Goodbye for now

This post marks the end of this series on my blog. I hope you have enjoyed reading my analysis of the nuclear debate, and hopefully learned something you didn’t already know.

From what I have read and seen this semester, the nuclear debate is alive and well, even after 70-odd years. What seems to be happening is a move away from a logical debate, and a move towards a debate that is based purely on ideology and emotional arguments.

All is not lost however, there has been a shift in the last decade or so, that seems to be getting stronger, to re-frame the nuclear debate in terms of climate change. Instead of now just being a debate over whether we should use nuclear technology, it is now a debate over what is the better solution to the issue of fossil fuels, renewables or nuclear (or both?).

Hopefully in the future, some form of compromise can be reached, or at least maybe the debate will start to again have a more logical tone, with facts rational points becoming more common (and not doubt making the debate more productive).

Unfortunately, from what I have seen, while you have corporations like Greenpeace dominating the conversation we are not going to see any movement. Greenpeace takes a firm stand, and is not willing to compromise, as such, there is not going to be any valuable discussion, while one of the sides sticks its fingers in its ears.

So, this is where I leave the conversation. It’s not over forever, I will definitely be picking this blog up in the future once this semester’s work has been done. I think it will cover broader, more diverse topics, generally related to science or science communication. Hopefully it will continue to interest some people.

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Change in the air for Australia?

So yesterday I stumbled on this article from the SMH, which is talking about Australia’s new Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel. Recently annoucned, Dr. Finkel will be moving into the position in 2016. The main point of this article is a couple of statements made by Dr. Finkel regarding Australia’s use of coal, and the need to move towards a carbon-free energy system.

His position seems to be that that we should transition to entirely renewable energy, but that nuclear should ‘absolutely be considered’. Both parts of these comments are very good to hear, not only is there now a voice that will push seriously for renewable energy, it is also a pragmatic voice that is OK with using nuclear power as an interim, low-carbon, constant supply energy source.

At this point it is really quite shocking that Australia hasn’t moved towards using nuclear energy. Of all the countries in the world, we are perhaps one of the best suited for nuclear energy: we have an incredible amount of empty land, that is currently going unused, far away from any people and any risk of accidental health effects (which is also a good place to store any waste); we are right in the middle of a tectonic plate and as such do not suffer from frequent earthquakes that can damage nuclear reactors (I’m looking at you Japan); and we have 31% of the world’s uranium, an incredibly valuable resource that we currently make no use of.

It is becoming a little frustrating to live in Australia at the moment, around the world we see huge developments and steps forward towards combating climate change, from China’s push to build nuclear reactors, to the recent announcement of the world’s largest solar array being built in Morocco. Something has got to give soon, but we are already too late.

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The cost of nuclear power

So far in this blog, I have talked about a lot of the points that both sides use to ‘defeat’ those they campaign against. One point that I haven’t really touched on yet is point that comes up in a most, if not all, debates about the efficacy of nuclear power and that is the issue of cost. I want to preface this blog post by saying that I am really not a financial expert, and I am only drawing my opinion from what I have read, but I’m going to do my best to summarise the different points. Both sides claim to better understand the cost of nuclear power better than their opponents, and there is definitely a lot of hearsay involved.

On one side, you have the anti-nuclear movement, who all claim that the cost of building and running a safe nuclear power plant, as well as the associated waste management costs (there are many examples, here’s one) are far to high to justify the potential risks and are more unsustainable than getting the same energy from renewables.

On the other side, you have the pro-nuclear movement. This side is a bit harder to tease apart because, aside from the voices of a few loud eco-modernists, the majority of those who campaign for nuclear power have some form of vested interest (while this is true with the anti’s with renewables, it is less direct). But the substantive force of this side’s argument is that nuclear is more expensive than coal, but is competitive with renewables and able to perform at a high capacity in a shorter amount of time than other non-fossil fuels. However a fair point should be made that, unlike the anti’s, the pro’s acknowledge the difficulties of their technologies (most renewables-only campaigners seem to gloss over the shortcomings of current technologies)

As it says in this great article from The Conversation:

What is the economic cost of nuclear power? That turns out to be a very difficult question to answer.

The main problem seems to be that there is no good models on which to base an estimation of cost. The vast majority of in-service nuclear reactors at the moment were built in the heyday of nuclear power back around the 1960s. Add to that increasing delays for safety certification, as well as new projects with unexpected delays, like the (much safer) EPR design being built in Finland that is five years overdue, and you get investors with not much faith in projected ROIs and a general lack of faith in the affordability of nuclear power in general.

A point none of this addresses is the fact that we are going to have to make economic sacrifices in the long term (and probably in the short term as well) if we are going to have any hope of combating climate change. Can nuclear be part of the solution? Hopefully, one day we’ll figure it out.

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Is the nuclear debate a moot point?

The point of this blog is/was to study the debate about nuclear power. I want to understand what both sides want, what their motivations are and how they interact. One thing that I recently realised I haven’t covered however, is what can possibly be achieved by this debate.

This thought occurred to me while reading this article. Called ‘China eyes 110 nuke plants by 2030′, this article describes the plan of the Chinese government to vastly increase its nuclear power grid, which currently only supplies 2% of China’s total power needs. 

Countires like the USA, Russia and India already have nuclear power, and there are a lot of countries considering taking it up (most of which don’t have strong environmental concerns).

The people who campaign against nuclear power definitely occupy a lower position of power, compared to those who would invest in nuclear energy. And it seems to me that the likelihood of the anti-nuclear movement ever being able to stop nuclear power altogether is remote. So what can they hope to achieve?

All that seems possible is more regulation. This was talked about in the Slovic paper I discussed in the last couple of posts. As the unknown and dread rating of a technology goes up, so does the demand for regulation. But as it stands in countries like the USA and Russia, where nuclear power has been around for a long time, there are extremely high levels of regulation on all facets of the nuclear power process: plant design, building processes and building materials, built-in redundant safety protocols, fuel storage and handling, spent fuel storage and handling. What more can be done that is achievable?

Does the nuclear debate in developed nations actually serve a purpose anymore? There are now governmental bodies that are responsible for ensuring the safety of populations under threat of nuclear technology, so does us arguing about it really matter?

Matters might be a little different in developing nations like India and China, and in the many countries where there are plans for developing nuclear power, but it still seems like there is little that can be done to stop the world investing in this technology. And, as members of the “first world” do we have any right to? Do organisations like Greenpeace have any right to? We can encourage them to be safe, and help them learn from our mistakes, but ultimately it’s up to them.

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Nuclear power and climate change

One of the main points of contention in the nuclear power debate is the use of nuclear power as tool to fight climate change.

On one side you have the proponents of nuclear power, who bill it as a stable, low-carbon energy source, that is available at all times of day, with minimal carbon output, high cost-efficiency and established technology.

On the other side you have the anti-nuclear movement, who say that nuclear power is a stopgap, ‘bandaid’ technology, that comes with too many health and safety risks, that is slow to build and in the end puts out as much carbon, because it takes so much industry to build the plants and store the spent fuel.

What the anti-nuclear movement would have is an immediate transition to renewable energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal, where available. The reaction of nuclear proponents is that these technologies are either restricted to certain parts of the world (like geothermal), take up far more land area than a similar capacity nuclear plant (like solar), or are intermittent and that there isn’t the technology to store captured energy (like wind and solar).

The problem is, is that there are ‘experts’ on both sides of the debate, who seem to be able to find information to support their own arguments while disproving their opponents. Also, any organisations weighing in on the debate tend to get ignored due to perceived conflicts of interest.

Even the IPCC is not above the squabbles of the nuclear debate, as outlined in this article, the position of the IPCC regarding nuclear power has varied greatly over time. In the first IPCC report, nuclear was listed as an important tool in creating a low-carbon energy system, then over then next five reports, the opinion veers away from nuclear until the most recent report, where it is again being encouraged as a pragmatic option while the technology needed to make renewables more reliable is developed. Much of this wavering seems to be related to the public opinion of nuclear power in the EU, which reflects the impact the nuclear debate can have on supposedly independent bodies.

Somehow — and I’m really not sure how — something needs to give in this debate, there needs to be some sort of consensus. While there is still all this indecision around nuclear, little work is going to be done on increasing our nuclear energy generating capacity. Maybe if both sides of the debate worked together instead, there would be progress in some direction.

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The Castle Bravo incident

In my previous discussion of the disasters of the nuclear age, there was one that I probably should have mentioned. To be honest, I had never heard of it. That itself speaks volumes about the influence of certain mindsets on the nuclear debate. The incident I’m talking about came to be known as the ‘Castle Bravo’ incident, and it remains the worst example of US caused nuclear contamination ever.

You may never have heard of Castle Bravo, but you probably heard of its flow on effects. Ever heard of Godzilla?

Early in the morning of March 1, 1954, the USA detonated the most powerful weapon it has yet detonated. The ‘Bravo’ test of Operation Castle, this bomb was designed to study the efficacy of ‘dry fuel’ fusion nuclear weapons (hydrogen bombs). Originally planned to be around 5 megatons in power, the actual blast was on the order of 15 megatons.

Photo of the Castle Bravo test fireball, an immense fireball seen from a great distance, the sky is dark because of how bright it is.

The Castle Bravo explosion from 30 miles away. Los Alamos National Laboratory.

This highlights some of the problems in the scientific culture at the time (and to a lesser extent, today), as the scientists involved were completely sure that what they had planned would happen. A vast miscalculation about the behaviour of the fuel resulted in the enormous blast, but this miscalculation had further effects as the safety protocols developed for the test underestimated the strength of the explosion. In the ensuing chaos, many military personnel were exposed to high levels of radioactive fallout.

In addition to the size of the explosion, there was also a meteorological miscalculation, that resulted in the fallout cloud drifting towards the Marshall Islands, instead of away from them. The populations of the effected islands are still unable to return. A Japanese fishing vessel was also hit hard, with one man dying, which caused a significant political issue with the US.

Because they messed it up so much, the US government was forced to go public about the test, in one moment revealing the extent of their nuclear research to the USSR, but also revealing to the world the terrifying strength of nuclear weapons (especially the effects of radiation and fallout).

The Castle Bravo test is said by some to be the first incident to spark ‘radiophobia‘ around the world, with the dangers being made visible through the suffering of the Japanese and Pacific Islander bystanders and the members of the military who were inadvertently exposed.

In terms of the nuclear power debate, as I said in my previous post, these events have the power to impact the public in a way that cannot simply be undone by presenting facts. Too often, such as in the case of the Chernobyl or Sellafield, the public (or the government) is assured of the safety of a particular scenario, and it is only after problems have developed that the scientists critically evaluate their work (if ever). To combat radiophobia and the negative impacts of these sort of events, much more needs to be done than just reiterating facts at people.

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A lot of what I’ve been talking about on this blog, especially related to the emotional aspects of the nuclear debate, can really be boiled down to one particular issue: ‘radiophobia’.

In a strictly medical sense, radiophobia can be defined as the irrational fear of ionizing radiation (the type of radiation associated with nuclear power/bombs). This definition is most often applied to those who are irrationally afraid of X-rays, in a medical context.

What radiophobia is more often used to denote, especially in the nuclear debate, is the pervasive negative emotion associated with all kinds of nuclear technology.

Studies have shown that there is a long term emotional impact of large events, like Chernobyl, and there is growing coverage of the same radiophobia developing in Japan.

This negative opinion tends to colour people’s ability to calmly and rationally evaluate facts associated with the debate. Many cite radiophobia as the reason that people have a disproportionate response to the perceived risk of technologies that use radioactive materials. With proper safety in place, nuclear technology is not more dangerous than any other, and is often safer than many (such as coal, see the early posts on the science of the nuclear debate).

Despite the rational safety level of nuclear power, the disproportionate negative response tends to develop anti-nuclear campaigner’s arguments to the point where they become a ‘special pleading‘ fallacy. Special pleading is a fallacy where an exception to the normal rules is requested, for no valid reason. In the nuclear debate, this manifests itself in people who reject the use of nuclear technology for safety reasons, despite the evidence that nuclear is safer compared to other technologies.

In identifying this fallacy though, I am not trying to attack the completely legitimate feelings of those who have suffered though or know those who have suffered through radiation based incidents. Although the argument itself is a fallacy, the very real emotion behind it should be respected, and those who aim to debate in this arena should think about the impact of their words and how best to communicate their ideas before stepping up to the plate.

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