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Abstract

Last week saw the 150th anniversary of the birth of Marie Skłodowska. Marie Curie, as she became, received Nobel Prizes in both physics and chemistry for deciphering the basis of nuclear science and radioactivity, knowledge that she then applied to medicine, including the treatment of cancer. For the latter at least she is gratefully and universally remembered. Yet were she to return today she would be shocked at the failure of humanity to welcome the energy made available by nuclear science. Her work exposed the source of this energy, a million times that of fire, although it was only some years after her death in 1934 that the way to release it was discovered. Marie Curie wrote Nothing in life is to be feared. It is to be understood. But in the aftermath of World War II it was fear that blew world opinion off course-political fear of nuclear weapons and an insidious fear of death and disease by radiation. It envisaged that large populations and generations as yet unborn would be affected in the event of war or accident. These images penetrated deep into general culture, creating fantasies far beyond nature and the scope of science. However today we can study the real evidence that has accumulated over 70 years and the matching expansion in understanding of biology. Thankfully, we can see that there is no scientific basis for the horrors that many supposed years ago and we can understand how evolutionary biology learnt to protect life particularly effectively against radiation already many billions of years ago. But the unreasonable fear still persists today alongside a growing concern about climate change. James Lovelock wrote Those who know the most about climate change are most afraid. Those who know the most about nuclear are the least afraid. Fear of nuclear certainly stimulates media excitement and is thought to justify enormous compensation payments and an ever greater provision of nuclear safety. But these serve no purpose. There were no radiation casualties at Fukushima and none is expected. At Chernobyl there were 27 radiation fatalities among the early fire fighters and perhaps 13 deaths from thyroid cancer. Otherwise in 60 years around the world the loss of life from the use of nuclear power has been essentially zero, a safety record that no other energy source can match. Fear of nuclear energy has been institutionalised and internationalised, but life and the environment are affected by evidence and science, not regulation and popular media, as illustrated in the story of King Canute seated on his throne on the seashore. To mitigate any possible effect on climate change carbon-based energy sources are best avoided. Most other sources-wind, hydro, solar, geothermal, tidal and others-are available only in some places or at some times. Furthermore energy is notoriously difficult to store in large quantities and this is unlikely to change. So a special feature
Marie Curie and Nuclear Power
Wade Allison, MA DPhil
Emeritus Professor of Physics and Fellow of Keble College, Oxford
and Hon. Sec. of Supporters Of Nuclear Energy (SONE)
Last week saw the 150th anniversary of the birth of Marie Skłodowska. Marie Curie,
as she became, received Nobel Prizes in both physics and chemistry for deciphering
the basis of nuclear science and radioactivity, knowledge that she then applied to
medicine, including the treatment of cancer. For the latter at least she is gratefully and
universally remembered.
Yet were she to return today she would be shocked at the failure of humanity to
welcome the energy made available by nuclear science. Her work exposed the source
of this energy, a million times that of fire, although it was only some years after her
death in 1934 that the way to release it was discovered. Marie Curie wrote Nothing in
life is to be feared. It is to be understood. But in the aftermath of World War II it was
fear that blew world opinion off course political fear of nuclear weapons and an
insidious fear of death and disease by radiation. It envisaged that large populations
and generations as yet unborn would be affected in the event of war or accident.
These images penetrated deep into general culture, creating fantasies far beyond
nature and the scope of science. However today we can study the real evidence that
has accumulated over 70 years and the matching expansion in understanding of
biology. Thankfully, we can see that there is no scientific basis for the horrors that
many supposed years ago and we can understand how evolutionary biology learnt to
protect life particularly effectively against radiation already many billions of years
ago.
But the unreasonable fear still persists today alongside a growing concern about
climate change. James Lovelock wrote Those who know the most about climate
change are most afraid. Those who know the most about nuclear are the least afraid.
Fear of nuclear certainly stimulates media excitement and is thought to justify
enormous compensation payments and an ever greater provision of nuclear safety.
But these serve no purpose. There were no radiation casualties at Fukushima and
none is expected. At Chernobyl there were 27 radiation fatalities among the early fire
fighters and perhaps 13 deaths from thyroid cancer. Otherwise in 60 years around the
world the loss of life from the use of nuclear power has been essentially zero, a safety
record that no other energy source can match. Fear of nuclear energy has been
institutionalised and internationalised, but life and the environment are affected by
evidence and science, not regulation and popular media, as illustrated in the story of
King Canute seated on his throne on the seashore.
To mitigate any possible effect on climate change carbon-based energy sources are
best avoided. Most other sources – wind, hydro, solar, geothermal, tidal and others
are available only in some places or at some times. Furthermore energy is notoriously
difficult to store in large quantities and this is unlikely to change. So a special feature
of nuclear is important it can provide a large guaranteed supply anywhere at
anytime. Gone are the days when an economy might tolerate deliveries of goods
becalmed off-shore aboard wind-driven transport or delayed in factories awaiting
power from stationary electric wind turbines. A nightly Electricity Forecast that
occasionally ended with the advice The National Grid has issued a Red Alert, there
may be breaks in electricity supply tomorrow in some areas but prospects may
improve later in the week would not fill the bill. This is not a matter of cost. There are
times when wind and solar do not deliver enough energy at any price. As the
Department of Energy (US DOE) has recently reported, without carbon or nuclear the
supply cannot be stabilised. Related conclusions have been reached by the Agency for
the Cooperation of Energy Regulators (EU ACER).
Future economic and environmental stability depend on engaging our understanding
of the nuclear nature of matter for the health of society as a whole, not just for
medical health. Individually people accept radiation doses for their own health at
levels up to a thousand times what they are afraid to countenance in the environment.
In autocratic regimes nuclear investment is already proceeding apace with little
attention to public opinion. In every democracy education and adequate public
explanation should spread the news that nuclear technology is harmless to health and
the environment. Like Marie Curie all should welcome the benefits of nature without
fear – including nuclear power. The hope is that those gathering at ACOP23 in Bonn
will see the future in this positive light.
wade.allison@physics.ox.ac.uk
www.nuclear4life.com
12 November 2017

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