This is the fourth in the series of six articles on nuclear being publishing the journal of the South Australian Chamber of Mines and Energy. Our topic this time was radioactive waste in the context of a potential future Australian nuclear power industry. This article is co-authored with Barry Brook.
As before, please be mindful that word limits for print publications are always tough when you are tackling topics that require a bit of context, understanding and comparison, so if you are concerned that anything received brief treatment, the comment thread is yours.
In the big hitting concerns about nuclear power, long-lived radioactive waste may just be the most powerful in the public eye. But the fear-laden awareness of long-lived radioactive waste belies many of the realities of its management.
The best start for responsible management of any hazardous waste is to capture and contain it at the source. Nuclear power does this. Fossil fuels do not. The combustion of coal and other fossil fuels produces toxic fly ash, mercury, radioisotopes, nitrates and sulphates, and of course, huge amounts of carbon dioxide – globally, almost 30 billion tonnes each year. Fossil fuel is both a huge short-term health problem and the recipe for a long-term climate breakdown. Already, nuclear is way out in front.
Secondly, radioactive waste is perceived as complex. This is far from the truth.
I am delighted to have permission to reproduce this 2010 editorial, (first published by Australasian College of Physical Scientists and Engineers in Medicine) as a guest post for Decarbonise SA. Dr Madhava Bhat is the Chief Physicist of the Adelaide Radiotherapy Centre. That’s another way of saying that it is this man’s profession to understand, in a complete and comprehensive way, the interaction of radiation and human health, since he and his team must apply radiation judiciously in the treatment of cancer. Lives depends on his expertise.
I am not so far from my anti-nuclear days to have forgotten how strongly held the belief of radiation hazard can be based on little actual understanding. I truly do empathise; to some extent it used to be me. But that belief should not be an excuse to ignore or even worse, mock and abuse people like Madhava who try to offer their knowledge.
Madhava was kind enough to come to my defence as I was heckled and shouted down when taking Richard Broinowski to task. Madhava himself was subject to the erroneous assumption of Broinowski that he was not qualified to insist that the presentation had been full of misinformation on the topic of radiation hazard. The opposite is true, but this meme was then taken up in a review of the event by an anti-nuclear activist who served up some pretty special treatment to me at the same occasion (this very nasty post has since been removed by the publisher, who was not the author of the article and was not present, with an apology). To ignore his opinion in this area is the height of arrogance (or wilful ignorance?), as he, truly, is one of the experts. If you don’t trust me, fine. Read his publicly available CV. People like Madhava need broader exposure and basic recognition and respect as Australia lurches down the process of talking more and more about nuclear power. I am honoured to assist.
The world’s two worst industrial disasters occurred in the early years of my career in radiation physics. The Bhopal gas tragedy was the worst industrial accident and occurred on the night of December 2–3, 1984 at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India and killed 10,000 people on that one night. The worst ever nuclear accident occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine on 26 April 1986, which led to less than 60 fatalities within 3 months of the accident. These two catastrophic events helped me shape my perception of the risks associated with modern industrial processes. While many have forgotten the Bhopal gas tragedy, the Chernobyl disaster is still fresh in our collective memory.
Tonight I attended a presentation by Richard Broinowski, who was promoting his book to be released this year on the Fukushima nuclear power incident and its implications for Japan. It is as yet untitled. He is looking for suggestions. I have one or two…
Come question time, I did not know where to begin. People like this know as well as climate deniers that when they have the floor, they will always be able to propagate more FUD than fact, and no Q and A effort will ever catch them up.
This is a reproduction of the article that was just published in this month’s SACOME journal. It was jointly authored by myself and Barry Brook. It is the second is a series of six articles we are providing the journal. As ever with the media, we write to a word limit. Try not to get cranky if you think something is under done, use the comments section instead!
Safety is a major public concern for nuclear power. There is no quick way to overcome this feeling. But a few facts certainly can’t hurt.
“I’m not playing pretend about how I felt reading this report. It was, at times, confronting for someone asking Australians to give consideration to nuclear.”
A very important document came to light this week. It’s the Special Report on the Nuclear Accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station published by the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations. It provides an incredibly detailed account of the events that transpired before, during and after the terrible dual natural disasters of the Sendai quake and tsunami(s) that crippled the Daiichi plant.
While I have not managed to read every word, what I have covered I found riveting and challenging . From my position of a nuclear proponent, it did nothing to dull my rational support for the rapid deployment of nuclear power as an essential climate change solution. However there is no denying this report makes for some pretty amazing reading regarding the challenges that were faced and largely overcome in some really horrible circumstances to bring the plant back under control. To that end, I see that the report will serve equally well those who like to play on fear as those who wish to appeal to rationality, because it honestly provides ample support for both!
Followers of this blog will be aware that Melbourne’s major newspaper, The Age, has been running something they have called “The Climate Agenda”. A process of posting and voting on questions related to climate change by the readership has produced ten questions to which The Age will respond.
Well this week, nuclear’s number was up. Here is the question in full, and a link to the full response from The Age.
QUESTION: ”If the government is so serious about reducing CO2 emissions, why do they keep ignoring the single most effective method for doing so: nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is far cheaper than ‘renewables’ and kills less people per unit of energy produced than even solar or wind. New generation reactors improve safety significantly and render the long-term waste storage issue moot, and thorium fast-breeder reactors cannot melt down accidentally at all. France has shown how easy and effective nuclear is at reducing greenhouse emissions. Why doesn’t the government spend some of it’s enormous ‘clean energy future’ research and advertising budget to help educate Australians about the facts around new forms of clean atomic energy?”
A man has been killed and four have received burns after the explosion of an incinerator that handles low level nuclear waste (the variety that requires minimal protective clothing, equipment or handling) in France.
The title of my post is borrowed from the headline. Some alternative reporting is provided here. I never wish to downplay tragedy. Workplace fatality and injury, a previous career of mine, is a horrible thing.
It is worth pointing out though that “Deadly Incinerator Incident” would have been a more accurate description. Based on the reporting I have read this appears to be an accident that is sadly too common in a whole variety of industrial settings.
Hopefully, nuclear opponents will be sensible and avoid using the event inappropriately to push an agenda. The statements from Greenpeace in the linked articles may suggest this is a foolish hope.
Every now and then, George Monbiot just says it the best… no point fighting it…
Corporate Power? No Thanks
July 4, 2011
The machinations of the industry shouldn’t be allowed to spoil the case for nuclear power.
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 5th July 2011
Power corrupts; nuclear power corrupts absolutely. The industry developed as a by-product of nuclear weapons research. Its deployment was used to shield the production of weapons from public view. Though the two industries have now been forced apart, in most parts of the world the nuclear operators remain secretive, unaccountable and far too close to government.
Last week the Guardian revealed that the British government connived with corporations to play down the impact of the disaster at Fukushima(1). Comments from the nuclear companies, a business department official suggested, should be incorporated into ministers’ briefings and government statements.
It is through such collusion that accidents happen. The latest report by the International Atomic Energy Agency shows that Tepco, the firm that ran the stricken plant at Fukushima, had under-estimated the danger of tsunamis, had not planned properly for multiple plant failures and had been allowed to get away with it by a regulator that failed to review its protective measures(2). Nuclear operators worldwide have been repeatedly exposed as a bunch of arm-twisting, corner-cutting scumbags.
In this respect they are, of course, distinguished from the rest of the energy industry, which is run by collectives of self-abnegating monks whose only purpose is to spread a little happiness. How they ended up sharing the names and addresses of some of the nuclear companies is a mystery that defies explanation.
It’s with pleasure that I introduce the first ever guest post to Decarbonise SA by my good friend, Nic Bartlett.
Nic is an old mate of mine from undergraduate university days. A fellow South Australian by upbringing, Nic has been a resident of Fukushima Province in Japan for the past several years. He teaches in English at a secondary school and pursues a serious training regimen in the sport of kendo, in which he has attained the level of Australian Champion, and has competed at the World Championships. So if you dislike his post enough to physically attack him, first be sure that he is not carrying a stick of any kind.
Following the quake (which he was genuinely fortunate to survive) and tsunami, Nic and a cohort of Australian’s hop scotched their way across a damaged nation and finally back to Australia, to the waiting arms of concerned friends and family. At the time, I had a growing profile as a commentator on matters nuclear, and through the medium of Facebook Nic challenged me with the most pertinent of questions: Would I take myself and my family back?
As a physician, I contend that nuclear technology threatens life on our planet with extinction if the present trends continue; the food we eat, the water we drink will soon be contaminated enough with radioactive pollutants to pose a health hazard far greater than any plauge humanity has ever experienced.
Helen Caldicott, Nuclear Madness(1994)
Really, Helen? Really??? I wonder what the World Health Organisation has to say about that...