Chernobyl, Fukushima … what next?

By Joern Fischer

Some conservationists argue that nuclear energy will be part of the solution to solve our climate problem. Who can say whether they’re right? I suspect that in many cases it’s a question of where exactly nuclear energy should be used, and to what extent. But two things are clear to me: doing without nuclear energy altogether, and going fully renewable, is preferable; and the fact that accidents do happen must not be ignored when discussing the “clean” solution of nuclear energy. There’s no such thing as entirely safe nuclear energy.

On this note, I’d like to highlight a new paper to you, which I had the pleasure to co-author. It’s a review of the long-term consequences of the Chernobyl accident — in scale somewhat similar to what we can expect from the recent Fukushima disaster. The paper is available for download here.

In the paper, we show that the consequences of nuclear disasters are highly uncertain and highly variable, both in space and time. Decades after the Chernobyl accident, some aspects of biodiversity and some ecosystem services remain seriously affected, even hundreds of kilometers from the accident site. Radiation levels are far higher than considered ‘safe’ in many species, and near the disaster site, there have been morphological changes in some species — which will have unknown consequences for evolutionary trajectories.

So, yes, nuclear energy has a better carbon footprint than fossil-fuel based options. But let’s not forget that accidents do happen: in fact, by definition, accident aren’t supposed to happen (but do) … that’s what makes them accidents! Those accidents can seriously damage ecosystems, and ecosystem services that we benefit from, for many decades.

So what? — To my simple mind, renewable energy seems worth trying for, whenever possible.

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29 thoughts on “Chernobyl, Fukushima … what next?

  1. A very interesting post Joern, and thanks for drawing attention to your co-authored paper on this. I look forward to reading it. My thoughts are close to your own on this “nuclear is the better of two evils” debate, though I admit that my thoughts have changed a bit since following George Monbiot’s blog on the subject:

    http://www.monbiot.com/category/nuclear/

    Readers of the blog may be interested in following the various arguments he puts forwards. Monbiot is a passionate environmentalist and once campaigned hard against nuclear so he is worth reading.

  2. Thanks for pointing this out Toby — for other readers, this is an interesting link, for example (one of the one’s highlighted by Toby): http://www.monbiot.com/2012/03/15/press-release-why-we-have-written-to-cameron/
    It is true (and intuitive) that Germany’s carbon emissions have increased since it chose to abandon nuclear power. This is a problem indeed.

    But on the other hand: how can you argue that Japan’s fossil fuel consumption has gone up, and therefore turning off outdated nuclear power plants is not the right choice? I think it’s interesting, and alarming, that we’ve come to serious accidents more often than most people know about: serious incidences have been reported in many countries, including Germany. From serious incident to meltdown is a fine line. People are now worried about France, with its dated power plants…
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_civilian_nuclear_accidents

    Anyway, to me the point is: fossil fuels is a big no-no; nuclear is something that might buy us time in some locations, but ultimately, we should use renewables as much as possible.

    And as to Germany’s increase in fossil fuel use: I am convinced that with enough political will years ago (when Germany first decided to go all renewable, under a left-wing government), it would have been possible to be very close to achieving that goal by now, rather than still having it in the future.
    If the real goal can be achieved, why aim for something half-way?

    All this said, this is obviously complex, and my expertise is ecology, not energy or climate science — so discussion is of course welcome.

  3. Joern – I think you’ve completely missed the point. Sure, people (and some biodiversity) will die with nuclear energy, but orders of magnitude more will (and are already – just look at the mortality stats for coal-fired power plants alone) die if we don’t embrace nuclear energy wholeheartedly. It’s a simple numbers game. Remember – not a single person died from the Fukushima meltdown.

    Another problem with your argument is that renewables CANNOT meet demand alone now, let alone future requirements.

    • Thanks for your comment.

      My points were to highlight that (1) the costs and risks of potential accidents are usually ignored in debates about this; and (2) greater political will to invest in renewable energy would probably make a big difference. I’ll add that this would have major implications for how exactly the energy cake is split between fossil, nuclear, and renewable.

      As to “CANNOT”: many things can’t be done, including flying to the moon (some time in the past) and alleviating poverty (at present). So should we try to do something about those anyway? We constantly find ourselves having to choose which baseline we take as given. Do we take human population growth as given? How about dietary preferences in wealthy nations, or the need for air-conditioning? Do we take unhalted economic growth as given? Do we take climate warming as given? Do we take insufficient energy storage problems as given? And so on. At which point to start your analysis is in fact subjective, though typically implicit. Different analysts take different things as given, and then end up arguing a lot. Even for mental models, the assumptions could be drawn out explicitly much more frequently.

      My point is not to argue that all nuclear energy must be abandoned today. But an important point that is frequently forgotten is that we are subjective in what we take as given. This ignores that by wanting to make something happen, humanity has a chance to make things happen that weren’t already happening anyway.

      A backcasting mindset (as opposed to a forecasting one) is used too rarely, to my mind. This is about choosing where we want to go, and then working on making that happen. This is not a scientific argument, it’s a philosophical one, as to how “big problems” (which require some vision) ought to best be tackled. See this paper:
      http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0016328796000444

      I believe (meaning I don’t have facts to back it up with) that if major governments did decide to invest in renewables in a big way, this would probably change what mix of energy sources is ultimately possible.

      Anyway, I repeat: my point is not that all nuclear must go today. My point is that the possibility of accidents must not be ignored because those have costs. If it’s all about costs and benefits (which I believe is too simple, but a good start), then at least those costs must be considered.

    • There have been quite a number of deaths of workers at Fukushima, and every time it hits the news here in Tokyo, they are quick to add that the deaths are unrelated to the accident. It had begun to stretch all levels of credulity to think that of all the people dying, not a single person has died as a result of the meltdown.

      • Why? Do you have any idea of normal death and disease rates? One thing is pretty certain, if any of the workers at the plant when the Tsunami hit were working in any other coastal business, they’d more than likely be dead. They were in the safest place on the coast.

        Consider any 100,000 people in Japan (about the number evacuated by some accounts). How many will have got cancer in the following 12 months (google globocan for the latest Japanese cancer stats)? At 615,517 new cancers in 2008 in a population of 128 million, you’d have around 484 new cancers per 100,000 and 269 deaths (some of whom will be from the 484). If they put those in the papers every day would you be thinking it must be from radiation. Is the age structure of the 100,000 evacuated similar to the national average? If not then the figure I calculated could be significantly different from the actual number (by up to about a factor of 2).

        Did they announce TEPCO worker deaths before the Fukushima accident? Of course not. So you have absolutely nothing to base your judgement on. Radiation isn’t magic. Doctors know plenty about what it can and can’t cause, especially with acute high level exposures. They also know that illness and deaths from stress go up in people with post traumatic stress. Most of the stress in the entire Japanese population and the accompanying death and disease is as a result of radiation mythology. The trauma to children of having people in radiation suits scanning them is a direct consequence of this misinformation. Why were those people in radiation suits? What possible risk did the children pose? None. Mass terror to children has been a deplorable consequence of this phobic attitude to radiation.

        Cancer in Japan? Are you really concerned about cancer? In 2008 there were over 101,000 new bowel cancers in Japan. In 1975 Japan had about 20,000 new bowel cancers in 111 million people. HUGE increase, did you notice? Does anybody give a damn? What caused it? You added red and processed meat to your diet. These cause bowel cancer. The World Cancer Research Fund in 2007 said people should entirely cease consumption of processed meat and limit red meat. You could have a Fukushima accident every year and not bother evacuating and you would never come close to causing this many cancers. Radiation in quite large amounts is still far, far safer than red and processed meat or sake or cigarettes. It isn’t just bowel cancer that has risen but also prostate and breast cancer. Japan is experiencing a vast wave of unnecessary cancer and doing nothing about it, and along comes a little radiation and you implement a campaign which will traumatise many children? Do you have kids? Do you let them eat sausages? Do you let your friends feed their children sausages or bacon?

        P.S. here’s the historical bowel cancer stats:
        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17059355

  4. Joern, as an ecologist and conservation biologist myself, with a strong interest in climate-change mitigation and climate impacts on biodiversity, I’ve been thinking about these issues a lot. I’d also like to see renewable energy prosper, but a hard look at the numbers and realities of intermittency, costs, and required scale of energy storage, etc., have convinced me that this is not viable as a whole or sufficient solution. We MUST include nuclear in the mix, and then let the best and most situation-appropriate technologies succeed (something that you may agree on, based on the above blog).

    I’m not here to spruik my own blog, but I should leave a few supporting statements. Here is a recent post looking at the feasibility of large-scale renewables, done by a Finnish physicist friend of mine:

    Solar combined with wind power: a way to get rid of fossil fuels?
    http://bravenewclimate.com/solar-wind-combined

    And here is a video I did with a friend on sustainable energy options and nuclear:

  5. Thanks Barry. I’ll check out the links, and I’m sure they’ll be of interests to the readers of this blog. I’d be interested in your views on my points above.

    Having gleaned through (rather than studied intensively) the blog post you linked to, this is convincing — taking certain things as given. It is very much a forecasting approach to life, which dominates science today. This doesn’t mean it’s not valuable or not true, given present facts — but is it possible we could change the game altogether, just by wanting to? Can anyone really predict what the technological developments will be if major governments did decide to invest into renewables?

    To me, this is partly about the reality we see today, and partly about a reality we can yet create. We typically forget about the second part.

    Anyway there’s a rant. Thanks for engaging with the argument!

  6. It’s great that you’ve gathered so much information into one paper, but I’m hoping some group finds the time, money and energy to do a major review and not just a mini review. I’d like to know how many of the 521 studies found very little except levels of something above a level. I.e., something like meta analyses of the field.

    But the big thing missing from most such discussions are the eco-costs of alternatives … as Corey says, its a numbers game. A recent renewable scenario/proposal discussed on BNC (http://bravenewclimate.com/2012/02/27/100-renewable-electricity-for-australia-response-to-lang/ and critiqued here
    http://bravenewclimate.com/2012/03/21/trainer-critique-edm/) relies on biofuel backups involving the regular harvesting of millions of hectares of biofuel of various forms. Its tough to compare the risk of an accident with the absolute certainty of wildlife destruction on a massive scale for biofuel production but it needs to be done. All up, the renewable footprint is massive. But conservationists tend to ignore such things since the cost may not be to a species but only to individual animals who have no value to most conservationists unless rare or endangered.

    • Dear all!
      As first author of the article I welcome that we triggered a discussion already. Let me come clear that although I made a strong statement with the facts condensed into the article I do not think we can altogether quit nuclear power today. Instead I believe we need more knowledge, and as a scientist working in conservation I am rather conservative, thus in this case I want to maximize our ability to conserve life on the planet.
      Please allow me to first clarify some misunderstandings I had so far:

      1) It is true that no one died in Fukushima because of radiation. Would I consider making vacations there? Definitely not! It is rather cynical to state that no one died, because fatalities are probably going to match figures from Chernobyl. There, at least 200 000 people die because of the radiation, and even 1 000 000 may be realistic (http://www.strahlentelex.de/Yablokov%20Chernobyl%20book.pdf). This easily outperforms fatalities deriving from coal, at least without considering climate change. Yet if we play with numbers, lets see that we get them right, and information quality is a major topic here, with even the WHO publishing wrong figures about Chernobyl fatalities.

      2) Right now it is absolutely true that renewables will not do the trick, yet increasing research would probably help. Coal and even nuclear fuel are going to run out some time, thus if we do not shift to something else, we are anyway doomed. If cold fusion does the trick, would be nice. But still we need research on all topics. We need long term solutions, the fact that Japan is right now short of energy is not a helpful perspective, because they messed up nuclear, and obviously this is not a standard situation right now. Also, please note that Germany by law exists nuclear energy in the following years, all older nuclear plants are shut off, and we shall explore other energy sources. I can understand that we need nuclear in the mix right now, yet I consider the information in the movie as a bit one sided, and also not really boosted by facts. Of course that not what movies are for, yet I believe we should keep to the facts, and that is the long lasting impact of nuclear disasters on the ecosystem. Right now the Bill Gates foundation is building smaller reactors together with China, and that from the folks who brought us windows!

      3) I truly agree that we need more knowledge on the impact of nuclear disasters, which is one of the main outcomes of our mini-review. Please be assured that right now we want to get a PhD on that topic, and we are looking forward to some in depth results. However please consider that we did not have the maximum scenario yet. If a reactor seriously blows up because molten lava reaches water, then we would have a quite different scenario. In the case of Chernobyl, they sent divers into the heavily contaminated water to manually release the water below the reactor. The chief investigator of the soviets commented this later as “it was 1941 all over again”, because it was clear these divers sacrificed themselves for their country. The explosion that was thus prevented would have leveled all trees in at least a 100 km radius, and wide areas of eastern Europe would have been unfit for humans and wildlife for quite some decades.

      4) The USA had their own little accident at Three Mile island. There, for some very long minutes the engineers thought that president Jimmy Carter received a lethal dose of radiation while visiting the critical facility. He insisted on taking a closer look, although at that time it was suggested that the power plant could blow up any time. There is a video where Carter discusses with his staff on how to proceed if he is lethally contaminated. Luckily, after a few minutes they realized that they misread his dosimeter. Thus nuclear technology seems to be really on top of things. Maybe still it would be good to know a bit more, which is again the main point of our review. We need more knowledge and better communication structures to understand the impact of nuclear disasters.

      Allow me to cite a recent e-mail contact with a colleague of mine from Japan, whose wife is from Fukushima:

      “I’ll do my best to investigate Fukushima even in high polluted areas,
      because anyone will have to do.
      We never give up!”

      He will investigate the effect of the nuclear accident on freshwater communities and ecosystems. I strongly encourage all people who think we demand on nuclear energy and also consider it safe to help him in that endeavor.

      Warmest greetings!

      HVW

      • A million people got cancer after Chernobyl? What kind of cancer? Where are the bodies? Why is the total cancer rate in Ukraine only 2/3 of that in Australia? Why is the leukemia rate in Ukraine is 5.8 while it’s 9.6 in Australia. Are all the cancer victims perhaps emigrating to Australia to die? I wouldn’t have bothered commenting on this blog article if I had realised the first author of the study was a WHO conspiracy nutter.

      • Henrik, I wasn’t going to get involved again and am pleased to see Will has made many of the important points in a more technical manner than I would. The 1 million deaths estimate is just bizarre. Leukemia cases in 2008 in Ukraine were 3599, Belarus 852, Russia 11028. Thyroid cases are similar. To find a million deaths, you need to postulate a whole bunch of diseases or cancers for which there is no epidemiological evidence that they can be caused by ionising radiation … or you need to just make stuff up.

        Consider Helen Caldicott here:
        http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/apr/11/nuclear-apologists-radiation

        She talks about “internal emitters” and “high energy alphas” but doesn’t even bother to name any isotope that can produce such high energy alphas. Neither i-131 or cs-137 emits high energy alphas. If you are going to make stuff up, you should at least try to be consistent. She gets away with rubbish like this in books and the media because she talks mainly to the converted and doesn’t debate with experts. Monbiot wiped the floor with her and a real radiation expert would have done even better. At Chernobyl there would have been some high energy alpha emitters but you still need to establish bioaccumulation … as has been done with i-131 in the thyroid. It wasn’t just one or two people involved in the WHO/UNSCEAR reports but a large number and in the associated studies. To argue that they are all wrong, you at least need the bodies.

  7. Dear Geoff Russel!
    Many thanks for your rather emotional reply! I am sorry if I generated the impression that I consider any sort of conspiracy as existing and relevant for the discussion. However since the figures published widely differ there is certainly room for criticism, and several liquidators suffering from health damages consider the WHO numbers as inadequate. I would suggest the recent report from “The New York Academy of Sciences” (see link in previous post) as very helpful, also since it made much information so far only available in Russian available to an international community. It is beyond my expertise to compare cancer rates on a global scale, yet I consider the rates in the surrounding of the Chernobyl site as clearly elevated, and quite some papers back me up on this. However, this was surely beyond the focus of our paper. I would not like piling up bodies, yet if someone ignores elevated cancer rates due to Chernobyl then probably that person is more of a “conspiracy nutter” compared to me. Personally, I would however refrain from using a suchlike phrase, thus I am only reflecting it.

    HVW

    • NYAS did publish the Yablokov book, however they did not review it. It is not peer-reviewed at all. So I’m unsure why anyone would think their results are more appropriate than those of WHO or UNSCEAR, especially given the amount of criticism it received from those working in the field.

  8. It is surprising that all major public health issues in the world are investigated in thorough meta-analyses, when the official reports from Chernobyl Forum supported by UN, WHO and IAEA provide nothing but narrative reviews of a small sub-sample of the studies of the effects of Chernobyl. Why are these meta-analyses not done yet? von Wehrden et al. have done the scientific community and society at large a great service by compiling the so far largest compilation of studies of the consequences of radiation from Chernobyl.

    Anders Pape Møller

  9. Interesting discussion, everybody. I woud like to add two points:

    (1) Weighing different technological options is an important part when debating solutions to our energy problem. As a co-author on the paper, I avocate that environmental considerations should be an important point when considering the risks of nuclear accidents and nuclear energy, as a whole. I agree with Joern and Henrik that reducing nuclear energy to zero is impossible at the given time.
    However, I would be more then willing to embrace nuclear energy if I knew that we have maxed out all other possibilities to solve the problem. But I just don’t see it, yet. – After all, technological obstacles are just the surface of the problem. The deep roots and cause of our problem is our energy demand, our overconsumption and waste. Just think about the fact that wealthy countries waste 50% of their food (and the fact that we have given it attention only as recently as in the last years). I agree with Joern that we shouldn’t take the current energy demand as a baseline to make predictions about the future. There are many opportunities waiting for us to curb down our consumption and minimize our waste. Call me a an optimist but I believe that these measures are an easier challenge than flying to the moon.

    (2) My second point concerns an issue that is sometimes overlooked when debating the pros and cons of different energy options: we need to talk about waste. In this respect, nuclear energy is by far the most risky and unsustainable option. We produce nuclear waste at a higher rate than it can decay. Lucky you if you live in a country with pristine areas where you can dump of waste far from human civilization. But in densily populated countries, nuclear waste turns into a problem. Who wants nuclear waste in his/her backyard? This is much debated currently in Germany, after several barrels of nuclear waste in the mine pit “Asse II” have been found to be leaking and threatened by corrosion and mine collapse; there is real danger that the nuclear waste could enter the biosphere. One should keep in mind that the pit was assumed to be safe, initially. – Where should we store our nuclear waste? Sure, we can ship it to less populated regions, like Siberia (http://www.spiegel.de/international/spiegel/0,1518,655934,00.html). We can also “lease” uranium from less developed countries (buy the uranium, use it, and send the waste back to its country of origin: http://www.nytimes.com/gwire/2011/08/23/23greenwire-official-us-in-early-talks-about-intl-nuclear-96182.html?pagewanted=all). Clearly, we need to include nuclear waste and social justice into our debates when assessing the pros and cons of nuclear energy.

  10. @ Henrik von Wehrden,

    Your sources drastically overestimate the Chernobyl cancer toll; meanwhile, you drastically underestimate the death toll from the fossil fuels that nuclear power replaces. When properly accounted, nuclear power is safer, by orders of magnitude, than our current fossil fuel-dominated energy system.

    You rely on the Yablokov report for an estimate of 200,000 cancer deaths from Chernobyl (actually, 264,000). This report has been severely criticized by radiation scientists—for example, see Radiation Protection Dosimetry (2010) vol 1 issue 1 pp. 97-101—and even by other anti-nuke groups, like the Union of Concerned Scientists. (http://allthingsnuclear.org/post/4704112149/how-many-cancers-did-chernobyl-really-cause-updated) The studies surveyed by Yablokov are rife with methodological flaws, including a failure to quantify and correlate radiation doses with health effects and a failure to consider confounding variables, including reporting biases and other causes that might explain post-Chernobyl increases in mortality and morbidity. Yablokov et al assume that any increase in death and illness that occurred after 1986 was a result of Chernobyl radiation. That’s not a defensible conclusion, considering the upheaval the region endured during that period because of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which brought with it economic decline, demographic shifts, soaring rates of poverty and alcoholism and the breakdown of public health services—all of which can strongly skew the health effects spotlighted by Yablokov.

    More reliable estimates put the Chernobyl toll much lower.

    One methodological approach is to estimate the total radiation dose caused by Chernobyl and then calculate a resulting cancer toll based on risk factors derived from studies of Hiroshima survivors and others who absorbed much larger radiation doses. Elisabeth Gronlund of the anti-nuke Union of Concerned scientists, for example, calculates a total Chernobyl cancer death toll, including deaths yet to come, of 27,000, (http://allthingsnuclear.org/post/4704112149/how-many-cancers-did-chernobyl-really-cause-updated) which is in line with a consensus of radiation epidemiologists using that methodology.

    But the empirical evidence from careful epidemiological studies finds that Chernobyl health effects are much smaller than these calculated, but not observed, figures.

    Still the best overview is the 2008 summary of the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Airborne Radiation. (www.unscear.org/docs/reports/2008/11-80076_Report_2008_Annex_D.pdf.) This authoritative report shows that there were indeed some serious health effects from Chernobyl in addition to the dozens of emergency workers who died of acute radiation poisoning. The main one was a spike in thyroid cancers among people who were children—adults were not susceptible—at the time of the accident; the 6,000 additional thyroid cancers resulted in just 15 deaths, because thyroid cancer is readily treatable. (The thyroid cancer epidemic could have been prevented by simple public health measures like prescribing potassium iodide or a ban on milk drinking in areas where cows grazed on iodine-131-contaminated grass, neither of which the Soviet government instituted. The Japanese government did institute these measure after Fukushima, so there will be no thyroid cancer epidemic there.) In addition, some, but not all, studies find modest increases in leukemia rates among Chernobyl emergency and clean-up workers who absorbed unusually high radiation doses, an effect that wavers on the border of statistical significance. (For example, see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19138038).

    Other than these, UNSCEAR found no conclusive epidemiological evidence of any serious health effects from Chernobyl among civilians—no elevated non-thyroid cancer rates, nothing. The notion that Chernobyl caused a non-thyroid cancer epidemic, or any significant cancer mortality at all, is simply false. The toll from the Fukushima accident, which emitted much less radioactivity, most of which blew out to sea, will be even smaller, and in fact unobservable.

    Chernobyl’s effects are trivial in the context of the colossal harms from coal-burning power plants. According to recent studies by the Clean Air Task Force (www.catf.us/resources/publications/files/The_Toll_from_Coal.pdf) and the American Lung Association (www.lungusa.org/assets/documents/healthy-air/toxic-air-report.pdf) , about 13,000 people die each year in the United States from air pollution from coal-burning power plants. It’s much worse in China; depending on the estimate, 300,000 to 700,000 people a year die from outdoor air pollution there, much of it from coal-burning boilers in power plants. (http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTEAPREGTOPENVIRONMENT/Resources/China_Cost_of_Pollution.pdf, Appendix A.1, p.100). Worldwide, the World Health Organization estimates that about 1.2 million people die each year from outdoor air pollution. (www.who.int/ipcs/features/air_pollution.pdf) I couldn’t find a precise figure for the portion of those deaths caused by coal-fired power plants, but assuming that it’s the same as in the United States, 19 percent,( http://www.earth-policy.org/plan_b_updates/2002/update17) then coal power is killing about 230,000 people a year. If you add in emissions from oil-fired power plants and the extensive water pollution from coal-burning, the toll from fossil-fueled electricity is higher still.

    So even if you accept the outlandishly exaggerated Yablokov estimates for Chernobyl, coal-power is still killing as many people every single year as Chernobyl will kill during a century. If you accept Gronlund’s estimate of Chernobyl deaths, or go by the tiny number of cancer deaths that actually show up in epidemiological studies, the conclusion is even starker: if we replace all our coal plants with nuclear power plants, the number of lives lost each year to energy production will decline by 99% or more.

    The statistics show beyond any doubt that, Chernobyls and Fukushimas included, nuclear power is extraordinarily safe. Greens should support it not just because of its success in cutting carbon emissions, but for its enormous public health benefits as well.

    • Why are people saying there are no deaths from Fukushima? It is barely over a year old. I suppose people with certain biases will discount this report: http://yumikikuchi.blogspot.com/2012/03/worsening-health-condition-of-fukushima.html
      and the report regarding 30% of children in Fukushima area ALREADY showing masses on their thyroids, which is awfully early.
      And how sure are you that it hasn’t killed anyone? Maybe fetuses aren’t people and shouldn’t be counted?
      We have seen over and over again denial of health effects from coal plants and nuclear plant releases and accidents. I am not satisfied with those who say any of it is safe.
      I would like more questions being asked. For instance, why do we have fibromyalgian, chronic fatigue, osteoporosis and and osteoarthritis, and other degenerative conditions? We haven’t looked at the nuclear fallout from 1940 onwards, so of course, it couldn’t be playing a role in that (Sr90 in milk since the 1960s?), right.? Why couldn’t it be a factor? Can we design a study that says conclusively that long term effects of man-made radionucleides haven’t played a role in our mitochondrial DNA?

  11. Dear Will Boisvert!
    Thank you for your comment, which raises not only important issues, but also supports your position with quite some references. I believe you are absolutely right, coal is not a good thing, and I remember stories from my grandma about unfiltered coal pollution from the Ruhrgebiet area back in the fifties I would hardly like to witness. However should suchlike conditions, and also conditions in China not be a standard with which we measure nuclear energy. Instead I can only repeat that the impacts of nuclear disasters need to be considered in policy debates as well, which is the main point of our review.
    Also, considering the discussion in this blog, I believe cancer rates were elevated due to Chernobyl. I agree completely with you that coal is a dirty form of energy, and most certainly not a sustainable one. Also, compared to a severe nuclear disaster, it’s a rather silent killer, that does not receive that much media attention, which is regrettable. I firmly believe we need to have discussions about all forms of energy use, and right now we can hardly exit neither coal nor nuclear options. Wind mills may kill birds, tidal power plant may harm the marine ecosystem, water power plants destroy huge areas, cold fusion is not happening right now. I am sorry I can not offer any solution, yet I can hardly imagine that in 50 years we will be still driving on oil, heating on coal, and getting electricity from nuclear power plants. Thanks for keeping the discussion heated, I think that’s the best way to a sustainable future.

  12. @Viktoria Wagner,

    1) I think your notion that the world can conserve its way to sustainability is not very realistic.

    You’re right that developed countries waste a lot of food and energy—they overconsume. But underdeveloped countries also underconsume. Poor people in Africa, Asia and Latin America should consume much more food and energy than they do now, and in the future they will (especially if social justice has anything to do with it.) Then you have to consider population growth of 2-3 billion over the next few decades. Even if we assume that rich countries will accept stringent conservation, efficiency and austerity measures, which is doubtful, the world as a whole is going to be consuming more energy in the future, not less. That means we will need stupendous new supplies of clean energy, which nuclear power is uniquely able to provide on a cheap, scalable and reliable basis.

    2) Nuclear waste is not an insurmountable problem.

    The best thing to do is let it sit around in concrete and steel dry casks until we can use it as fuel in breeder reactors. That’s essentially what we have been doing for 50 years, with no serious problems so far. Dry cask storage is exceedingly safe—and yes, I would happily store some in my back yard if the law permitted (and I had a back yard.)

    Deep geological repositories are also a safe disposal option. They should be dry and geologically stable. Damp Germany is perhaps not an ideal site, but Yucca mountain in the Nevada desert is. (Unfortunately, political opposition has foreclosed that possibility.)

    The anxiety about storing nuclear waste for thousands of years is misplaced. First, the dangerous nuclear waste, the stuff that is very radioactive and biologically available—mainly cesium and strontium isotopes—decays away in about 300 years. The long-lived actinides with half-lives of thousands of years, plutonium and uranium mainly, are not very dangerous, because they are not very radioactive. (Remember, the longer the half-life, the less the radioactivity.)

    Anti-nukes argue that it is impossible to guarantee safe sequestration of waste for thousands of years–and they’re right, that is impossible. But it’s also impossible to come up with a plausible scenario for what harm will come of waste buried under hundreds of meters of rock in the middle of an empty desert. When you bury stuff under a mountain, it tends to stay put; even if the casks leak way down there, it’s not like the waste is going to book a flight to New York. And whatever does happen, people a thousand years from now will have unimaginably advanced technological resources to deal with it. Nuclear waste is eminently the sort of problem that should be buried in a hole in the desert and left for future generations to worry about. Global warming and air pollution are crises we should deal with right now—by building nukes.

    Wait—here’s a nuclear waste disaster scenario. Thousands of years from now, ignorant savages dig up the waste and burn it in huge bonfires, sending radioactive smoke and soot all over the planet, and leaving the radioactive ash to sit out in the open where it leaches into surface water. Sounds nightmarish, right? Well, that’s exactly what we do now at the nuclear waste dumps we call coal-fired power plants. Remember, the coal burned each year by each power plant contains hundreds of pounds of radioactive uranium, thorium and daughter isotopes. All that nuclear waste goes up the smokestacks and into our lungs, or is left to sit in open-air ash heaps.

    So, ironically, replacing coal plants with nuclear plants, which meticulously secure their spent fuel by sealing it in casks and eventually burying it, will greatly reduce the release of nuclear waste into the environment.

  13. @Joern,

    From the standpoint of conservation of land and wildlife, I’m not sure that renewables really are the best solution. Renewables subject enormous areas of land to an industrial ravaging that is unprecedented.

    Solar power is especially destructive.

    I recently did a calculation to see how much land would be taken up by a solar farm that could produce as much energy as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

    I modeled the hypothetical solar farm on the the Martin Next Generation Solar Energy Center in Florida in the United States, a concentrating solar farm which generates 75 megawatts with a capacity factor of 24%, outputting 155,000 megawatt-hours per year (pretty good for a solar plant). (http://www.nrel.gov/csp/solarpaces/project_detail.cfm/projectID=45) It generates that energy from a mirror field of 500 acres, about 2 square kilometers.

    By comparison, Fukushima Daiichi, with 4.7 gigawatts of capacity and a 90 % capacity factor, generated 37,000 gigawatt-hours of energy per year. To generate that much energy, a solar farm like Martin would need a mirror field of about 477 square kilometers—a huge expanse literally paved with mirrors, mounts and servo-motors, all sitting atop leveled ground scraped bare of vegetation. This is an area that’s about 80 % as large as the 20 km Fukushima exclusion zone itself. Every utility-scale solar plant would be like that—a giant moonscape of sterilized land stretching to the horizon—and we would need many thousands of such farms.

    Wind power is not quite that land-hungry, but it’s still pretty bad. Millions of turbines, with their large concrete pads; millions of miles of access roads built to service them; millions of miles of high-voltage power lines cutting swaths through forests, carrying their electricity thousands of miles from the empty, windy steppes to the coastal cities that actually need the electricity. And since wind turbines work best on high ground, much de-foresting infrastructure would have to be built on delicate ridge-lines subject to erosion.

    And don’t get me started on biofuels. The United States used 40 % of its corn acreage to produce just 10 % of its gasoline last year. We could grow biofuels on every square centimeter of land and it would hardly make a dent in energy supply.

    It’s virtually certain that renewables will have a more damaging impact on land and habitat then the occasional dustings of fallout from rare nuclear accidents. You’ve allowed that you don’t want to shut down all nuclear plants right away—great, that’s a start. But there’s a stronger argument that we should be building more nukes—hundreds more—to get away from fossil fuels and land-destroying renewables as fast as possible.

    • The roof of our small house has provided plenty of space for solar panels, and have been cheaper and more reliable (and safer!) than when we were online. (With Tepco, we would have to reset our clocks every time it surged.) There is no need to dedicate a special land area to solar electric generation. Do it on your roof! The sunshine laws from the 60’s have made Tokyo an ideal place to start the ‘rooftop revolution’.

  14. To everyone: I think something that everyone ought to acknowledge is that there are multiple discourses on nuclear energy, and those discourses are distributed differently geographically. Different issues are salient in different discourses.

    This is why I still think that my original point largely holds:
    “I suspect that in many cases it’s a question of where exactly nuclear energy should be used, and to what extent.”

    I’m writing this from Germany, and before moving here, I lived in Australia for over a decade. Turns out the two places are different (surprise!). My neighbours here produce more electricity on their roof than they consume, and they heat with electricity. Their house will be here for a few more decades before someone will knock it down — still, I’m sure some will argue that this has ravaged the world somewhere else. Similarly I can see several wind turbines on my way to work, and I’m sure some will argue they cause the death of many birds and bats (though fewer than the domestic cats do that I also see on the way to work). And then, some people here heat their houses with wood, locally sourced from forests with a growing (not decreasing) timber volume in them. Again, I’m sure it’s possible to find fault with this, too.

    And further: A few weeks ago nuclear waste had to be transported through my town, and there were tens of thousands of demonstrators, and thousands of police present in the region (all peaceful, largely). There is a problem with where the waste is going to go, safely, in a densely populated country.

    The exchange on this blog has been dominated by strong opinions, and by few signs to acknowledge shades of grey, and to acknowledge legitimate causes for differences in opinions.

    Science is embedded in a societal context, and to think we are not being influenced by this (as scientists), in all kinds of directions, would be very naive. There will be no one-size fits all solution to this — I suggest we stop polarising this issue.

  15. Joern, have you ever seen this analysis? Deaths per TWh by energy source Or this one? Energy system build rates and material inputs. In short, nuclear energy kills fewer people per unit of energy than any other source, even when you include up to 4000 deaths from the Chernobyl disaster (WHO upper estimate). They also require an order of magnitude less materials (including uranium) to produce the same amount of power – in other words, an order of magnitude less mining.

    Even if renewables could be scaled to replace fossil fuels globally (which is very, very unlikely), or simply regionally, this does not mean they are preferable in a context of safety or environmental impact. You say “There’s no such thing as entirely safe nuclear energy.” I say there’s no such thing as risk-free energy at all, so your point is moot.

  16. Joern, have you ever seen this analysis? Deaths per TWh by energy source Or this one? Energy system build rates and material inputs. In short, nuclear energy kills fewer people per unit of energy than any other source, even when you include up to 4000 deaths from the Chernobyl disaster (WHO upper estimate). They also require an order of magnitude less materials (including uranium) to produce the same amount of power – in other words, an order of magnitude less mining.

    Even if renewables could be scaled to replace fossil fuels globally (which is very, very unlikely), or simply regionally, this does not mean they are preferable in a context of safety or environmental impact. You say “There’s no such thing as entirely safe nuclear energy.” I say there’s no such thing as risk-free energy at all, so it’s a moot point.

  17. First, thank you for a very interesting and sorely needed review. I’ve been collecting material on the impacts of nuclear energy and this work fills an important gap in my library.

    I agree with Joern’s sentiment above, in that this issue is very polarized and there is no need to polarize it further. Nevertheless, I’d like to add a few comments.

    The dangers of nuclear energy are relative, as other commentators have already noted. However, this distinction seems to get lost in the argumentation: nuclear energy is popularly judged “unsafe” by standards which would, if universally enforced, mean the closure of nearly every other method of electricity generation. As just one example, gas, coal, and biomass burning would immediately come to a halt if those plants had to conform to radiation standards required from operating nuclear power plants. (For one reference, see the article on coal burning in ORNL review, http://www.ornl.gov/info/ornlreview/rev26-34/text/colmain.html)

    Another example could be made of nuclear waste. High-level waste is certainly dangerous, and it needs to be safely stored. But our society produces and then forgets about massive amounts of hazardous wastes whose environmental and health impacts are, in practice, vastly greater than largely hypothetical dangers from nuclear waste. To give few examples, hydrogen arsenide – required in the manufacturing of silicon-based electronics, including most solar cells – is one of the most potent poisons known, with lethal doses ranging in few parts per million for inhalation. And it is a gas at room temperature. Another good example is mercury (much of the environmental mercury being one legacy of coal burning), and dioxins the third. Dioxins might have a half-life of 100 000 years or so, but mercury does not decay at all, only exiting the biosphere via sedimentation and chemical binding.

    But the double standards do not end here. Much is made of the safe sequestration of nuclear wastes; in theory, the regulatory limits e.g. here in Finland specify a maximum annual dose of 0,1 mSv for the most affected individual. In practice, it is highly unlikely these limits will ever be reached: as one example, the Yucca Mountain repository was estimated to give worst-case doses in the 0,001 mSv range. Yet these repositories are perceived as “dangerous.”

    At the same time, gypsum boards frequently contain so much radioactive materials that they give occupants some 0,38 mSv annual extra doses. No one cares. What’s more, Puch et al. (2002; Radioactivity of combustion residues from coal fired power stations, VGB/Saar University) measured German coal ash disposal fields. The measured dose rate was 1,2 mSv/a, largely due to uranium, thorium and their decay products, which means that coal ash’s radioactivity will not decay appreciably in a billion years. Yet we see no calls whatsoever for the safe sequestration of these wastes. (To be fair, their major impact is in the leaching of heavy metals, dioxins and other poisons, not in the radioactivity. But one wonders, still.)

    Of course, it is a possibility that calculations are horribly wrong and that nuclear waste disposal sites would leak badly. I’m perfectly willing to accept an order of magnitude error, and even two orders of magnitude may be plausible. But three, four, or more? That stretches credibility, given that the Nature has given us several real-life examples of long-term sequestration of fission products or their analogues. The Oklo reactor, for just one example, shows us that even without any protection at all, while exposed to groundwater, the fission products did not travel more than some meters in two billion years. One may also want to consider that the rate of leakage will be small: for example, let’s look at the Onkalo repository now being dug in Finland. When filled with all the nuclear waste from four reactors, the maximum amount of radioactive and water-soluble materials available for leaching from the surface of fuel rods equals some 27 self-luminescent EXIT signs (each of these has about 0,7-1 TBq of radioactive tritium). There is more – much more – inside the ceramic fuel pellets, but these need first to travel to the surface of the pellets, or the pellets have to be pulverized by some unknown force.

    Regarding health impacts, Markandya and Wilkinson published a review of health effects of electricity generation in the Lancet in 2007. These figures – mostly derived from the very broad ExternE study, whose findings are largely validated by research from e.g. Canada – should be required reading for participants in energy debates. It will suffice to say that Germany’s decision to abandon nuclear power, which will likely see the addition of some 6 GW of new coal-fired capacity, will kill annually some 1000 and cause serious illnesses for hundreds of thousands – this before considering the effects of CO2 emissions. It is also interesting to note that using these figures and Greenpeace’s estimates of Chernobyl effects, a Chernobyl scale accident every five years or so would be a good trade-off from public health perspective if just coal burning could be phased out. This using modern coal-burning technologies.

    Will Boisvert already made very good comments regarding the credibility of Yablokov et al.´s Chernobyl report. I agree and would strongly advice against using it as a source. In addition to the above, I have to report that there is at least one case where the authors misused a health study by simply inverting the results. The study, by Harjulehto et al. (1989, 1991), found fewer than expected malformaties in prematurely born infants after the Chernobyl disaster; the report states on p. 151, section 5.12.4, that there were more than expected, and infers – wrongly – that the study was about all infants, not just premature. One wonders how many other “errors” such as this have crept in.

    I’ll have to support Will’s observation that the ecosystem impacts of nuclear power’s alternatives are indeed very large. The proposed plans for generating much of Europe’s electricity in Sahara would alone mean “paving” a space equivalent to all the pavement in Europe with solar panels. To this engineer (whose background is in ecodesign), the maintenance issues alone seem enormous.

    I’ll conclude by noting that using current and conceivable technologies, non-nuclear solutions seem to be arithmetically incapable of delivering required emission reductions. The IPCC SSREN review, of 164 renewable energy scenarios (according to some, scenarios that were critical of renewable energy were not even included), has a median of 27% of world’s energy generated from renewable sources in 2050 – a woefully small amount given the scale of the challenge. The situation is even more desperate than painted in the SRREN, as it completely fails to acknowledge the emissions and biological impacts of large-scale biomass use. In any case, most renewable energy scenarios are likely to considerably underestimate the impact of gas-fired power generation, as methane leaks are typically either ignored or underestimated.

    It is possible that breakthroughs occur, but putting faith on these is a techno-optimistic gamble with no guarantee of success; to consider just one example, an absolute key technology to a fully renewable energy generation – energy storage – is still at the stage where the most cost-effective battery is the lead-acid battery invented in the 1850s. At least one, more probably two order of magnitude improvements are absolutely necessary if we wish to phase out fossil fuels, especially given the political realities. Other technological and societal breakthroughs (or possibly revolutions) are required to adapt the society to stochastic energy sources, and, as stated above, even these may not be sufficient for a sustainable future. It is not very encouraging to see, for example, that the Spanish region of Navarre – which generates 70% of its electricity from wind, and houses the largest solar installations in Spain – has not been able to reduce its emissions almost at all from the country average. (There are many reasons, the primary being the need to burn natural gas to support stochastic wind power.) Or that the emissions per capita in renewable-loving Germany and Denmark stubbornly stay at about 50% higher than those in neighboring France and Sweden, two countries powered almost exclusively by nuclear and hydro. In short, it is still clear that the assertions that “renewables can do the job” do not rely on empirical evidence, but on projections, which may or may not correspond to reality. (After studying many scenarios, my belief is that at least several widely publicized scenarios have a fairly tenuous correspondence to reality, preferring to ignore or wave away inconvenient issues rather than to deal with them.)

    Given all these issues, I have (reluctantly) come to a conclusion that we need nuclear and lots more of it, at least for a while; if the renewables deliver what their lobbyists promise, great, let’s then alter the plans. But we need data; we need empirical results, not just the promises of lobbyists and renewable energy advocates, to make far-reaching decisions; I remind you that at one point, we were promised nuclear energy that would be too cheap to meter, and see how well that promise panned out?

  18. @Joern,

    –You write: “my neighbors produce more electricity on their roof than they consume” (presumably with rooftop solar photovoltaic panels.)

    Are you sure about that? Have you checked the data? That might be true on a long, sunny summer day, but what about on cloudy days, especially in the winter? On an annual basis do they generate all their power, or are they dependent on the grid most of the time?

    Germany’s solar production is feeble, despite the enormous amounts of money spent on it. The sources in Wikipedia’s “Solar Power in Germany” article indicate that the best solar farms have a capacity factor of 13%. Average solar production is much worse, with a capacity factor of about 8%, precisely because of all those rooftop PV panels, which are often shaded by trees and pitched roofs, and usually don’t have mounts and servo motors to track the sun across the sky. In the winter, weeks can go by with the whole country generating virtually no solar energy at all.

    German solar power in 2011 was subsidized to the tune of 8 billion euros, and Germany’s investment in solar power since 2000 is over 100 billion euros. (http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,809439,00.html) For all that investment, Germany generated just 3.2% of its electricity from solar last year. For the same money Germany could have built twenty gigawatt-scale nuclear power plants with typical capacity factors of 90 %, generating 157 terawatt-hours of electricity per year, 9 times as much as the 18 terawatt-hours generated by the entire solar power industry last year (and abating that much more carbon dioxide, harmful air pollution and environmental damage from fossil-fueled generation.)

    It’s doubtful that solar power, especially unproductive rooftop panels, can ever supply more than a small fraction of Germany’s energy, and that only at huge costs and disproportionate ecosystem impacts (a lot of mining and manufacturing goes into solar panels, in addition to the land ravaged by solar farms, to produce a measly quantity of energy.) If we are to tailor energy policy to local geography, as you feel we should, we should probably consider shutting down solar power in cloudy, northerly Germany altogether.

    –You write “some people here heat their houses with wood, locally sourced from forests with a growing (not decreasing) timber volume in them. Again, I’m sure it’s possible to find fault with this too.”

    Well, I do feel uneasy about that. Is wood-cutting for home heating really sustainable on more than a tiny scale? You’re a conservation biologist, so maybe you could answer that question. What fraction of Germany’s energy consumption could be supplied by forest bio-mass without cutting down all the trees? If, as I suspect, the answer is a negligible fraction, then I think we should regard burning forest bio-mass as a distraction, not part of the solution.

    –You write “A few weeks ago nuclear waste had to be transported through my town, and there were tens of thousands of demonstrators…There is a problem with where the waste is going to go, safely, in a densely populated country.”

    Alas, sometimes protesters are wrong. As I wrote above, nuclear waste from civilian power plants has been stored safely all over the world for 50 years. The problem is that no “solution” to the nuclear waste problem will be deemed sufficiently safe to satisfy anti-nuclear protesters. They will always claim that imponderable catastrophes, whether imminent or thousands of years in the future, make the waste apocalyptically dangerous. If fifty years of safe storage doesn’t demonstrate that nuclear waste is safe enough to store, then nothing will.

    It would make more sense for the protesters to block trains delivering coal to coal-fired power plants. Unlike the carefully sealed and sequestered nuclear waste the protesters denounce, the nuclear waste from coal-fired plants will be released into the environment without any controls at all. Germany has brought moth-balled coal plants back into service to make up for the electricity shortfall from the closure of nuclear plants. So the result of closing nuclear plants is actually to increase Germans’ exposure to nuclear waste in the environment. (Not to worry, because radioactive emissions from coal plants are also far too low to cause any harm.)

    –I apologize if all of this sounds polarizing. Unfortunately your original post framed the issue in terms of the presumptive superiority of renewables to nuclear power, which is itself a starkly polarizing stance in the context of widespread movements to ban nukes—and one that is simply not warranted by the scientific evidence either of public health or ecosystem impacts.

    By all means let’s study the effects of Chernobyl and Fukushima radiation on the environment. (Hopefully with a more systematic and quantitative assessment of the size and significance of those effects than your initial paper attempts—lacking that, it’s not really clear that Chernobyl’s ecosystem impacts are “serious” instead of marginal.) But at the same time, scientists should pay at least as much attention to the gross and devastating impact of renewable energy technologies on eco-systems. It’s quite possible that a rigorous comparison will reveal nuclear power to be the most eco-friendly energy technology of all.

  19. @Will – a question regarding Germany (maybe is out of context, sorry): I hear from a colleague that although the population in Germany is going down slightly, the ‘natural’ lland area being built (houses, roads etc.) is increasing with ~100 hectare / month – and this is happening for some years. If this is true (exact numbers unimportant) then the situation seem to not be very sustainable.

    An other question would be how much of the used resources (food, energy) Germany produces for himself and how much it takes from other countries. I respect a lot initiatives for sustainability, but I also suspect that in very rich countries there may be some things which are not that obvious – i.e. maybe some other continents also contribute to the sustainability of rich countries, often in the expense of their ecosystems.

    For example, here in Southern Transylvania, an ancient wood pasture was started to be cut for making parquet for a western european country. We stopped this process – not only because all this was happening in a N2000 site, but also because wood-pastures (hutewalds) are important landscape elements (culturally) and nevertheless, not a single money go in the local farmers pocket after this ‘business’.

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