NUCLEAR IS FOR LIFE
December was a busy month for energy news. The Paris climate change talks ended in an agreement (of sorts). The UK Government approved exploratory drilling at potential shale gas sites beneath national parks. A challenging new book was published, one which should be read by everyone with an interest in nuclear energy, whether they are for or against its use.
I expected to base this Newsletter on the Paris talks, described as “a major leap for mankind” by Francois Hollande, the French President and as “a fraud really, a fake, worthless” by James Hansen, who is usually described as the father of climate change awareness.
Aspirational was the word most used by commentators to describe the deal which emerged from more than 190 nations in Paris. In other words, the countries taking part are not legally obliged to do anything, although they may turn their promises into a legally binding agreement at some future date.
The decision to allow fracking beneath national parks, but accessed from outside them, underlined the UK Government’s determination to press on with oil and gas exploration using this controversial technique. The Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats opposed the announcement and those environmentalists who refuse to accept that oil, gas or nuclear energy are needed, not least as back up for their unreliable wind turbines and solar panels.
In the end I decided not to concentrate on the Paris climate change talks or on fracking in this Newsletter. They can wait. I came to the conclusion that Nuclear Is For Life, a new book by one of SONE’s members, Professor Wade Allison, may turn out to be more significant than either of them if the author’s strictures and recommendations for change are acted upon. It is just possible that they could lead to a dramatic reduction in nuclear energy costs and to a greater understanding of the nature of radiation.
Professor Allison summarises his objectives in the Preface to the book:
- He asks why society takes such a cautious view of nuclear technology.
- He looks at the effects of nuclear accidents and other radiation exposures.
- He examines the efficacy of safety, as provided by nature and as imposed by regulation.
- He explains how biological evolution prepared life to survive exposures to low and moderate levels of radiation.
- He asks if nuclear energy would be as expensive if normal levels of information, education, safety and design were applied.
Remarkably, Professor Allison achieves his objectives. In doing so he will upset a fair number of people on both sides of the nuclear debate. I called his book challenging and it is certainly that. In it he examines myths, prejudices, vested interests, illogical regulations and strained relationships within the scientific community. He also points to the reluctance to accept that mistakes have been made by some (but not all) politicians, environmentalists and journalists.
The book runs to nearly 300 pages and is impossible to encapsulate in an article of this length. I have therefore decided to concentrate on what I regard as the most important aspects of what Professor Allison has to say. I should mention at the outset that although he is a member of SONE the author has never had any connection with the nuclear industry.
The subject matter of Nuclear Is For Life is far reaching and the author suggests that readers may wish to move from chapter to chapter, skipping sections that are too obvious or too demanding. To help in this some harder passages are shown enclosed in boxes, to be considered more closely at leisure, and I found this helpful.
This is a major work, extremely well researched, and will become a major resource for people with a real interest in nuclear energy rather than those hoping to see their prejudices confirmed.
IN THE BEGINNING
Setting the scene, the Professor Allison points out that many people still speak as if nuclear energy and radiation are man-made, which they are not. In fact it was nuclear radiation in the natural world that was needed to make man.
Before humans, before Earth, before the matter of which Earth is composed, radiation completely dominated everything in the universe. After the earth formed some 4,500 million years ago and started to cool, life evolved to be tolerant of the slowly declining flux of ionising radiation, the radioactive decay process. In early times the flux of radiation came, as it does today, both from local radioactive decay within the rock, soil and water of the Earth and from radiation reaching the Earth’s surface from space.
The activity level 2,000 million years ago was more than twice what it is today. Homo sapiens appeared a mere 100,000 and 200,000 years ago and have always lived within a radioactive environment. It is only relatively recently that he realised this, in the same way that it took him a long time to understand the advantages and disadvantages of using fire.
Occasionally Professor Allison uses humour and light-hearted illustrations to make a point. In that vein Professor Allison imagines the consternation there might have been among the more conservative environmentalists of the day when radical innovators started building hearths and bringing fire into their caves.
FLAMING FIRES – NO THANKS
Primitive man soon learned about the dangers that come when you start messing around with fire – and choosing to do so at home would have seemed irresponsible to some. The readiness with which fire can catch and spread has been the cause of countless fatal accidents down the centuries but man realised that, on balance, the benefits of fire outweighed its dangers, provided education and training was given to everybody, including children.
As Professor Allison says, it was a turning point that gave humans immediate supremacy over all other beings. Civilisation could not have developed without fire and we would probably have remained animals with a limited population and a short and brutish life if we had heeded the advice of those primitive environmentalists who opposed the new technology.
Imagine the slogans if fire had been discovered today – “Flaming Fires – No Thanks” would most certainly have been among them.
The arguments for and against fire then and nuclear energy today are similar, except that the risks are very much smaller for nuclear than for fire, even today. In both cases education is key to man’s growing understanding of risk and its acceptance. Let us move on from fire to fear and consider radiophobia, the morbid fear of radiation, whatever its source – industrial or medical.
There would be no particular excuse for anybody to be frightened of radiation if the Second World War had not ended with two nuclear bombs being dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing over 100,000 people, Professor Allison argues, correctly in my view.
Then, during the Cold War, which followed, there was continuing disquiet about radiation, compounded by the nuclear arms race and military secrecy. Instead of education the authorities attempted to appease negative opinion by promising protection from radiation at unnecessarily low levels. People demanded safety from the threat of nuclear radiation but were given regulations instead.
“This was delivered wrapped in pseudo-science and tied with legal knots”, Professor Allison says. “Blessed by committees of the United Nations and enshrined in national laws around the world, these restraints make it hard for the nuclear industry to make any progress towards construction of the new plant required. So legislators have urgent work to do, to release the nuclear industry from its straitjacket”.
Professor Allison is extremely critical of those professionals who came up with the “pseudo science” embodied in the Linear No Threshold (LNT) concept, which he says must be repudiated. I said something similar in my own book, “Inside Sellafield”, published nearly 20 years ago.
Taken to its logical conclusion, I said, the concept that there is no safe level of radiation would lead society to encourage whole populations to move away from areas where there are enhanced levels of natural radiation and to discourage air travel and the sale of Brazil nuts, which are mildly radioactive.
We would also prohibit activities likely to attract crowds; because of the small amounts of extra radiation people get from being in close proximity.
LNT says that all radiation doses are harmful, however small, and that their effect is cumulative. The result has been a policy for radiation safety that requires all radiation exposures to be kept As Low As Reasonably Achievable (ALARA), In practice that is within a small fraction of naturally occurring levels.
NOT FIT FOR PURPOSE
“This is unrelated to any risk, but comes from a political wish to say that the effects of radiation have been minimised,” Professor Alison says.
“Safety regulations based on ALARA are not fit for purpose and are dangerous to the economy, the environment and to life and limb. For example, they can frighten patients into refusing treatment that would benefit their health.
“New regulations should be drawn up, based on the threshold for radiation dose rates that can be shown to cause damage to health. There is no shortage of agreed data from the accidents that have occurred and also from a century of experience of clinical medicine. The latter is particularly appropriate as the general public receive such treatment and are aware that it is beneficial, even though the dose rates are high by any standard.”
The author maintains that a justifiable safety threshold should be set as high as to do no harm or As High As Relatively Safe (AHARS) rather than ALARA and suggests an approach which would bring this about. It needs someone more scientifically competent than me to assess what that new level should be but for what it is worth I found Professor Allison’s argument for it persuasive.
Moreover, the disparity between the AHARS and ALARA numbers are so huge that there is scope for plenty of adjustment along the way and for the change to still have a major impact.
“The ALARA safe dose limit recommended by the International Commission on
Radiological Protection (ICRP) is 1 milligray (mGy) per year”, Wade Allison
says. “The AHARS dose rate is 1,000 time larger than the ALARA value but
comparable with the safety threshold set in 1934, which was based on 38 years of operating experience by many thousands of radiation practitioners”.
“The factor of a thousand is a measure of the extent to which ALARA exaggerates risk. Neglect of this factor is responsible for the socio-economic damage of recent nuclear accidents. With an AHARS safety level, all the evacuated residents from the Fukushima region might have returned to their homes within a fortnight to resume productive lives. Similarly, power plants in Japan might then have restarted and the rest of the world should then have returned to business as usual.” In fact official figures show that there have been no deaths or cases of radiation sickness from the nuclear accident at Fukushima, but the massive evacuation process did lead to fatalities. More than 100,000 people were evacuated on the orders of ill-informed, timid politicians who lost their nerve, causing trauma and major disruption of people’s lives and more than 1,000 deaths.
Internationally we had another extraordinary example of “pseudo-science” at work in the aftermath of Fukushima. Although there were no deaths as a result of the incident it was rated 7 on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s International Nuclear Event Scale (INES), the highest figure on the scale. This is the same as Chernobyl, where there were close on 50 deaths.
INES LEADS TO HYSTERIA
With no fatalities that decision makes no sense whatsoever, serving only to whip up more radiophobic hysteria, not least among journalists more interested in the headline potential of “highly dangerous” radiation than the tsunami, which led to 180,000 people actually dying.
“The Fukushima accident was never in the same class as Chernobyl”, Professor Allison says. “An unscientific index like INES simply excites instability in public opinion which is in the interest of nobody. The question is sometimes asked: ‘What should replace the INES scale?’ The answer is simple. Nothing.” Professor Allison suspects that the reason we have the INES scale, which serves no beneficial function, is probably because the powers that be still see nuclear radiation as exceptional and needing extraordinary safety provision – “but that is a political reaction, unsupported by objective scientific evidence”.
“There are vested interests who have reason not to support any liberalisation of nuclear energy and a reduction in radiophobia: those in the media who have preached against it and taken a stand for many years; those in the safety industry for whom the status quo offers stability of career and reputation; others with long- term commitments to pressure groups such as Greenpeace.
“There are more who have thrown in their lot, investment or career, based implicitly on ALARA. Few of these would welcome change, but the young people of tomorrow whose future is at stake have no such baggage.”
Vested interest is a big issue for Professor Allison. Consider this, for instance: “Wider industrial interests, that is management and shareholders, are not concerned to question the basis of safety regulations. Their interest is to secure profitable long-term business for the investment they make, in spite of the changes to regulations and the financial restrictions imposed to fix concerns expressed by politicians and the Press.
“To protect its financial future, industry is always ready to build or decommission whatever the market will pay for, even if the price is unacceptably high when eventually charged to the consumer’s bill, as it will be.” So what positive changes would Professor Allison like to see in order to bring costs down and support the badly needed expansion of the nuclear energy industry, which he has identified? I have mentioned the replacement of ALARA with AHARS and an end to the use of the INES scale when assessing (retrospectively and uselessly) the severity of nuclear accidents. But what else would he do to bring down costs?
“Where does the money go?” the author asks. “It goes on safety, insurance, public inquiries, working practices that ensure safety – on a grand scale without equal. Well, if half the workforce in the nuclear industry is engaged working on safety, waste and decommissioning and if those requirements were to be drastically scaled back, without risk of any kind, the cost of nuclear energy would fall substantially – by 30% at least.”
Professor Allison believes that waste management costs could be reduced quite easily if informed people take decisions about it. What to do with radioactive waste is a small problem that has exercised the public and over-excited the media, he says. It is small because there is so little of it and also because it has a clean accident record.
SLIGHTLY USED FUEL
“More importantly, it is valuable”, he goes on “because only about 1% of the fuel in it has been used. It would be better named slightly used fuel.
“With the advent of more fast neutron reactors it will be burned up producing more energy. That will leave only the fission waste that really is spent and needs to be buried for a few hundred years before its activity returns to the level found in natural ores. The hullabaloo of vast and expensive spent fuel storage far underground appears to be a make-work project. Almost any mine that is reasonably dry should suffice.”
Professor Allison believes that nuclear plants that are idle should be brought back into service and that further questions should be asked about those that have recently been closed on economic or safety grounds – “judgements of the finance and the safety of nuclear power are suspect”.
Interestingly, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is preparing guidance documents on licence renewal applications to extend reactor operating lives beyond 60 years, taking reactors to a potential 80-year operating life. Even the oldest of the UK’s seven Advanced Gas Reactor (AGR) power stations is only 40 years old and while I applaud EDF’s efforts to extend reactor life by up to 10 years I now wonder whether that objective is too conservative.
In the short term new power stations should be built to available designs, Professor Allison says. Which design is preferred is a commercial decision but any such decision should be eased, planning and building times reduced and final costs lowered, with a proper relaxation of the present obsession with safety. In the medium and longer-term fast neutron reactors should be used to close the fuel cycle, Professor Allison believes – something my colleagues at British Nuclear Fuels took as read 30 or so years ago.
That was before the politicians, making a pitch for the Green vote, decided that there was no place for nuclear energy and set about shutting the reprocessing industry down, sacrificing valuable energy resources and making the task of residual spent fuel management that more difficult.
Professor Allison believes – as more and more nuclear scientists do – that the long term development of nuclear power as part of the world’s future energy mix will require fast reactor technology with a closed fuel cycle involving reprocessing.
To my mind it was a tragedy that the Dounreay fast reactor technology research programme was abandoned by the UK some 20 years ago, bringing into question the whole purpose of reprocessing, which is scheduled to come to an end with the planned closure of the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) at Sellafield in 2018. Is it really too late to do anything about that? Is there really no market for the recovered uranium and plutonium made available by reprocessing that slightly used fuel in the UK or in countries, which have fast reactor construction or research programmes well under way?
The fast neutron spectrum allows fast reactors to increase the energy yield from natural uranium by a factor of sixty to seventy compared to thermal reactors, enough to satisfy nuclear power programmes for thousands of years as well as a significant improvement of nuclear waste management. Fast reactors can use recycled fuel, redundant weapon fuel, plutonium, thorium and depleted uranium.
A BABEL OF DISCIPLINES
For the important changes advocated by Professor Allison to take place we need A Cultural Revolution, which is the sub-title of his book. This would involve considerable changes to the educational system.
“Programmes are needed to educate the public and explain how ionising radiation benefits everybody through medicine, carbon-free power, desalination and food preservation”, he says. “To build trust this education should best comes not from government or industry but through medical, university and school teachers, free of vested interest”.
Changes are also needed to relationships within the scientific community, he argues. “The various disciplines involved in making decisions about energy and nuclear radiation are strangers to one another. They are all open to study, but in a traditional education young people are rarely brought up to establish any personal confidence in more than a few of them.
“This compartmentalised understanding then persists for the rest of their lives – and that is only for those few with an educational background of any relevance at all. This is an unfortunate omission in the structure of education, because these various disciplines are remarkably different and there is a need for people to understand how they relate to one another in the areas where they overlap.
“This is a call for an appreciation of the different perspectives of physical science, medicine, biology, social and economic science. Each may be coherent and logical in its own sphere, but reconciling them with common sense is important.
“None of the disciplines is a no-go area to anyone ready to study and reach their own conclusions,. Each field has its own intellectual ethos and reasons for it. But there area other more questionable pressures at work too – like the perceived need to defend jobs, career status and professional territory, to maintain budget allocations and to realise a return on previous investment.”
On that note I leave you to enjoy the book. (Nuclear is for Life – A Cultural Revolution by Wade Allison, YPD Books. £20.)