Nuclear liabilities need to be put in clearer perspective: Clean-up and waste storage are not the barriers they sometimes seem
NOVEMBER 17, 2019
“Everyone knows that midday desert sun can be harmful if you live in it without protection,” wrote David MacKay, the late scientific adviser to the UK energy department, “And everyone knows that moonlight is essentially harmless.”
Yet moonlight and sunshine are made up of the same photons. The former is simply harmless because it is 400,000 times less bright than sunshine.
“Nuclear radiation can be like sunlight, and it can be like moonlight,” Prof MacKay noted. “There are levels of radiation that are lethal, and levels of radiation that are essentially harmless.” The key lies in discerning which is which.
This may seem uncontroversial; a mere recital of well-worn scientific fact. But you won’t find much trace of it in the public debate about nuclear power. Here, radiation is always “harmful” or “toxic”, and the risks and liabilities associated with handling such material seen as prone to balloon without control.
Hence the gnawing worries about the back-end costs of dismantling old facilities and the risks associated with storing spent fuel for substantial periods. These threaten to stifle future investment in nuclear technology. But how realistic are these fears?
And here is where MacKay and the science come back in. It’s one of nuclear’s paradoxes that the most dangerous radiation comes from isotopes with very short half-lives that hence decay rapidly. Those that last longest don’t emit much radiation.
To see how little, take some analysis the Finnish authorities did when they did secure agreement for a national depositary a few years ago (the first country to do so).
The Finns looked at the impact of waste leaking from the facility after 1,000 years on someone living directly above it, whose food and water all came from the most contaminated plot of land.
The conclusion? That person was likely to receive a dose of 0.00018 millisieverts per year; equivalent to the radiation from eating two bananas.
Nuclear power may not be without risk. But it remains one of the few technologies the world presently has for reliably generating zero-carbon electricity. Even renewables generate their own pollution. And unlike radioactive isotopes, the harmful chemicals in solar panels do not quickly decay.
Decommissioning and storage should be manageable problems. It would be bizarre to scrap nuclear over what are prejudices, not real costs and risks.