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Nuclear is for Life. A Cultural Revolution

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This book explores the science and the evidence that justify the following statement: Nuclear energy is the answer to climate change - it is best for human health and for the environment, and only those still in the thrall of Cold War propaganda think otherwise.
Nuclear
is for Life
A Cultural
Revolution
Wade Allison MA DPhil
Fellow of Keble College
Professor of Physics (Emeritus)
University of Oxford, UK
Published by
Wade Allison Publishing
© Wade Allison 2015
All rights reserved
No part of this publication may be reproduced,
stored on a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any
form or by any means, without explicit permission
from the author.
Enquiries should be sent to
wade.allison@physics.ox.ac.uk
Published in paperback (2 December 2015)
ISBN 978-0-9562756-4-6
Last saved 4 November 2015
Website http://www.nuclear4life.com
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For
George, Edward, Minnie,
Joss, Alice, Alfie
and
others of their generation
who inherit what we leave
About the author
Wade Allison is a Fellow of Keble College and and an Emeritus Professor of
Physics at the University of Oxford. There he studied and taught for 40 years,
covering subjects such as electromagnetic radiation, particle and nuclear
physics, and medical physics. His first book was an advanced student book:
Fundamental Physics for Probing and Imaging (2006). Concerned that many
otherwise educated people have significant misconceptions about radiation
and nuclear energy he wrote his second book for a wider audience: Radiation
and Reason, the Impact of Science on a Culture of Fear (2009). It attracted
considerable attention around the world, especially following the accident at
Fukushima Daiichi in 2011, after which it was published in Japanese and
Chinese. Since then he has been to Japan several times to lecture and to visit
teachers, community leaders, doctors and evacuees in the region affected by
the accident. Incidentally, he has never had any connection with the nuclear
industry.
Some reviews of Radiation and Reason
“Sensational.” Simon Jenkins, The Guardian
"I very much agree with the conclusions of this book, and am very pleased to
see them presented in a style that makes them accessible to the general
reader." Sir Eric Ash, FRS
"If Professor Allison´s well-documented arguments are right – and if people
can be persuaded to examine them! – his book gives us a little more hope of
confronting the problems posed by both dwindling fossil fuel reserves and the
release of their waste products into the atmosphere." Michael Frayn,
playwright and author
“This is an important and useful book. Wade Allison's message is simple -
we've got it wrong about nuclear power. We've over-reacted to the level of
risk posed by low level radiation exposure, and because of that we make
nuclear power ridiculously expensive. The arguments are very powerful.”
Brian Clegg, Popular Science website
"Why I'm becoming a pro-nuke nut..... The other scholar challenging my
nuclear views is Wade Allison....we must consider all alternatives available
to us including nuclear energy, which just a few months ago I fervently
opposed.” John Horgan, Scientific American
“Even if you disagree with where Allison takes his arguments, a large part of
the book is a good accessible review of the science of radiation and its
biological effects. This in itself makes it a potentially valuable read for
activists interested in nuclear and environmental issues.” Peace News
Contents
Preface
Chapter 1 Many Misunderstandings ........................... 1
Chapter 2 Intelligence as an Aid to Survival ............... 15
Chapter 3 Rules, Evidence and Trust ......................... 29
Chapter 4 Energy to Support Life ............................... 59
Chapter 5 Absorbed Radiation and Damage .............. 87
Chapter 6 Effect of Large Radiation Doses ............... 123
Chapter 7 Protected by Physical Science ................... 155
Chapter 8 Protected by Natural Evolution ................. 177
Chapter 9 Society, Trust and Safety ........................... 209
Chapter 10 Science Distorted by Frightened Men ..... 235
Chapter 11 Natural Philosophy of Safety ................... 255
Chapter 12 Life Without Dragons .............................. 267
Selected References ..................................................... 281
Glossary ....................................................................... 282
Lists of Tables and Illustrations ................................... 285
Index ............................................................................ 287
Preface
This book expands on the message of Radiation and Reason (2009)
following the Fukushima accident (2011). It is a broader study of the
historical, cultural and scientific interactions of radiation with life; it asks
why society takes such a cautious view of nuclear technology; it looks at
the effects of nuclear accidents and other radiation exposures; it looks at
the efficacy of safety, as provided by nature and as imposed by regulation;
it explains how biological evolution prepared life to survive exposures to
low and moderate levels of radiation; it asks if nuclear energy would be
expensive, if normal levels of information, education, safety and design
were applied.
These questions are not difficult, though far too few people are asking
them. I suggest that the answers are important for everyone on the planet
in view of atmospheric pollution and its effect on the climate. I shall be
encouraging my grandchildren to read and look with fresh eyes at the
amazing natural world that is our home. May they and their
contemporaries understand better the beauty of what they see, and so look
after it better than my generation has done.
Chapter 1 gives a short outline. The points it makes are supported by the
evidence and discussion given in the body of the book. Chapters 2 and 3
discuss public confidence, trust in nuclear energy and the events at
Fukushima. Chapter 4 tells how the use of energy has changed as life has
evolved. Chapter 5 is about the science of radiation and how it affects life;
including an explanation of the conventional LNT (Linear No-Threshold)
model and why it is mistaken. More evidence of the effect of radiation on
life from accidents and experiments is provided in Chapter 6. Chapters 7
and 8 cover the extraordinary natural protection of life afforded by the
physical and biological sciences, each in their separate way. The task of
outlining an evidence-based safety regime that takes proper account of
nature is discussed in chapter 9, which then goes on to ideas of how this
might be explained to the public who have been misinformed for so long.
Chapter 10 is a historical account of the view that radiation is dangerous
and why authorities still support this view in spite of the overwhelming
evidence that it is mistaken. This historical account of the people
involved, and why they behaved as they did, makes an interesting story
that is more about human nature and less about science. Chapter 11 is a
discussion of the relationship between trust in science, religious culture
and natural philosophy. Chapter 12 summarises a number of conclusions.
The subject matter is far reaching and readers may wish to move from
chapter to chapter, skipping sections that seem too obvious or demanding;
to help in this some harder passages are shown enclosed in boxes. Some
notes and references are given in square brackets and listed at the end of
each chapter, but I do not imagine that readers will need to look at all of
these. At the end of the book is a short list of recommended books,
articles, videos and websites, referenced by labels [SR1] to [SR10]. There
are also a glossary, lists of tables and illustrations and an index. Those
illustrations that are quantitative are described as diagrams or graphs;
others may be merely descriptive or sketches.
A study such as this is not possible without the help of many people. I
have made many friends, some of whom I have never met but whose
contributions have been essential and whose opinions I have come to
respect. Mohan Doss, Rod Adams, Jerry Cuttler and other members of
SARI, the international ad hoc group. Their knowledge and determination
give great hope that one day radiation and nuclear energy will be
accepted. James Hollow who read through drafts of Radiation and
Reason, gave me unstinting assistance in Tokyo for this book too, also
with help from Paul Eden. I also thank others who introduced me to useful
contacts and information in Japan including David Wagner, Tateiwa san,
Takamura san, Dr Oikawa, Dr Hashidume, Professor Tom Gill and Shoji
Masahiko. I thank John Brenner, Ikeda sensei and Takayama san for their
support, and also other members of SRI (Society for Radiation
Information) in Japan for making me welcome on my recent visits. Those
who have worked painstakingly through my writing and wielded a red pen
with justice have my profound thanks: John Priestland, T.R., Clive
Elsworth, Richard Crane, Richard Walker and, of course, my wife Kate
who has also encouraged me and kept me going over the months and
years. Thanks too to all members of my family who have seen less of me
recently than they should. Thank you to Royston Robertson for drawing
the cartoons, to Richard Crane and Michelle Young for building the
website and to my son Tom for designing the cover, also to York
Publishing Services who have been most helpful and held my hand during
the publishing stage, as they did for Radiation and Reason. Inevitably and
regrettably, when all is done, there are many omissions and no doubt some
mistakes too, that should be laid at my door.
Wade Allison
Oxford
October 2015
Nuclear is for Life. A Cultural Revolution. 1
Chapter 1: Many Misunderstandings
Gregory: Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my
attention?
Sherlock Holmes: To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.
Gregory: The dog did nothing in the night-time.
Sherlock Holmes: That was the curious incident.
Silver Blaze (1892), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Summary 1
Climate change 2
Safety and medical care 3
Historical reasons for nuclear mistrust 7
Education, authority and confidence in society 9
Waste, cost and vested interests 9
The task ahead 11
Note on Chapter 1 13
Summary
The radiation disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station that
occurred in March 2011 is curious. There was considerable escape of
radioactivity and the incident was ranked in the most serious category
possible. That there was not one health casualty from the radiation is a piece
of evidence that calls for explanation.
We have got it wrong about the contribution that nuclear science can make to
life. We should examine the hard evidence available not only from
Fukushima but also from other accidents, clinical medicine and elsewhere in
the light of current scientific knowledge. Critical to this conclusion is the way
that living tissue responds to radiation (strictly, ionising radiation). This
response evolved very early in the story of life on Earth, and without it life
would not have survived. But its effectiveness is explicitly ignored in the
formulation of current safety provisions, in spite of the paradoxically small
loss of life in all nuclear accidents. In drawing up successful safety
regulations to control conventional industrial and agricultural hazards, risks
are considered calmly and in proportion. However for historical and cultural
reasons, the same is not true for radiation hazards: these reasons are explored
and clarified in later chapters.
2 Chapter 1: Many Misunderstandings
For nearly a century our understanding of what nuclear technology has to
offer has been obscured by ultra-cautious authorities hiding behind
fragmented expertise. The broad picture, though muddied by history and
assumed to be difficult, is not hard to appreciate in simple common sense
terms. Most people are unaware of the large share of the physical world that
is nuclear matter, and the amazing contribution that its use can make to
prospects for a densely crowded Earth. Indeed, if nuclear energy is not the
environmental threat that many suppose, it is the answer to several of the
most serious problems faced by mankind: atmospheric pollution, and
shortage of clean energy, clean water and food. In any democracy this matters
because the electorate should understand the issues. Otherwise, irrational
swings of mood or fashion affect decisions.
Our supremacy on Earth has depended on knowledge, confidence and
teamwork through openness and mutual trust. However, in the case of nuclear
technology these links have been broken and a massive cultural shift is
needed to mend them. This is not a matter for top-down committees as much
as explanation by individuals, engaging with simple evidence to build
people's trust in science and society. Illuminated in this way, nuclear
opportunities should become clear and no longer be a source of fear and
obscurity.
Climate change
Carbon-based fuels are polluting the atmosphere. The concentrations of
methane and carbon dioxide are rising fast every year and are now two to
Illustration 1 Graphs showing the extraordinary increase of methane
and carbon dioxide atmospheric concentrations in recent times
Nuclear is for Life. A Cultural Revolution. 3
four times higher than they have been for several hundred thousand years.
Given the known properties of these greenhouse gases, it comes as no
surprise that the polar ice caps are melting and the world temperature is
rising. However, it might be a coincidence and not be caused by human
activity at all. Yet, just as I should not expect proof that I am going to have a
car accident before taking out insurance, so replacing carbon fuels as a matter
of urgency is a sensible policy of mitigation. Replacement with the so-called
renewables (hydro, geothermal, wind, tidal, waves and solar) is simply not
sufficient, and biofuels and biomass release carbon into the atmosphere,
almost as much as fossil fuels [see Chapter 3].
Fired by political self-confidence, German policy is to cease use of carbon
and nuclear energies. Many other countries take a more scientific view and
consider that switching to nuclear energy is the best that can be done to
mitigate climate change. This policy has no technical drawback, but it has not
been popularly welcomed because nuclear energy and its radiation are seen as
frightening and dangerous. This causes people to close their ears and not
want to know more. However, this fear of radiation has no scientific basis.
The evidence needs to be explained clearly and understood widely, because
radiation phobia is the only obstacle to the provision of cheap carbon-free
energy [see Chapter 4, and also Chapter 2 of the book Radiation and Reason
(2006), see Selected References on page 279, SR3].
The truth is that we have made a major cultural error by shunning nuclear
technology. Big errors are the most persistent, and to get over them requires
concerted action by individuals and governments. So why is that not
happening? And how did we come to commit this error? To explain this, we
will have to turn a few more pages and question some commonly held
opinions [see Chapters 6, 9 and 10].
Safety and medical care
Does this mean that radiation is safe? And if so, how safe? How do we know
that for sure? The short answer is yes: radiation is safe and it has been saving
lives by diagnosing disease and curing cancer for over a century as pioneered
by Marie Curie. A radiation dose used in a medical scan is far higher than
encountered by the public in any nuclear accident, such as Chernobyl or
Fukushima. But how do you know? you will say. To feel safe and confident
about science, we should study and understand some parts ourselves and then
talk to friends and contacts to build up trust in the whole. Without such a
network of education and trust, in science as in other fields, mankind is
doomed. In brief, if you want to be safe and confident, you need to find out
what is going on.
4 Chapter 1: Many Misunderstandings
In the case of radiation we should look at the numbers that describe radiation
doses, and then ask more questions. During a course of radiotherapy
treatment the patient's tumour dies from a daily dose 200 times higher than a
typical diagnostic scan. In spite of receiving half this massive dose every day
for five or six weeks, nearby organs almost always survive. But safety is
always a compromise between engaging some risk to achieve a goal and
doing nothing, such as staying in bed. So it is true that radiotherapy may
have, perhaps, a 95% chance of curing an existing cancer, but a 5% chance of
starting a new one. Only by looking at the evidence and understanding what
radiation does, can real safety, and the feeling of confidence that goes with it,
be achieved [see Chapter 3, and Illustration 2 described further in Chapter 9].
Illustration 2: A graphical comparison of monthly radiation doses,
shown as the area of circles [more details on page 227, Chapter 9]:
Red circle, the dose to a tumour treated by radiotherapy;
Yellow circle, a recoverable dose to healthy tissue near to a
treated tumour;
Green circle, a dose with 100% safety record;
Solid black dot, a safety limit recommended by typical current
regulations.
(Green circle and black dot are also shown in magnified view to make
the black dot more clearly visible).
Nuclear is for Life. A Cultural Revolution. 5
Illustration 3: The final confrontation with the Environmental Anti
Fire Party in prehistoric times, perhaps.
Illustration 4: Picture. Shopping bag with simple sensible advice
about UV radiation for families.
6 Chapter 1: Many Misunderstandings
Hundreds of thousands of years ago, some say a million, man had the bright
idea of bringing fire into the home. This was not at all safe, but the benefit to
his standard of living with hot meals and warm accommodation quickly out-
weighed the risks. The choices of fire then and nuclear today are similar,
except the risks are very much smaller for nuclear than for fire. In both cases
education is key [see Chapter 2].
An example of the need for education about the physical world is protection
against UV radiation in sunshine. Parents are given simple advice about how
to teach their children to avoid sunburn and resulting skin cancer in later life.
As an agent that can damage living cells, UV is much more intense but less
damaging than X-rays [see Chapter 5]. But the net effect is similar: early cell
death (sun burn) or later cancer (skin cancer). These cannot be compared
quantitatively with the effects of nuclear radiation. However, although cancer
from UV is common and cancer from nuclear radiation is extremely rare,
public concern is the reverse.
At Fukushima there were no casualties from radiation [1] and the doses were
so low that there will be none, even in the next 50 years, even among the
workers at the plant [see the article SR8]. At Chernobyl radiation-related
deaths were limited to 15 fatal cases of child thyroid cancer and 28 workers
who fought the initial fire and died over the subsequent few weeks. At
Fukushima many casualties were caused by forced evacuation and fear, not
radiation. There were similar casualties at Chernobyl including several
thousand unnecessary induced abortions performed far away, simply out of
panic. Meanwhile the wildlife at Chernobyl today is thriving now that the
humans have gone: this has been captured in several charming videos [see
Chapters 2 and 3, and SR7].
Simple scientific pictures and the multiplication of some numbers show why
nuclear energy is a million times more powerful than chemical energy.
However, this energy source is so effectively hidden that its existence was not
even suspected until the final years of the nineteenth century. But that still
leaves open the question: What happens on the rare occasions that human
tissue is actually exposed to nuclear radiation? [See Chapters 7 and 8.]
It appears odd that the extreme power of nuclear radiation should have so
little effect on life, given that this is so very frail. We shall see that the answer
is that the whole purpose of life has been to survive in the Earth environment,
where ionising radiation and oxygen are the two most powerful physical
agents to threaten living cells. Providing this protection is what life does
you could even argue that is all that it does, apart from an occasional battle
with other cells and viruses. Each element of life's structure is designed to
survive these two threats: eating, breathing, sexual reproduction, the partition
of life into autonomous individual organisms and the structure of those
Nuclear is for Life. A Cultural Revolution. 7
organisms as a myriad of autonomous reproducible cells. In some 3,000
million years of evolution it has perfected this protection, and a study of
modern radiobiology reveals some of the mechanics of how cells cope with
attacks by oxygen and radiation through strategies of repair, replacement,
adaptation and stockpiling of resources. This leaves any protection offered by
bureaucratic regulation way behind by comparison. People sometimes worry
about the effect of the radiation dose they receive in medical treatment, as
also they do about Chernobyl, Fukushima and other accidents. Instead, they
should marvel at the extraordinary natural protection they receive, and then
welcome the benefits that radiation has brought to modern medicine and
health following the tradition introduced by Marie Curie [see Chapter 8].
Historical reasons for nuclear mistrust
The twentieth century was a turbulent time in history and perceptions were
distorted by existential fears, even among eminent scientists. However, these
can be seen more calmly now in a historical perspective [see Chapter 10].
During the Cold War, when there was great disquiet about radiation and the
nuclear arms race, instead of educating the public, the authorities attempted
to appease negative opinion by promising protection from radiation at wholly
unnecessarily low levels. This approach was not successful, especially when
accidents occurred in which public panic, not radiation risk to life, was the
result. The authorities, themselves misinformed, failed to appreciate that
safety and confidence are best established by education and trust, not rules
Illustration 5: The natural protection of life provided by slow evolution wins
easily against recent regulations, as illustrated by Aesop's Fable of the Race
between the Tortoise and the Hare.
8 Chapter 1: Many Misunderstandings
and regulations [see Chapter 11].
Illustration 6: Picture of banknotes. Independent thinkers like Marie
Curie, Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale and Adam Smith found
the right answers without committees and achieved acceptance. In
society today they symbolise trust, even on banknotes. We should
follow their example when considering how to reach the public on
matters like nuclear radiation.
Illustration 7: The legend of King Canute and his sycophantic
followers who believed he could do anything, but did not think for
themselves. So he had his throne placed on the seashore, and the
commanded the tide to go back, which it failed to do, much to the
surprise of his court. Science and nature do not obey regulations or
the commands of authority. It is better that at least some people in
society study and reach their own independent conclusions.
Nuclear is for Life. A Cultural Revolution. 9
Education, authority and confidence in society
Like nuclear power, currency needs popular trust and support, and banks
achieve this by enlisting pictures of famous figures, many of whom
contributed much more to science than to banking. They were broad
individual thinkers, not specialist experts or committee members, and we
should follow the way in which they won public support. Certainly we should
not believe everything we hear from uncritical popular chatter in the way the
followers of King Canute did [see Chapter 9].
With proper education and training, the general population is well capable of
acting rapidly and intelligently when faced with an accident. The immediate
response of the Japanese people to the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011
is a good example of what can be achieved. In such a situation in Japan
everyone knows what to do without asking authority. Because of their quick
action, the death toll from the tsunami was much smaller than it would have
been otherwise. With practice and study in school from an early age,
confidence and trust are established, ready for when a real disaster occurs, as
it did when the earthquake and tsunami hit. However, faced with an accident
that was not a disaster, but about which they were totally ignorant the
nuclear accident – they could only look to authority, which gave no guidance,
being as ill prepared as everyone else. Fanned by the world press a wave of
distrust in authority and science then quickly followed [see Chapter 3].
Waste, cost and vested interests
Illustration 8: Symbols of waste
a) A radiation hazard symbol for nuclear waste.
b) A symbol of personal human waste.
But which waste is linked to the greater danger – that is, kills more
people annually?
10 Chapter 1: Many Misunderstandings
In the popular press it is widely supposed that there is a problem with nuclear
waste. If fully burnt, nuclear fuel produces about a million times more energy
per kg. than carbon fuels, and that means there is very little fuel and so very
little waste. It is mostly solid and can be recycled to get closer to complete
burn up. After a few years when it has cooled, the residue can be solidified in
glass and concrete which can be buried for the few hundred years needed for
its excess radioactivity to die away. Of course, if society wants to waste good
money by making extraordinarily elaborate provision, there is no shortage of
contractors who would be happy to step up to give the waste the
Tutankhamen burial treatment, a large long-term deep and impregnable
geological storage. At present nuclear energy is simply burdened by the
prospect of what this would eventually cost and the provision that has to be
made. This should not be the case.
But why pay so much? Unlike the waste from carbon fuel energy production
or the personal waste of humans, there has been no known loss of life from
civil nuclear waste. Discharge of human waste into the environment is the
cause of a million deaths per year by disease; and the open discharge into the
atmosphere of carbon dioxide and the other pollutants that accompany use of
carbon fuels of any kind is no less harmful [see Chapters 3 and 9].
Nuclear energy is thought to be expensive, but where does the money go?
Most of it goes, directly or indirectly, in salaries. So why does it take so many
people so long to design, build and run a nuclear power station? Because it
has to be safe! Indeed it does have to be stable in operation which
Chernobyl was not. But at least half of the man-hours, half of the workforce,
is employed engaging with super-safe regulations, planning the
Illustration 9: Diagram of cannisters of a size to show the mass of
different waste produced per person per day in the UK
Nuclear is for Life. A Cultural Revolution. 11
decommissioning, checking workers in and out of secure areas for risks that
have been grossly over-estimated. The consumer and tax payer have an
interest in exposing this gross over-provision, but they do not understand.
Part of the problem is suggested in Illustration 10. However, the cartoon does
not refer to the nuclear industry itself whose ability to construct new plant
has been priced and regulated out of the market without good reason.
Countries less in thrall to regulators are able to invest for their future. They
will become increasingly competitive and will come to dominate the market
for the production of energy and the construction of plant. Decision makers in
western countries should appreciate that the current regulatory strangulation
is economically dangerous [see Chapter 12].
The task ahead
In the Cold War period people demanded safety from the threat of nuclear
radiation, but were given regulations instead. This was delivered wrapped in
pseudo-science and tied with legal knots. Blessed by committees of the
United Nations and enshrined in national laws around the world, these
restraints make it hard for the nuclear industry to make any progress towards
construction of the new plant required. So legislators have urgent work to do,
to release the nuclear industry from its straight-jacket.
On the professional side the pseudo-science, named LNT (Linear No-
Threshold), has to be repudiated, just as the epicycles of Ptolemy were
discarded to make way for the new understanding of planetary motion.
Fortunately, the evidence against LNT is easier to understand than the
Illustration 10: The interests of some parties are well served by the
inflated costs of unscientific levels of nuclear safety, although neither
the public nor the environment benefits at all
12 Chapter 1: Many Misunderstandings
dynamics of the solar system. Simply put, LNT says that all radiation doses
are harmful, however small, and that their effect is cumulative. The result is a
policy for radiation safety (sometimes called Radiological Safety) that
requires that all radiation exposures be kept As Low As Reasonably
Achievable (ALARA), which in practice means within a small fraction of
naturally occurring levels. This is unrelated to any risk, but comes from a
political wish to say that the effects of radiation have been minimised.
LNT assumes that the damage to cells increases steadily with the radiation
dose. This is a correct picture of the immediate impact of radiation, but the
effect of subsequent biological reaction is to repair this damage within a few
hours or days, unless the dose in that time is very high indeed [see Chapter
8]. The upshot is that the effect of radiation does not build up, and small or
moderate doses have no lasting effect at all, like modest exposure to bright
sunshine. Current regulations follow guidance given by the UNSCEAR
committee (United Nations Scientific Committee for the Effects of Atomic
Radiation) that denies the effect of this evolved biological reaction, although
this was fully described by a unanimous and critical French joint report of the
Académie des Sciences (Paris) and the Académie Nationale de Médecine in
2004 [see Chapters 4 and 8].
Safety regulations based on ALARA are not fit for purpose, and are
dangerous to the economy, the environment and to life and limb. For
example, they can frighten patients into refusing treatment that would benefit
their health. In the Fukushima region they have discouraged Japanese parents
from letting their children go outside in the fresh air to play. The increased
mortality of needlessly evacuated old people there shows how these safety
regulations can lead to death. The stacks of top-soil removed from fields,
now denuded and infertile, show a sad pictorial example of the destruction
Illustration 11: A photograph of contaminated top-soil, all bagged up
and waiting in vain for somewhere to go. [Iitate, Japan, Dec. 2013]
Nuclear is for Life. A Cultural Revolution. 13
that unthinking fear can achieve [see Illustration 11 and Chapter 2].
Of course, the safety of radiation is important, but new regulations should be
based on the threshold for radiation dose rates that can be shown to cause
damage to health: there is no shortage of agreed data from the accidents that
have occurred, and also from a century of experience of clinical medicine.
The latter is particularly appropriate as the general public receive such
treatment and are aware that it is beneficial, even though the dose rates are
high by any standard.
A justifiable radiation safety threshold should be set as high as to do no harm,
or As High As Relatively Safe (AHARS). A comparison between:
the ALARA safety standard monthly dose;
the dose per month experienced by the public in a radiation clinic;
a suggested safe conservative monthly limit;
is made clearer, when represented by the areas of circles in Illustration 2 on
page 4. The threshold, shown as the small green circle, is about the same as
that set internationally in 1934, but is about 1,000 times the ALARA level,
shown as the area of the small black dot that may only be visible on the
expanded scale. That is the factor by which current regulations have typically
exaggerated any genuine radiation risk. However, it is right that these ideas
should be explored and checked in considerably more detail in the chapters
that follow. In particular, possible values for thresholds and the evidence
behind them are discussed in Chapter 9.
Note on Chapter 1
1) In October 2015 a report circulated in the media referring to a Fukushima worker
who contracted leukaemia. Such random cases are expected in any population and
no causal link was suggested. However, under Japanese law because the worker
had received a small dose of 5 mSv he was automatically entitled to
compensation. This was misinterpreted by the media.
Nuclear is for Life. A Cultural Revolution 15
Chapter 2: Intelligence as an Aid to
Survival
The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow witted
man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest
thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly
persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is
laid before him.
Leo Tolstoy
It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary
depends on his not understanding it.
Upton Sinclair
Facing the problems of civilisation
Democracy and personal understanding 15
Fear of traumatic change 17
Learning from fable and science
Personal and public opinion 18
Science before Earth began 18
Fire in the home 19
Nuclear safety misjudged
The news from Fukushima Daiichi 21
Matching evidence and expectations 23
Pseudo-sciences and wishful thinking 24
Fear of nuclear energy
A zeitgeist reconsidered 26
Notes on Chapter 2 27
Facing the problems of civilisation
Democracy and personal understanding
Can the planet support ten billion inhabitants? It almost certainly can, but
severe conditions will be imposed by the environment, science, education and
human behaviour.
The impact of mankind on the environment is among the world's most
16 Chapter 2: Intelligence as an Aid to Survival
pressing problems. It is time to ask questions: do we really understand
nature? How can we use nature with minimal effect on its sustainability?
Should we just carry on without re-examining earlier decisions and attitudes?
There are facts that nobody can deny, even though some still question the
causation of climate change:
the atmosphere is tiny, equal in mass to a layer of water just ten
metres thick around the world;
the steadily increasing concentration of poly-atomic gases in the
atmosphere;
the definite, if erratic, rise in temperatures and melting of ice sheets;
the increasing consumption of energy that is essential to any socially
stable and expanding economy;
a world population that increases with lengthening lifespans,
unmatched by falling birthrates.
It may be late to take sufficient control, but it is never too late to take stock of
the position and take action to reduce any serious consequences. Taking stock
must allow the possibility that attitudes to major items in our armoury are
misunderstood – that should include the historical view of the atomic nucleus
and what flows from it. This book is not about climate change but it is such a
stock taking.
Every child is taught from an early age that fire is dangerous. If the child fails
to get the message, the chances are that the physical pain of a small accident
will serve as a reminder, not easily forgotten. In the same way, each child is
trained to cope safely with human waste potty training comes high and
early on the list of educational requirements. These are not options in human
society, but young children learn easily. As they grow older, they become
more selective about the information they absorb. This selection depends on
what they have already learned and accepted, and on new evidence of which
they become aware.
However, new evidence may conflict with what was previously understood
and then be dismissed out of hand that is the easy way out. Alternatively,
the conflict must be examined not a childish process, but one of ongoing
self-education. A readiness to re-examine opinions like this is essential to any
effective democracy because it allows views to flex as information changes.
But such re-examination of opinions depends on sufficient numbers of the
electorate being well informed, able to make up their own minds, and ready
to change their opinion when evidence indicates. But, if views are long
standing and get repeated uncritically, a democracy may be unable to change.
Instead, it becomes locked into a semi-permanent misapprehension that leads
Nuclear is for Life. A Cultural Revolution 17
to ill-advised decisions. Stability is only established when real information is
accepted and people are ready to learn afresh, but, as Tolstoy wrote in the
paragraph posted at the head of this chapter, this presents a high educational
challenge.
The task of this book is first to ask in straightforward terms why so many in
society have an aversion to nuclear science; then to explain to them the
balance of benefit and risk as it is known today. With the damage apparently
inflicted on the environment by carbon combustion coal, oil, gas, biofuels
and biomass – the relevance of comparing nuclear energy to fire is clear.
Many people are reluctant to change their opinion even when faced with
evidence that contradicts it. Such rejection of scientific evidence is too easy,
especially when the reluctance is supported by a whole industry of experts
from local safety officers to international lawyers who have jobs with
careers and standing that depend on the status quo. The quotation by Upton
Sinclair at the head of the chapter makes the point.
Unfortunately, these are the very authorities that the press and politicians tend
to consult when they want advice and information. Such consultations are the
norm, since few people are prepared to stand up and say that they themselves
understand an issue sufficiently. In this way a pass the parcel culture of weak
responsibility, stabilised by a fear of litigation, discourages personal
judgement and leaves decisions in the hands of expert authorities who are
least likely to recommend change. We shall go behind such interests to look
at the evidence for what was previously claimed to be obvious and settled.
Fear of traumatic change
Deciding to change your opinion can bring an element of shock an
embarrassment that may be avoided by postponing the decision. Visualise a
meeting on a very hot day at which a number of people are standing
nervously around a swimming pool waiting for someone to dip his toe and
announce to all that the water is acceptably warm. A dive into the water
would be refreshing in the heat, but the immediate cold shock might be
undignified in front of the others so nobody jumps in. Everybody at the
pool sweats uncomfortably, denying themselves the refreshment of the cool
water. They remain prisoners of their indecision, unwilling to risk the cool
splash of change.
It can take leadership to be the first publicly to express a change of view.
Nevertheless, many of those previously active in campaigns against nuclear
technology, including leaders of the Greenpeace movement, have actually
switched their opinion of nuclear energy [1], in particular Mark Lynas, Patrick
Moore, Stephen Tindale, James Lovelock, Stewart Brand and others. These
are the exceptions. But how is it then possible to go further and encourage
18 Chapter 2: Intelligence as an Aid to Survival
others to change their views, many of whom who are still deeply
apprehensive of nuclear technology? Evidence is needed to account for how
received opinion has developed since World War II, and an exposition is
needed of the science and medicine involved.
Learning from fable and science
Personal and public opinion
What each of us, personally, knows of the world we inhabit is built on our
accumulated experiences and observations, and these we extend by thinking
and studying, based on our own learning. Together these form the basis of our
personal opinions meaning that we are able to check and verify them
relatively easily. Ideally, this would be the basis of all that we acknowledge,
but in a practicable world, we also need to listen to the opinion of others in
order to engage with other questions and problems encountered in life. When
we seek advice from another in this way, we try to choose someone with
personal knowledge. Failing that we may have to follow a majority view. But
this can be a bad move if everyone else does the same. We would all know
what everyone else believes, but what passes for information is rootless,
giving rise to unstable opinion and a potential for panic. To avoid this, a few
people at least should actually understand a matter independently. This
should not be seen as a recipe for a class of experts or high priests who then
become motivated by their own group agenda when giving advice. Rather we
should call for such expertise to be filtered through the education of new and
younger minds so that ideas can be accepted or rejected by their unbiased
studies.
Traditionally children are brought up with fairy tales that encourage them to
keep their eyes and ears open and to acknowledge obvious truths. For
example, they learn that old people lose their youthful looks but they must
cope when their imagination raises a frightening question like Is the apparent
grandmother in reality a wicked wolf? This book asks whether nuclear power
is a similarly wicked wolf, which the popular imagination supposes with the
help of the press. We should look at the evidence. This story is set, not in a
dark and secret enemy research laboratory, nor in a frightening earth-bound
forest, but in the huge natural universe a universe that is largely benign,
principally because we are creatures that have evolved to fit with it. Those
who fitted less easily are the ones that already died out, according to Darwin.
But the story continues – if we do not fit with our environment and look after
it, we too may die out.
Science before Earth began
Before humans, before Earth, before the matter of which Earth is composed,
radiation completely dominated everything in the universe. As the universe
Nuclear is for Life. A Cultural Revolution 19
cooled from its creation in the Big Bang 15.8 thousand million years ago, the
radiation subsided leaving clumps of matter to emerge as galaxies of stars.
With the exception of hydrogen, this matter was made of nuclear waste left
after an orgy of early-exploding stars that created all the chemical elements
we see around us today. Earth was formed some 4.5 thousand million years
ago, and not long after that the slow development of life began. Much later, a
mere million or so years ago, man appeared. Then, a few hundred years ago
man began to understand how he himself could engage the power of science,
culminating in his ability to work with radiation and generate energy from
nuclear matter.
Many speak as if nuclear energy and radiation were man-made, and perhaps
compare a decision to use it and its powerful influence to Adam and Eve
deciding to eat the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. But man did not
make radiation or nuclear energy it was nuclear radiation in the natural
world that was needed to make man, long before. Indeed it is the failure of so
many to eat the fruit of this knowledge that has lead to the sorry story of
Fukushima Daiichi a tragedy of ignorance, a tangled web of
misunderstanding and undeserved distrust of which Shakespeare would have
been proud. The story deserves to be retold in a positive and properly
scientific light.
Fire in the home
Decisions about energy affect people's lives and many have strongly held
opinions. But those opinions, whether about conventional fuels or nuclear,
have to be confronted with evidence, and the right way forward has to be
argued out. We may imagine how mankind fared in earlier times when faced
by another question at least as momentous as a decision to adopt nuclear
energy and to phase out the burning of carbon fuels.
Perhaps many hundred thousand years ago there was consternation among
the more conservative environmentalists of the day when radical innovators
started building hearths and bringing fire into the home. Obviously, most
people were frightened everyone knows the dangers that come when you
start messing with fire and choosing to do so at home must have seemed
irresponsible. The readiness with which fire can catch and spread has been
the cause of countless fatal accidents it is a thermal chain reaction that is
difficult to put out. Even today, in spite of regulation, instruction and ever-
ready emergency services, fire remains a threat with a substantial annual
death toll. When animals see or sense fire, experience tells them to run away,
and collectively they are apt to panic. Man usually does the same, but at some
point in the early Stone Age – nobody knows quite when he made a
momentous stride for civilisation: overcoming his natural fear of fire he
stopped, used his brain and studied the problem. He realised that on balance
20 Chapter 2: Intelligence as an Aid to Survival
the benefits of fire outweigh its dangers, provided personal education and
training is given to everybody, children included. It was a turning point that
gave humans immediate supremacy over all other beings. Civilisation could
not have developed without fire, and we would probably have remained
animals with a limited population and a short and brutish life if we had
heeded the advice of the environmentalists of those days pictured in
Illustration 3 on page 5.
Initially, no doubt, few shared this enthusiasm, and we may imagine some
noisy demonstrations with members of the Anti-Fire Party opposing the new
technology because, as they said, everybody knew that fire was dangerous
and they had tales of death and destruction to back their case. But in the end
they were over-ruled, and the lure of hot cooked food and warm dry
accommodation won the day. Perhaps it did not happen quite like that
perhaps the protesters, afflicted by poor health and inadequate diet, just died
of cold and hunger, being uncompetitive with those who embraced the new
technology. Anyway, every generation of children to this day has to learn
respect for fire, often through the experience of a hot stove and a few tears.
In fact, the advance was not just the introduction of fire into the home but the
power to think and act with confidence to study and control the use of fire
and other sources of energy in the environment. As man used his brain and
learnt more, his confidence in his scientific studies grew, and cooperation and
trust in society at large grew with it. But such trust is fragile and is easily lost
or destroyed.
This process of learning has continued, and in the past century there have
been two important discoveries suggesting that the decision to use fire
liberally should be re-examined. Firstly, fire has consequences even more
dangerous than previously understood, namely the effect of its emissions on
the global environment [see Selected References on page 279, SR3 Chapter
2]; secondly, there is an alternative energy source to fire that does not have
the same drawbacks, neither the tendency to spread and multiply nor the
environmental impact. In addition it has more than a million times the energy
density of carbon-based combustion.
This alternative is nuclear technology, first made known to the public in a
sudden dreadful shock at the end of World War II with the bombing of
Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This negative experience was reinforced by the
political and military propaganda of the Cold War period. Notwithstanding
this, the public has benefited from nuclear technology for over a century
through its use firstly in clinical medicine to image the internal anatomy of
the human body and its functioning, and subsequently to diagnose diseases
and cure cancers without surgery. Today the question is whether nuclear
technology is really as dangerous as the public has been encouraged to
Nuclear is for Life. A Cultural Revolution 21
believe. Fire is welcomed in spite of its obvious dangers. Should nuclear
energy be rejected? Or should it be accepted as the least bad option to save
the endangered climate? Or even, should it be welcomed because nuclear
energy is safer than fire and only dangerous under quite exceptional
conditions? Whether to use nuclear technology is the new Promethean
question. It is a decision as important as the domestication of fire.
Nuclear safety misjudged
The news from Fukushima Daiichi
The accident at Fukushima has shown the answer rather clearly: nuclear
power is safe to use. But this has not been appreciated. Furthermore, the
relevant public education and training has not been given, and the guidance
given by the authorities, both national and international, has been based on
seriously mistaken science. As a result the costs of nuclear energy and its
safety have been completely misrepresented.
Later chapters provide discussion and the evidence that nuclear power is safe.
Based on this evidence, the authorities from the United Nations down should
be urged to reconsider their advice, so that the wider public can make up their
own minds. In democracies at least, politicians are likely to continue to
appease the fear of radiation and make decisions that lead to a lack of
economic competitiveness and environmental damage, locally and globally.
However, once public opinion is better informed, leaders will see that there
are votes in pursuing the course for the common good.
The press saw the accident of March 2011 as the start of a new era. For the
first time since the man-made nuclear age began, the media were ready and
present at the scene of a nuclear accident with their cameras running and
ready to stream 24-hour news. They captured pictures of chemical
explosions; they speculated about the significance of leaks of gases and water
carrying radioactive waste material; making little comment on the deaths of
more than 18,800 people from the tsunami, they preferred to keep media
attention focussed exclusively on the big story – and they believed that was
the nuclear one. Every day for weeks, then months and years, they described
radiation escapes and radiation doses said to be high. But nothing happened –
nobody was hurt by radiation or radioactivity. Unable to accept or appreciate
that the script was not developing as they had expected, the journalists and
reporters continued to rephrase the stories of high radiation readings and
escaping radioactivity without being able to show why this mattered, except
that it frightened people around the world who then bought their news stories.
On previous occasions when the press had reported from the scene for the
first time, the consequences were far reaching. For instance, the open
22 Chapter 2: Intelligence as an Aid to Survival
reporting of the Vietnam War with its dramatic pictures and true accounts
showed it to be genuinely shocking, and this contributed to turning public
opinion against the war, at home in the United States and elsewhere. But
never before Fukushima had the story been nuclear. Media interest in getting
real nuclear pictures had never been satisfied in the 65 years since the
bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The 1957 Windscale Fire was much
smaller than Fukushima and not openly reported at the time; the Three Mile
Island accident was contained and produced neither pictures nor casualties;
Chernobyl was inaccessible, hidden behind the Soviet veil that crumbled
shortly thereafter. So for the first few days at Fukushima, media reports felt
able to indulge in nuclear superlatives, for the first time after many years of
waiting. But apart from the fear maintained by the reports themselves, it was
not like that. Lacking a ready script, the media started to scratch around for a
story. Popular reports urged the public to blame the operating company,
TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company), and the Japanese government for
lying, secrecy and bad management they could hardly blame them for
injury and manslaughter because there had been none. Few, it seemed, looked
at what had really happened, or rather had not happened. Around the world
the initial collective panic spread, unrestrained, in an atmosphere of global
ignorance. Politicians and others drew up instant national policy reactions
without fundamental reappraisal, and this was reflected too in official
international reports, although these took many months, even years, to
appear. But did anyone dare to ask the big question? Was anyone in danger
from the radioactivity and its radiation?
All the nuclear power plants in Japan were shut down and put into stand-by.
This resulted in electricity shortages and then massive economic and
environmental costs, as substitute fossil fuel was imported and burnt. Over
100,000 people were evacuated from the region and many more left
voluntarily. Food was condemned by regulation and more rejected by market
forces, this in a relatively poor agricultural region where farming businesses
were quite fragile anyway. Children were encouraged not to play outside, old
people were moved from their sheltered accommodation, often with fatal
results. The population showed all the symptoms of extreme social stress
bed-wetting, suicides, family break-up, alcohol dependence. No explanation
was given to the local people of what was happening to them. Local
discussion degenerated into arguments about blame and compensation.
Inevitably those who moved away from the region were the more affluent,
leaving an immobile residual population without the youth and ability needed
for a viable community. At great expense, work began to remove topsoil, said
to be significantly contaminated, from fields in the evacuated regions. But
this policy was not thought through and had negative consequences:
Topsoil removal was found to reduce the radioactivity of the fields by
Nuclear is for Life. A Cultural Revolution 23
50% at most.
Fields lost much of their fertility without their topsoil.
The forests and steeper rocky regions above the fields could not be
included in the work, but these covered a wide area, seen in the
background in Illustration 11 on page 12.
It is difficult to see how this expensive work makes any sense. Later chapters
will show why radioactivity in the region, as shown in Illustration 13 on page
44, is far from dangerous, so that a 50% reduction does not make a cost-
effective difference. Teaching the local population about radiation and why
they should genuinely have no worries would be a better investment, but
obviously that would take longer. But for a start they would get some
immediate hope and encouragement from viewing the professional videos
showing wildlife thriving at Chernobyl today [SR7].
Around the world many other nations also panicked. Some withdrew their
nationals from Tokyo, even from Japan, and introduced plans to shut down
their nuclear plants and rely on renewables, which in practice increased their
consumption of carbon. Eminent international bodies met and responded to
popular demands for increased nuclear safety. Mandatory standards were
raised, large numbers of people eagerly accepted new jobs in nuclear safety,
and the quoted capital cost of nuclear power stations and the electricity they
produce rose as a result. These funds and jobs became available as a result of
the ballyhoo, but few analysed what had actually happened and whether it
warranted such a reaction.
In later chapters we explore the worldwide cultural misunderstanding, with
its roots going back 70 years, that lies behind this reaction to the accident,
why it happened and what should now be done about it. Science policy
blunders have been made before, but this one has wider consequences
because it threatens both the world economy and, at the same time, the best
prospect of stabilising the planet's environment for the benefit of all.
Matching evidence and expectations
What happened at Fukushima Daiichi was not what was expected. The
supposed terrible tragedy seemed not to match the evidence. There are only
two possibilities: either it was simply wrong to expect that such radiation
would cause physical harm to the population; or the effects of the radiation
will turn out to be much worse in the end than the results have so far
suggested. These possibilities are investigated here.
For any experience that complies with common sense our expectations
beforehand should match what happens. If this is so, our confidence builds.
Otherwise we must admit that we have got something wrong and it is a
24 Chapter 2: Intelligence as an Aid to Survival
matter of back to the drawing board to understand how we were wrong. That
is the scientific method. We could get mathematical at this point by
expressing confidence as betting odds and work out what how expectations
should change in the light of new information. Fortunately this can usually be
avoided because the conclusion is plain to see. In particular, if the new
information completely disagrees with the prior expectation, mathematics
should not be used to hide the blatant inconsistency.
So we need to examine our expectations. If something is obviously at odds,
we should not accept that some sophisticated statistical analysis or
pronouncement from an eminent committee can avoid it. Such a situation is
described in the story of the Emperor's New Clothes by Hans Christian
Andersen. If the Emperor is wearing no clothes, then no pronouncement from
his officially appointed international tailors carries any weight, and common
sense is sufficient to see that. The radiation dangers experienced by the
people of Fukushima are like the Emperor's clothes – they are not there! The
situation must be reviewed and resolved.
Pseudo-sciences and wishful thinking
By examining other major nuclear accidents, particularly Chernobyl and the
one at Goiania, it becomes clear that no incidence of late cancer or other
mortality should be expected at Fukushima. So the predictions of disaster
were simply wrong. We will need to examine where these came from. The
story will go back many decades to the birth of a pseudo-science called the
Linear No-Threshold Hypothesis (LNT). It is described as a pseudo-science
because it is not based on observation but on a history of ideas, fears and
human emotions, quite real in their own terms but not scientific. LNT joins
other pseudo-sciences, such as alchemy and astrology, that seemed
interesting in their day but were finally brought down by conflicting
evidence. How do pseudo-sciences come to be accepted in spite of their
erroneous basis? How did alchemy and astrology get their limited
acceptance, and did LNT become accepted by authority following a similar
route?
Science requires care and attention to detail if wrong turns are to be avoided.
Navigation offers a practical example. A boat that sails from A to B on a map
on a steady course will arrive happily if the voyage is less than a few hundred
miles – that is called plane sailing, as it would seem no different if the Earth
were a flat plane [2]. However if the voyage is longer, plane sailing does not
offer the most direct route because of the curvature of the Earth: for this, the
boat should steer on a great circle with a slowly changing course relative to
the points of the compass. That may not be clear to the non scientist, but it
shows how a proper understanding of the problem is needed if mistakes are
not to be made. Likewise, on the safety of radiation, having found that we
Nuclear is for Life. A Cultural Revolution 25
were wrong, we should develop a deeper understanding so that we can make
better decisions.
Astronomy impressed everyone in the ancient world, as it does also today. It
began by describing events of exceptional regularity: the rising of stars, Sun
and Moon; their links to tides and seasons; astronomical measurements for
navigation with ever greater accuracy; the movement of the planets; finally
the prediction of eclipses. The authorities of the ancient world were naturally
in awe of the astronomer. No doubt they took the priest of this power into
their confidence and asked his advice. The astronomer would be pressed on
many urgent questions about which he was certain and others about which he
was quite ignorant. But could he refuse the offer of research facilities and
substantial grants? Perhaps he only had to guess whether the King would
have a son. It is not surprising if at an incautious moment he accepted the
research grant money on offer and agreed to use his astronomical powers to
study the probability of the birth of a male heir. If he got the prediction
wrong, the result might be fatal for him, but think of the grant and the
studentships he said to himself. In this way the pseudo-science of astrology
was born.
Predicting the weather was uphill work in ancient times, and it still is today.
At that time, everyone's lives depended on what they could grow, given the
weather, and what they could make with their tools of wood, stone and metal.
The contribution of metalwork to the economic competitiveness of early
civilisations was crucial, and the ability of their geologists and chemists to
extract metal by heating and treating rocks was simply magic to the majority
of the population. While they learnt how to produce base metals from raw
minerals, everyone dreamt of producing precious silver and gold by
extending the magic. Good research money was always on offer to any
charlatan or fool unwise enough to offer to transmute base metals into gold.
The pseudo-science of alchemy was driven by greed and ambition, and
frustrated by true science. But that did not stop people indulging, and many
legends recount the fate of those who used fair means and foul in their pursuit
of riches in this way. Alchemy's credibility depends on gullibility and
ignorance, but, like astrology, its faulty appeal is exposed by education.
Does LNT provide another example of such a pseudo-science, this time
drawn from the mid twentieth century instead of the Middle Ages? LNT
seemingly justifies a fear of radiation, or radiophobia. This fear may be
genuine, but that does not mean that radiation is actually unsafe for low or
moderate exposures, and of course fear should not be seen as a sufficient
reason for proscriptive regulation. Those with a fear of the dark or of heights
(like the author) may be really frightened, but such phobias are not built on
science. It is dangerous and irresponsible to inflict on others the false
rationalisation of such subjective phobias, however unbearable they may
26 Chapter 2: Intelligence as an Aid to Survival
seem personally. Forbidding anyone from going out in the dark or climbing
ladders would be wrong, unless there were solid statistical accident data to
justify it. Any such restriction would reduce productivity and
competitiveness. More generally, our practical superiority over other animals
depends on an ability to face any apparent dangers objectively.
Fear of nuclear energy
A zeitgeist reconsidered
Every age has its cultural spirit or zeitgeist. Some are beneficial while others
are injurious. Religious ones may hold sway in a region, sometimes for many
centuries. Secular ones can be geographical too, but seldom last so long. To
adherents, the ideas may seem self evident, that is until they are found
wanting and the false confidence they offer implodes. The persistence of
some is stabilised for a time by hate or fear that suppresses study and open
discussion. In this way deep examination is effectively prevented for
everybody in society, except for a few technical priests. Ideas may appear to
be isolated by education if people are made to feel that understanding is
beyond them. Similarly the power of voodoo or the curse of a witch doctor
may sustain a primitive belief by a collective intimidation that allows no
questions.
In modern times, general improvements in education have prevented or
suppressed many instances of false or malignant fashions. Among those that
have persisted, few have exerted a widespread inhibiting influence as strong
as radiation phobia the reaction to matters invoking the words nuclear and
radiation. In the wake of news of the nuclear bombs of 1945 came a
prescribed litany of nuclear awe to which all assented, and still do. But in the
twenty-first century the impact of carbon fuels on the environment has
brought a fresh need to exorcise public fears of nuclear technology. A simple
transparent appreciation of radiation is required to replace the rationalisation
based on flawed science that has been used in the past to underscore radiation
phobia.
The supply of energy and the ability to use it have been responsible for
maintaining life on Earth from its beginning well over 3,000 million years
ago. In the modern human era this has lead to large populations living under
improving conditions. Until recent centuries change was dictated through
natural selection, a gentle-sounding description of death, but which
frequently occurred on a large scale. Today the ability of humans to study and
plan provides a more welcome way to bring about change, although to be
effective this depends on the education and understanding of decision makers
in a democracy, the electorate and the politicians answerable to them.
Nuclear is for Life. A Cultural Revolution 27
Popular opinion about energy is still heavily influenced by fear of nuclear
energy. This threatens to restrict not only the supply of energy, but also stable
economic growth, food and clean water for a population living in a fragile
climate. The remarkable accident at Fukushima challenges this fear and calls
for a re-examination of nuclear technology using a coherent modern scientific
understanding of the physical, biological, medical, and social issues involved,
expressed in a form understandable to a broad readership.
Trust in science is properly established by successful numerical prediction
and measurement. Its explanation can be supported by pictorial diagrams and
graphical descriptions that help make the truth intuitively obvious. The ability
to draw or visualise a scientific result is as important to creating confidence
for the scientist as it is for everybody else. So the following chapters use
common sense, diagrams and pictures as well as a few numbers to help in
reaching conclusions. Sometimes those numbers may be accurate and carry
only a small uncertainty. Just as often the uncertainty may be quite large, but
the conclusion will still be unavoidable if the alternative differs by a factor of
hundreds or thousands. However, if all numerical comparisons are ignored,
any discussions may degenerate into heated debate between parties unable to
express their conclusions in clear numerical terms, as is often to be found in
the media.
Notes on Chapter 2
1Statements of environmental and other academic support for German nuclear
power (2014) http://maxatomstrom.de/umweltschuetzer-und-wissenschaftler/
2This is often described as plain sailing, a spelling that suggests a
misunderstanding. The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both spellings.
Nuclear is for Life. A Cultural Revolution 29
Chapter 3: Rules, Evidence and Trust
The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie deliberate,
contrived and dishonest but the myth persistent, persuasive and
unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We
subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the
comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Energy for civilisation
Natural rules of life 30
Energy and other needs 31
Solution without carbon dioxide emission 32
Sources of energy 33
Stored energy and its safety 33
Nuclear energy 34
Two soluble problems of power from nuclear fission 35
Widespread myths that should be contested 35
What happened at Fukushima Daiichi in 2011
Japan's preparation for the earthquake 36
Reactor shutdown and decay heat 37
Tsunami arrival 38
Reactor damage by tsunami 39
The chemical story 39
Radioactivity released into the air 40
Re-criticality suppressed 40
Radioactivity released into the water 41
Spent fuel ponds 41
Public trust in radiation
Ignorance and lack of plan 42
The fallacy of absolute safety and the loss of trust 42
Impact on public health 44
Protective suits that frighten or impress 45
Loss of life 46
Caution that harms people but protects authority
Psychological disaster at Fukushima 46
Symbols of hazard 48
30 Chapter 3: Rules, Evidence and Trust
Evacuation, clean up and compensation 48
Fear of artificial radiation 49
Questions about the danger of internal radioactivity 50
Radiation safety is inter-disciplinary 51
Fear of the radiation from a CT scan 52
Wastes, costs and conflicting interests
Comparison of waste products 53
Nuclear waste 54
The cost of nuclear energy 54
The scale of a nuclear reactor 56
Notes on Chapter 3 57
Energy for civilisation
Natural rules of life
Many questions are only as interesting as their answers. Such a question is:
What is the purpose of life? We are not talking just about human life here, but
all life, conscious and unconscious, down to the simplest cell. How does life
in all its manifestations actually go about living? We may observe how it is
intensely concerned with relationships and competition personal friends
and communal enemies, infections and antibodies, political parties and
military campaigns. The Darwinian answer to the first question is to survive
and more certainly and prolifically than the competition.
But there are rules. Much as the individual may strive to survive personally,
that is not the main aim of life in general. The first rule is that all individuals
die – survival is only for their progeny. Any personal belief in the sanctity of
life that we may harbour is not shared by nature. Frequently, countless
individuals are sacrificed in the carelessly inefficient process of finding
Darwin's fittest samples. Similar carnage occurs in the competition amongst
cells in the microscopic world. Nature offers sanctuary to very few, and
continuing life to none.
So the First Rule of Life is that it is limited. Death is certain and there are no
exceptions.
Individuals arriving on planet Earth come with nothing except their genes,
and when they die they leave behind everything they have built money,
status, personality, education. These may have been useful within their
lifespan, but no more. That means the worth of these is far less than the genes
left to posterity. So the Second Rule of Life is that you travel light you
bring nothing in when you are born and take nothing with you when you die.
Nuclear is for Life. A Cultural Revolution 31
There are no exceptions to this rule either.
Life as we know it is confined to the thin shell of the atmosphere at the
surface of the Earth – so no wonder it is so easy to pollute. Expeditions from
the surface of Earth have been few, limited in range and immensely energy
intensive. Attempts to find life elsewhere in the universe have shown no
success and, anyway, it is hard to see how life elsewhere could be of much
benefit to us. So we should expect to be limited to a small, overpopulated and
increasingly polluted planet, effectively alone in the universe. What do we
need while we are here? Life needs energy, and energy has a rule: energy is
conserved. You cannot make energy. That is a rule of physics. As with the
two rules of life, there are no exceptions to the energy rule and its
consequences are far reaching.
Energy and other needs
It is relatively easy to discuss past problems – we may speculate on those of
the present day, but we are simply unaware of those of tomorrow. It is hard
work seeing current events in perspective, so the best discussion of future
problems we can offer is to start with those of today that currently seem to
have no prospect of adequate solution. In 2015 that list includes:
Climate Change. The scientific evidence is now widely accepted [1],
although the effect of dynamic exchanges between the small mass of
the atmosphere and the large mass of the oceans is still uncertain,
quantitatively. Exceptional weather and melting ice sheets have
influenced public views. Compared with even a year ago, noticeably
fewer sceptical voices are now heard. And then there is the role of
methane and its release in large quantities from a warming Arctic; the
public do not seem to be generally aware of this yet.
Socio-economic instability. Following the misinterpreted Arab
Spring of 2011 instability has spread to a broad swathe of countries.
Lawlessness seems to have be come endemic in some regions, and
the world powers are less willing, financially and politically, to
intervene. Perhaps that is because they have become less confident of
their own stability than they were in the past. Fracture, if not
collapse, of many regimes seems more likely than at any time in the
past 50 years.
Food, water and population. Malthus, an English cleric, famously
wrote in 1798 that the world population must necessarily be limited
by the means of subsistence, and would be suppressed by misery and
vice. His predictions have been delayed in their effect, but their logic
remains. Although today birthrates fall as societies develop, the
demand for resources rises with an ageing and risk-averse middle
32 Chapter 3: Rules, Evidence and Trust
class. At the same time, societies with younger populations are
unable to satisfy ambitions for food and jobs. The pressures of
migration, exacerbated by changes in climate, are evident and likely
to trigger increasing conflict. Meanwhile, clean water supplies
remain critical, and extra food relies on aid that is inevitably limited.
The threat of epidemic. The evidence from the Ebola outbreak of
2014 shows that the world is not well prepared and reacts slowly. If
Ebola had been a more contagious disease the worldwide escalation
would have been severe.
If we are not to find ourselves marooned on a shrinking ice-flow like a polar
bear, so to speak, we need to find solutions to these problems.
Solution without carbon dioxide emission
Natural forces shape the future, but so too does human organisation,
nationally and internationally. Is it possible that human society, using its
collective intelligence and education, might achieve some acceptable degree
of equilibrium, at least in the provision of energy?
Atmospheric oxygen and the combustible materials on Earth, including those
that are buried as coal, oil and gas, together form an energy store, a kind of
battery. Currently this store is being discharged at an ever increasing rate by
human activity, directly and indirectly. Human life itself makes a small
contribution by taking in food and oxygen, and releasing carbon dioxide, so
too do animals, both wild and the domestic ones kept mostly as sources of
food. Although discharges from volcanoes and forest fires may be natural,
many other fires are man-made. So too are electricity generation, transport,
heating and other industrial activity that use carbon energy. In earlier decades
concern for the future of carbon energy was based on the limited supply of
fuel, but that has changed. Now the main concern is the effect on the climate
of the discharged carbon dioxide. Direct measurements of the concentrations
of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, taken anywhere in the world, show
how they are increasing every year, year on year. There are reasons,
dependent on the physics of these gases, to suppose that these increasing
concentrations should affect the Earth's climate [see Selected References on
page 279, SR3 Chapters 2-4].
Mankind needs a supply of energy to be available at all times of day and
night. Without it, conditions on Earth would not support a fraction of its
population today and its loss would involve death on a worldwide scale. Yet
the appetite for energy is too large for any available intermediate storage to
make a significant difference. So, it is the source of the energy that matters,
and this should not add significantly to pollution, or increase the likelihood of
global disease, war, climate instability, water shortage or starvation. But does
Nuclear is for Life. A Cultural Revolution 33
any available source meet these demanding requirements?
Sources of energy
The carbon fuels oil, coal, gas and the various forms of biofuels should
all be ruled out because of the carbon dioxide they release. Radiation from
the Sun gives solar energy, directly, but it also indirectly drives wind, wave
and hydro power. The gravity and motion of the Earth relative to Sun and
Moon is the energy source behind the tides. Another so-called renewable
energy source is heat from the inside the Earth. This originates from the
radioactive decay of elements scattered through the volume of the Earth. In
fact the output of radioactive heat per kg within the Earth is about equal to
the natural radioactive heat in the human body (see Chapter 7). In the Earth
this heat provides, not only geothermal energy, but also the thermal power for
the motion of the tectonic plates and thence earthquakes, tsunamis and
volcanoes. Geothermal power is particularly accessible in places at the edges
of tectonic plates, such as California, New Zealand and Yellowstone National
Park.
Often included in a list of so-called renewable energy sources are biomass
and biofuels. However this shows a strange lack of straight thinking. These
sources burn the vegetable matter created by natural photosynthesis, thereby
discharging the waste carbon dioxide straight back into the atmosphere.
Nature works hard to grow trees and other vegetable matter to reduce the
carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is something that man cannot do
himself on a large scale, but the use of biofuels and biomass simply discards
the benefits of this natural and successful carbon capture. Their combustion is
an amazingly short-sighted development, no better than the use of coal, oil or
gas. Furthermore, their production often displaces the growing of food on
large areas of agricultural land, and, what is worse, in many parts of the
world, forest is destroyed for the purpose.
Stored energy and its safety
Popular discussions of energy supply often conclude that the task would be
simpler if we could store energy easily. This is not easy on the scale that
would be required -- this is fortunate because, if it were easy, it would be
dangerous. The problem is the need to control the extraction of the energy
from such a storage, efficiently and safely. In the event of an accident any
energy store is liable to discharge, releasing large amounts of energy
unintentionally. The more easily and completely this energy can be released,
the better is the store but the more potent and devastating is any potential
accidental discharge. So energy storage appears as a safety hazard as well as
a desirable element of an energy utility. The danger of large amounts of
stored energy is exemplified by a hydroelectric dam, as discussed further in
34 Chapter 3: Rules, Evidence and Trust
Chapter 7. The important question is the quantity of stored energy that has to
be released safely in the event of an emergency. A coal, oil or gas fired power
station can be turned off quickly without releasing stored energy, provided
that the fuel supply itself does not start to burn [2]. Interestingly, fusion power
has remarkably low stored energy: when the reactor is turned off, energy
production ceases immediately, but that is not available yet. A nuclear fission
reactor is different like a hydro-electric dam, it has a large stored energy
and some of this continues to leak out in the days and months following turn
off. This is the decay heat that has to be dispersed effectively somehow, and
the accident at Fukushima Daiichi demonstrated how difficult this can be.
Nuclear energy
For any source of energy there are two important measures, energy density
and intermittency. Energy density is the energy available per kg, and this is
discussed further in Chapter 7. Some energy sources have such low densities
that they cannot deliver the energy needed without an unreasonably large
mass of fuel, or moving air or water, etc. Use of an energy source is made
increasingly difficult if it is intermittent when the demand is continuous.
Then some full scale backup supply or energy storage becomes important.
Large scale sharing or averaging of many intermittent sources on a grid
seems an attractive alternative but its success depends critically on the
distance between sources and their pattern of intermittency. If the distance
over which the supply has to be shared becomes large, the capital cost or the
success of the sharing may fail. Thus wind, wave and solar power are only
available for a fraction of the time, or in particular places, sometimes where
fewer people live and work. Although coal, oil and gas discharge their waste
carbon dioxide straight into the atmosphere, they do have a high energy
density and are not intermittent unless political forces intervene they can
provide energy at any place and time. Geothermal power, like hydro power
and tidal power, is effective where it is available, but that is the exception.
Thermonuclear power, that is fusion power on Earth, will be very important
when it becomes available, but a few decades of development for the
materials and reactor construction are needed first. A pre-prototype reactor,
ITER, is under construction in France and this will be followed by a full scale
prototype. However, for the more distant future it does offer the real prospect
of unlimited power using small quantities of ubiquitous fuel.
Nuclear fission has a high energy density – just how high may be illustrated
by comparing it with a state-of-the-art lithium battery – the grounding of the
Boeing Dreamliner in 2013was caused by difficulty with the energy retention
of these batteries. Fully charged they store 0.2 kWh of energy per kg. That
may be compared with the energy stored in 1 kg of thorium-232, that is 100
million times greater. Put more graphically, 100,000 tonnes of fully charged
Nuclear is for Life. A Cultural Revolution 35
lithium batteries (the mass of the largest super tanker) hold the same energy
as 1 kg of thorium-232. Even a nuclear physicist has to marvel at these
figures.
As for intermittency, energy from a nuclear fission reactor is as effective as a
fossil fuel plant. It can be available at all times and can be built anywhere,
even in an earthquake zone. It does not have to wait for the wind, a sunny day
or the tide to turn, and its environmental impact, underlying cost and accident
record are second to none. Although improvements, like the use of thorium as
a fuel, will become available within a few years, the equivalent uranium
version is not new technology. It is available now, and has been for half a
century.
Two soluble problems of power from nuclear fission
There are just two residual problems: firstly, a widespread public and
political phobia attaching to anything described as nuclear or related to
radiation; secondly, international regulatory authorities who, instead of
working to dispell this radiation phobia, act to enhance it – and have persisted
in doing so for 60 years. These problems could be easily overcome, if enough
people set their minds to it. However, on the back of these two concerns an
impression has been created that nuclear energy is inherently expensive and
that its waste is a problem neither of which would be true in an informed
world.
A real understanding of nuclear technology and its effect on life is sparse
among scientists, and in the wider population it is lacking altogether. In the
following chapters we look at radiation and nuclear technology through the
eyes of different disciplines. Although the use of nuclear energy is often
described as complex or sophisticated, it is simple to grasp the basic facts
sufficiently to appreciate its safety. The phobia continues to fuel stories in the
press and popular literature and these have been self-sustaining.
There are new international moves [3] to question the policy of the various
international and national safety authorities who have failed to correct
dangerous misapprehensions about the safety of radiation. We need to
understand the diverse reasons for the reluctance of these authorities to
respond so far, but their steadfast adherence to the pseudo-science of LNT
cannot continue to withstand the evidence for long.
Widespread myths that should be contested
Though admitted by few, the mass of the human race seeks out irrationality.
As President Kennedy says in the quotation at the head of this chapter,
although an unreasoned opinion can be comfortably embraced without effort
or expense, confronting it takes time, study and even pain. Fortunately, there
36 Chapter 3: Rules, Evidence and Trust
are people who want to make a difference and leave their mark. It is salutary
to read of the experiences that Marie Curie went through to make sense of the
mass of tangled observations which led her to the understanding of the
atomic nucleus as it stands today. Her story gives an extraordinary example
of what can be achieved under adverse conditions [4, 5]. Unfortunately, many
in the affluent world effectively deny her painstaking work, preferring to
imagine nuclear energy and its radiation to be part of a malign and irrational
game of chanceuntil, that is, they are in the hands of clinicians using it to
cure them of cancer or otherwise extend their lives.
With more study, every member of the public could understand more and
forsake some of the answers that have been simply repeated and copied, over
and over without questioning for the past 70 years. Why? Because those
answers do not fit the medical and biological facts: the popular account of
nuclear radiation and its effect on life given in the media is mistaken and the
real effects are usually harmless and often beneficial, contrary to Hollywood
dramas and stories.
So should mankind take the hard decisions of real life, or choose exciting
make-believe stories that avoid having to study, just briefly, in the footsteps
of Marie Curie? The real problems that threaten the future of mankind in the
twenty-first century are not hidden. The need for food, water and a space to
live have not changed, but with rising expectations and expanding
populations, the requirement for education and real scientific understanding
have become paramount. The total misapprehension of nuclear technology at
all levels, even among many scientists, should be corrected because, when
understood even at a simple level, the ability to contribute solutions to
civilisation's larger problems can be appreciated.
What happened at Fukushima Daiichi in 2011
Japan's preparation for the earthquake
The Great East Japan Earthquake, also known as the 2011 Tohoku
Earthquake, occurred at 05.46 UTC on 11 March 2011. Its magnitude was 9.0
on the Richter Scale and it generated an exceptionally large tsunami that hit
the northeastern coast of Japan. Although this is thought to have been the
largest earthquake to hit Japan in a thousand years, the Japanese have studied
earthquakes extensively and their building codes dictate that buildings should
withstand significant disruptive forces. In October 2011 when I visited the
region some roads were still damaged by subsidence, but relatively few
buildings appeared affected. A school building that I visited in Fukushima
City had been damaged, but its replacement was already completed and ready
for use. The preparedness of the buildings was matched by the disciplined
Nuclear is for Life. A Cultural Revolution 37
and organised reaction of the people; they all knew that after such an
earthquake they should expect aftershocks and should prepare immediately
for a possible tsunami. Accordingly, as soon as the earthquake was detected,
the population took to higher ground and other places of safety from the
tsunami. Schools followed practised routines and moved quickly. Inevitably,
hospitals and homes for the elderly were not able to react quite as fast.
Reactor shutdown and decay heat
Across Japan the earthquake itself triggered an immediate shut down of all
nuclear power reactors that were working at the time. A shut down in the case
of a nuclear fission reactor means that all neutrons are absorbed by the
control rods, released to drop into the reactor. Consequently as soon as the
reactors were shut down in Japan all energy production by nuclear fission
ceased immediately, long before the tsunami arrived.
Neutrons are the go-between that enable the fission of one nucleus to cause
the fission of more. If a fissile nucleus absorbs a neutron, it is likely itself to
undergo fission almost immediately, thereby releasing further free neutrons.
This nuclear chain reaction can only be mediated by neutrons; it can be
stopped by the control rods, made of non-fissile nuclei which absorb neutrons
particularly readily, but do not undergo fission, thereby breaking the chain.
However, although there is no more fission following reactor shut down,
there is still some declining residual nuclear activity because many of the
Illustration 12: A graph to show how the power of decay heat from
a fission reactor falls with time after it is shut down . Note that
both scales are logarithmic so that the low power after later times
is shown as well as the higher power at early times.
38 Chapter 3: Rules, Evidence and Trust
products of fission are still liable to decay. This releases energy known as
decay heat as they change into more stable atoms. It is important to
appreciate how quickly this decay heat declines initially. Immediately upon
shut down it is 7% of the thermal power of the reactor, falling quite quickly
to just over 1% after a day, as shown in Illustration 12 However, it falls more
slowly as time goes on – after a year it is still 0.08%. Every reactor behaves
similarly.
The reason for the shape of this curve of declining activity is that it is
composed of the independent decay of many different nuclear isotopes, each
with its own simple exponential decay and half-life. Initially the activity is
dominated by the effect of the species with the shorter lifetimes, while later
on, effectively, only the contributions from the longer-lived isotopes remain.
At Fukushima Daiichi the concern was the decay heat produced in the early
hours and days.
This energy has to be removed by the continued circulation of cooling water,
otherwise the whole reactor will heat up rather quickly. But if the reactor was
not shut down when the accident occurred, like the one at Chernobyl, the
thermal energy production rate would be 2,000 to 3,000 MW, the same as the
level of cooling needed in normal operation. In other words the shut down of
each reactor at Fukushima reduced the scale of the initial energy available to
a few percent of that at Chernobyl, and if that cooling had been maintained,
there would have been no accident at all.
Tsunami arrival
The movement of the sea bed caused by an earthquake pushes and pulls the
water like a hydraulic ram creating a wave on the surface of the ocean above.
This wave moves at a speed of several hundred kilometres per hour
depending on the depth of the ocean [6]. As it reaches shallower water this
tsunami wave moves more slowly but its height increases. Then, like any
wave reaching a normal holiday beach, it breaks in fact, in a trough where
the water is shallower the wave moves more slowly, but on a crest where the
water is deeper the wave moves faster, unti