Fear of Nuclear Energy: New Nuclear for Maritime

Posted by Wade Allison on 18 June 2024 in Articles

Fear of Nuclear Energy

A short summary delivered to the New Nuclear for Maritime Summit, London, 13 June 2024.

In 1931 Winston Churchill writing in the Strand Magazine compared coal and nuclear energy “The coal a man can get in a day can easily do 500 times as much work as the man himself. Nuclear energy is at least one million times more powerful still. The discovery and control of such sources of power would cause changes in human affairs incomparably greater than those produced by the steam-engine four generations ago.”

Just 20 years later in 1951 the first nuclear submarine was authorised and named after Captain Nemo’s Nautilus. In 1954, a year after Eisenhower gave his seminal speech, a 13 year old boy visited his “Atoms for Peace” Exhibition in Geneva, and Nautilus was launched. Thus, 70 years ago began both my scientific career and nuclear-powered shipping.

Ever since, despite a blameless safety record, nuclear shipping has been grounded. Why?

Today, it is evident that fossil fuels are powerful but no longer environmentally tolerable, that Renewables are weak, unreliable and spoil the environment, and that secondary forms of energy, like electricity and hydrogen, require a primary source. Nuclear is the only option that is widely available, powerful and reliable. But trust in it requires public information and education, not just mindless regulation. Everyone should appreciate that it is safer than fire and harmless to life and the environment.

For 70 years the words Radiation and Nuclear have been demonised on specious and unscientific grounds, largely through political fear and ignorance. It is true that, like any source of energy, nuclear can be weaponised. The effect of its use is a huge immediate blast and fire spread over several miles. But much beyond the blast zone and afterwards the influence of radiation is not dangerous. However, an opposite account was given without evidence in the 1950s and remains today.

That was a dark Orwellian period of fear and secrecy, dominated by the Cold War with media opinion influenced by Senator Joseph MacCarthy. Not a good time to understand the scientific truth about radiation.

I will explain the effect of radiation as it is now known today and why it is harmless compared to fossil fuels for two simple reasons.

Firstly, unlike fire or an infection, neither radioactivity nor its radiation is contagious. You cannot catch them. This curtails the expansion of any incident, preventing it growing as happens with a epidemic or conflagration.

Secondly, life has evolved bathed in the natural radiation from space, rocks and within our own bodies. As a result, it provides complete protection against low and moderate exposures to radiation. Otherwise, we should not have survived. The biological mechanisms involved are well known today. Higher radiation exposures are used in medicine to diagnose and cure cancers. Fortunately, the public welcome these.

What about the much-feared effects of radiation?

Inherited mutations and deformities? No evidence for abnormal incidence has been detected in 50 years among the descendants of 100,000 survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Non-inherited solid cancer and leukaemia? Among H/N survivors there were just ½% additional cancer deaths in 50 years, all at high dose. This is tiny compared with 50% deaths in the immediate aftermath of the blast and fear.

And the effect of fear itself? In 2011 in Japan, while 18,000 died from the tsunami, there was no health effect from radiation released at Fukushima. None. However, there were widespread mental and social injuries, plus 1600 deaths from panic evacuation, and vast sums paid in compensation. Worldwide, energy policies were switched to fossil fuels in panic.

At Chernobyl there were 28 early deaths from radiation, widespread suffering from fear and evacuation, but the wildlife in the radioactive evacuation zone is thriving, unaffected by fear. And then there are controlled radiation experiments, for instance with dogs that show no effect in 8 years when given daily doses 700 times larger than the regulated public limit.

The world deserves to be taught about safe nuclear limits and that nuclear shipping is not dangerous – in principle far safer than vessels powered by fossil fuels.

[1] The Churchill quotation:

[2] A comprehensive account based on a lecture given in the House of Lords, Westminster, at the invitation of GWPF on 12 June 2023:

[3] A published account similar to [2]:
Nature, energy and society—A scientific study of the options facing civilisation today. Journal of Nuclear Engineering, 3(3), 233–242.

[4] A full review of health impacts with references, 2024:

[5] Radiation and Reason: The impact of science on a culture of fear. ISBN 9780956275615 (2011 online edition). Hardcopy 2009 edition available on request.

[6] Nuclear is for Life: A cultural revolution. ISBN 9780956275646. Hardcopy 2015 edition available on request.

[7] An account of radiation risk at Fukushima published 26 Mar 2011 shortly after the accident: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-12860842

Wade Allison,
Emeritus Professor of Physics
and Fellow of Keble College, Oxford