk of radiation-induced effects, the vast majority of the population need not live in fear of serious health consequences from the Chernobyl accident.”

Fukushima is an even worse example to illustrate the dangers of nuclear power. On the contrary, it demonstrates how extraordinarily safe nuclear power is. Here we had a 40-year-old power station, older than Chernobyl, run by a cash-strapped and corner-cutting operator, hit by a double whammy of an earthquake and a tsunami, both of which exceeded what the installation had been designed for.

Initially, the plant worked as advertised. When the earthquake struck, the nuclear reactors promptly shut down. A reactor that has been powered down needs several days of cooling, however. The tsunami knocked out the main cooling systems, the diesel tanks for the backup generators, as well as the power lines into the plant. Later attempts to relieve steam pressure resulted in a hydrogen explosion that knocked the outer roof off one of the reactors. This was an absolute worst-case scenario.

Six workers died in the resulting clean-up operation, though none died of radiation exposure. Other than that, Fukushima claimed no casualties. In fact, there were no observed health effects at all in the general public, and any effects in workers would not likely be discernible, according to the experts. An observed increase in thyroid abnormalities following the accident was entirely attributed to more intensive screening.

No deterministic effects from radiation exposure had been observed among the public and none had been expected,” UNSCEAR concluded in 2016.

In a panic, the Japanese government evacuated 170,000 people from the region around the Fukushima reactor. Only 20,000 of them went willingly. The evacuation, unlike the reactor accident, did have a death toll. More than 50 people died from causes such as hypothermia, deterioration of underlying medical problems, and dehydration.

A study of the health effects of radiation and other health problems in the aftermath of nuclear accidents, with an emphasis on Fukushima, found:

After the accident, mortality among evacuated elderly people needing nursing care increased by about three times in the first 3 months after evacuation and remained about 1.5 times higher than before the accident.”

In fact, the major lesson from the Fukushima nuclear power plant (NPP) is:

The Fukushima Daiichi NPP accident showed the health risks of unplanned evacuation and relocation for vulnerable people such as hospital inpatients and elderly people needing nursing care, and failure to respond to emergency medical needs at the NPP.”

The high numbers of deaths anticipated by anti-nuclear campaigners are almost all based on what is known as the “linear no-threshold (LNT) model”. It presumes that there is no threshold below which exposure to radiation is safe. It deduces the effects of low doses on a large population from the measurable effects of high doses on a small population.

If, say, a given high radiation dose causes an increased risk of cancer in 100 out of 1,000 observed people, the assumption would be that a tenth of that dose would cause the same in 10 cases, and a hundredth of that dose would do so in one case.

But that’s like saying that because being hit by a bullet fired from a gun kills 50 out of 100 people, a bullet thrown at those same people at one 50th of the speed would still kill one person. Or that because dropping a 10kg weight onto 20 people killed 10 of them, dropping a 100g weight onto 200 people would also kill 10 of them.

Since the 1970s, and at the behest of radiation safety activists, the LNT model has widely been used to set regulatory limits around radiation. In the scientific community, however, it has widely been rejected.

Low doses of nuclear radiation simply do not pose the same risk as high doses. The LNT model doesn’t even account for the duration of exposure. In fact, the linear no-threshold relationship is inconsistent with radiation biologic and experimental data, declared a paper published in 2009. It found, not surprisingly, that the body is entirely capable of healing small injuries, and that there exists a threshold below which nuclear radiation is quite safe. In fact, there is some evidence that low doses can be beneficial to humans. We certainly know that while radiation can cause cancer, it is also used medicinally to combat cancer.

LNT was a useful model half a century ago,” the authors wrote.

But current radiation protection concepts should be based on facts and on concepts consistent with current scientific results and not on opinions. Preconceived concepts impede progress; in the case of the LNT model, they have resulted in substantial medical, economic, and other societal harm.”

Finally, there is the perennial argument about nuclear waste.

It lasts for thousands of years!” we are told, by people who betray a total misunderstanding of nuclear physics.

Generally speaking, it isn’t the stuff with long half-lives you need to be worried about. Elements that decay rapidly initially give off stronger radiation than elements that decay slowly. (This is a gross over-simplification, of course. Much depends on the actual element involved, the type of radiation that is emitted, and the nature of the exposure.)

Unlike nuclear waste, toxic waste like lead, chromium and cadmium from solar panels and wind turbines lasts forever. Solar panels produce 300 times more toxic waste for the same energy output than nuclear power stations do.

Nuclear reactors produce very little waste. As McDaid said, all of the high-level waste Koeberg produces is stored on-site. The same is true for Pelindaba, where a research reactor produces radionucleotides, primarily for nuclear medicine.

Panicked activists think that nuclear waste might cause a nuclear explosion “if not stored properly”, but that is just insane. Nuclear explosions don’t just happen by accident. If they did, countries would not spend decades, and billions of dollars, trying to build nuclear devices that actually do explode.

Intermediate and low-level waste from Koeberg is stored at a single facility at Vaalputs in the Northern Cape. There, it takes up negligible space, and causes no harm to anyone or anything.

The small amount of nuclear waste produced by nuclear reactors is not difficult to store safely or dispose of. What to do with nuclear waste is simply not a good argument against nuclear power.

At a recent seminar, Leon Louw, executive director of the Free Market Foundation, took the provocative view that there should be an occasional Chernobyl, because the cost of preventing any accident at all would be prohibitive. Nobody holds any other form of energy, or indeed any human activity, to such impossibly high standards.

Nuclear is its own worst enemy, banging on about safety,” said Louw, arguing that people are naturally sceptical of an industry that keeps having to advertise its product as safe.

Nuclear energy really is extraordinarily safe. The industry ought to be advertising its other great advantages, such as its reliability, the low cost of the energy it generates, and that it produces zero emissions and almost no other pollution.

People who keep spreading public alarm about nuclear safety promote pseudoscience and outright lies. The neuroses and fears of environmental radicals should not affect public policy. We should dismiss them out of hand as inconsistent with the scientific evidence. DM