The word "Chernobyl", the nuclear reactor complex that came to infamy 25 years ago today, has come to epitomise the nightmare scenarios to which the nuclear industry is uniquely vulnerable. The word "Fukushima" will no doubt join it in the lexicon of the world's industrial catastrophes, having now been rated as a category 7 nuclear emergency also, the highest rating possible.
As the world becomes even more wary of embracing nuclear power, are we dismissing the one form of power that can save this planet from further warming? It's an important question, and therefore worth contemplating the sort of world that could really make nuclear power an attractive prospect.
The most obvious consideration, especially at this time, is the palpably real threat of accidents. In the nuclear industry these are low-probability but extremely high-consequence events. As a result of the Chernobyl accident, radiation spread over an estimated 40% of Europe, and sheep in some parts of Wales still cannot be used because of radioactive caesium from Chernobyl.
The Chernobyl disaster occurred as a result of human error and reactor design faults. Human error can be reduced, but how far? Can we really guarantee that there will be no Homer Simpsons sitting in a reactor control room anywhere in the world. Reactor designs can be made safer, but safer means more expensive. Especially as the economic costs of reactors rise and rise, how can we guarantee that there will be no cutting of corners, or blind eyes turned by regulatory authorities, anywhere in the world.
The nuclear industry rejoices at expanding markets in China (expanding, perhaps, until the Fukushima disaster), but can we rest assured that whistle-blowers in China who suspect dangerous safety violations will be given full protection for fulfilling their civic duty so diligently.
Disastrous though they are, nuclear accidents are not the only nightmare scenarios to be considered. For nuclear power and nuclear weapons, the technology is virtually the same. India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea all developed their weapons from "peaceful" reactors. Iran received its first nuclear reactor from the US in the 1960s when there was a thriving relationship with the Shah. Regimes change, but the technology stays, and, with it, questions about who can be trusted and, importantly, who is to decide and what action will be taken.
"Safeguards" won't save us either. They are a myth, for a host of reasons. A bomb can be made with as little as 3-4 kilograms of plutonium, the diversion of which would easily escape even an intrusive regime of inspections, let alone what we have now.
There is a further set of scenarios that must be considered - nuclear terrorism, which could take several forms. Terrorists would not even need a bomb to cause death, extreme suffering and panic, because nuclear reactors and their spent fuel cooling ponds house such vast quantities of radioactivity that could be dispersed by a targeted attack. Fears have long been held for such an attack at the Indian Point nuclear power plant on the Hudson River, 25 miles from New York.
A terrorist attack on a nuclear facility has not yet occurred. On September 10, 2001, the World Trade Centre had not been attacked either. Al Qaida documents found after the September 11, 2001, attacks showed that the terrorist group was considering such an attack on nuclear facilities.
The potential impacts of such an event occurring in a highly populated area are almost unthinkable.
So, we can so that nuclear power is looking pretty safe - as long as we can eliminate human error, evil intent (on the part of governments or terrorists) and any future unfriendly governments coming to power in those countries that have nuclear power. If we can't, the risk-benefit balance shifts dramatically.
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