November 24, 2020
Nuclear energy must grow – and grow rapidly – if the countries of the world are to have any hope of limiting the growth of carbon dioxide emissions.
But the growth of nuclear is being hobbled by several factors including cost and the long licensing and construction schedules for new reactors. Those high costs and long schedules can largely be traced back to a single issue: the public’s excessive fear of radiation. That excessive fear of radiation is preventing nuclear energy from being deployed at scale here in the U.S. and around the world and in doing so, it is hindering low-income and wealthy countries alike from benefiting from the single best source of low-cost, zero-carbon, high-power-density electricity known to science.
Despite this fear — and the mistaken belief that any radiation is dangerous — the truth is that we are constantly being hit with radiation from our surroundings. In fact, the radiation we get from flying in jetliners or having a CT scan is as great, or greater, than the radiation that is absorbed by the people who live close to Chernobyl or Fukushima.
Don’t take my word for it. Those are points that Dr. Geraldine Thomas, the director of the Chernobyl Tissue Bank, has been making for years. Gerry, as she prefers to be called, has a PhD. in pathology and is a faculty member at Imperial College London. Since the early 1990s, she has been overseeing the collection and banking of tissue samples from people who’ve had surgery after being exposed to radiation in the fallout area near the Chernobyl nuclear plant in northern Ukraine. Her work at Chernobyl and Fukushima makes her uniquely qualified to assess the risks from radiation.
In 2011, She wrote a piece in The Guardian about the wrong-headed fear of radiation in the aftermath of the Fukushima accident. “The recent frenzy following the events in Japan suggests that the media are keen to feed our nuclear fears, by focusing on exposure to radiation that is extremely unlikely to result in a single death, compared with a natural catastrophe that has killed at least 20,000 people and displaced more than 100,000.” She continued, “Radiation risk must be put into context. The consequences for the most-exposed group of atomic bomb survivors was an average loss of life expectancy significantly lower than that caused by severe obesity or smoking.”
During a recent episode of the Power Hungry Podcast, Thomas told me that most people have difficulty making sense of radiation dosing and what constitutes a dangerous dose. The amount of radiation a person gets from a whole-body CT scan is about 10 millisieverts, which, she explained, is about the same dose incurred by people living near Chernobyl get “spread out over 20-odd years.”
Why are we so afraid of radiation? “You can’t taste it, you can’t smell it, you can’t see it, you can’t feel it,” she said. And it can’t be detected unless you have a dosimeter. Add in the decades of fear-mongering by various sources and the conflation of nuclear energy with nuclear weaponry, and it’s easy to understand why people are afraid. Thomas said our fear of radiation is a “hardwired fear… There’s something in the back of your mind that says, ‘Are you sure?’ because we’ve had so many years of being made to fear even the smallest dose of radiation, that actually it takes quite a mindset reversal to be able to get your head around it. So I can understand why people struggle with it. I really can.”
Thomas told me that lazy journalism is part of the reason why the public has become so fearful of radiation. Before the accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima, she said that medical experts on radiation “would never go near a journalist because you can’t trust them.” Understanding radiation requires understanding “the complexities of a health effect,” she said, adding, that it “doesn’t sell newspapers, of course, to say actually, there’s nothing here to see.” What about environmental groups like Greenpeace and Sierra Club, both of which are adamantly anti-nuclear? (On its website the Sierra Club says that during the mining and refining of uranium, “Radioactivity is spewed all along the way.”) How culpable are they? Thomas replied, tactfully “I don’t like knocking green environmentalists. But I wish they’d look at the science.”
Decades of hype about the possible danger of radiation have led to safety protocols that have dramatically increased the cost of designing, licensing, and building new nuclear plants. That same fear has led to decades of controversy over the storage and disposal of the used fuel rods and other radioactive materials that are produced by nuclear power plants. (For an excellent discussion of LNT and ALARA, see this piece, and this one, by James Conca.)
Thomas and I also discussed the recent decision by the British government to move forward with the 3.2-gigawatt Sizewell C reactor project. Thomas is adamantly pro-nuclear. “I don’t think we have much of a choice if we want to decarbonize properly,” she told me. “There are several reasons you’re going to need nuclear. One: it’s not intermittent. The other thing is, it produces large amounts of energy, which you could use to do electrolysis and produce hydrogen.” That hydrogen could then be used for transportation and in industry. But the future of projects like Sizewell C, as well as the deployment of small modular reactors, hinges on disabusing the public of its excessive fear of radiation.
As Thomas said, it will require a “mindset reversal” among the public, policymakers, and politicians. But if we are going to make progress on nuclear energy deployment at the terawatt scale — and therefore, on slashing greenhouse gas emissions — that mindset reversal needs to happen, and soon.
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