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A hard rain: nuclear power and public reality

March 14, 2011

A satellite photo of the Fukushima Daiichi plant showed the damage done - ©AFP

First, a small fact. I met my wife under a nuclear cloud. Literally.

Liverpool, April 1986. My wife Heidi had written a play for the Liverpool Playhouse in England. I was an actor appearing in it. During rehearsals, a disaster occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine. It spewed a cloud of nuclear isotopes into the atmosphere that spread slowly west across Europe towards the UK. When the cloud passed overhead, people were understandably concerned. I remember the press reporting that effects would be diminished as long as it didn’t rain that day and wash the cloud particles to the ground.

It rained a lot that day.

Staff entered the theatre soaked from the storm, and in a state of resignation. There was a degree of gallows humour to the conversation. A problem with the “public understanding of science”? Not there. We couldn’t get enough of it. Scientists were now all we had. Nuclear plant safety was yesterday’s news. Talk now was of radiation clouds and damage limitation.

We were the lucky ones. Ukraine, and its many victims, were far from us. Yet as a way of concentrating the mind on the human aspects of nuclear energy, being rained on by a caesium cloud is a real attention-grabber.

And so to today – and another nuclear crisis.

Following the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on Japan’s east coast is now in a state of emergency. The reactor cooling system has broken down, causing the fuel rods to overheat. The emergency is currently rated 4 on the IAEA‘s seven point scale of seriousness. ***UPDATE 15/3/11 upgraded to 6. Chernobyl was 7*** The news media is frantic. Citizens are anxious. Nuclear scientists are being dragged from their labs and universities to explain the facts to a public hungry for reassurance. Is the reactor melting? Will there be a nuclear explosion? Will radioactivity escape to wreak havoc in our environment?

Science journalists have been providing a reality-check on the wilder press speculation. The problems at Fukushima Daiichi, they say,  are highly unlikely to escalate into the kind of disaster seen in Chernobyl, Ukraine in 1986. A nuclear fission explosion is impossible in such a reactor. The reactor core is likely to remain secure, despite explosions that have destroyed the outer walls of the plant. ***UPDATE 15/3/11 One reactor core likely breached. Radiation escaping*** Escape of radiation is likely to be minimal and precautionary. In Monday’s London Times, science correspondent Mark Henderson gave an excellent assessment of the situation with the help of nuclear engineering expert Professor Robin Grimes and nuclear physicist Professor Peter Regan (link here – subscription only).

However, Henderson ends his piece with an air of impatience – claiming that those opposed to nuclear power are likely to “seize on the incident to portray nuclear power as inherently unsafe”. The image conjured is of a hoard of malevolent mischief-makers –  relishing the chance to spread confusion and fear to a doe-eyed public, and besmirching the reputation of a clean, safe and wholly beneficent industry. Despite my personal sympathy with the scientific realities of this emergency, I find the image a little distasteful and misrepresentative.

A german anti-nuclear protester Photograph: Marijan Murat/AFP/Getty Images

I can see where Henderson’s frustration comes from. Nuclear power is on the verge of a global renaissance. The growing threat to the world posed by global warming has highlighted an undeniable benefit of nuclear power generation. It is carbon free. The power generated forms a vital element in most emission reduction strategies. What is more, nuclear power plant design and operation is getting safer. New cooling methods and passive safety systems promise to remove the need for complex human intervention when things go wrong. Also, public opinion is favourable, and improving. A 2010 OECD report into public attitudes to nuclear power found that “in 6 out of 7 of the countries considered, public opinion has been growing more supportive of nuclear energy in the energy mix”. A recent Accenture survey into UK attitudes reported that “over half of the respondents believe that the United Kingdom should increase its nuclear power-generating capacity”. Hardly a population teeming with mischief-makers.

Of course, nuclear disasters soon change public attitudes. The OECD report stated that “dramatic events” can quickly harm public sentiment. All the hard work done by advocates of nuclear energy to revive the utility of nuclear power can be blown away in a single incident. The public panics. The press pack howls. The mischief-makers crow. Reason is lost in a sea of irrationality. Or at least that is how some seem to see it. Personally, I find the relationship between citizens and nuclear energy to be a lot more nuanced  – and worthy of a more humble and less-impatient reflection by science practitioners and nuclear advocates.

As a student of science communication I’m fascinated by the issues regarding the relationship between science and the citizen – and how best to disseminate scientific knowledge in a way that benefits humanity. Yet I believe that there is a very crucial distinction between a science communicator and a science advocate. A good science communicator, I feel, is better placed to articulate the benefits of science when viewing these benefits from the perspective of the citizenry, and not just from the perspective of science.

With this in mind, I offer my own quick reality-check on the nuclear energy issue from a purely public perspective. It’s all too easy for science, politics and business to underplay the reasoning behind some of the public’s more ‘inconvenient’ responses to the issues. So lets take a step back and look at what we’ve all learned as citizens through our experiences of nuclear energy.

1. Nuclear technology is secretive and complex

There is a good reason why the public doesn’t understand the fine details about what goes on in a nuclear reactor. The availability of these technologies – and the complexities of their exploitation – is tightly controlled. Unlike the microchip, the coal fire, the gas stove or a million other fuels and technologies, we cannot hold, touch or experience these goods first-hand. We are forced to take on trust the opinions of policy makers and the knowledge of scientists. Yet we also know that scientists can be wrong, and politicians can mislead. Therefore it’s no surprise that public knowledge of the technology is coloured by the politics of proliferation, terrorism and secrecy. What else would the public have to go on? To accuse people of being ‘ignorant’ about something they are not allowed to know too much about strikes me as perverse.

A field near Chernobyl, Ukraine

2. Nuclear power is problematic

Plutonium isn’t a piece of coal. It’s highly hazardous to use, transport and dispose of. What do the public see in their dealings with nuclear power? They see power stations sighted away from population areas. They hear heated conflicts regarding the locations of nuclear waste dumps. They see designs for reactors that require sophisticated levels of security and safety. They watch politicians’ fears at the nuclear power plans of rogue states. In Japan, nearly 185,000 people have been evacuated from a 20km (12 mile) exclusion zone around the plant. Do we ever see the same degree of concern over the use of coal-fired power stations? What conclusions is a citizen expected to draw from this with respect to nuclear safety?

3. Nuclear power stations can go wrong

Windscale, 1957KS150, 1977. Three Mile Island, 1979. Chernobyl, 1986. Tokaimura, 1999Fukushima Daiichi, 2011. There are plenty more here.

In all of the above cases, the manufacturers set out to make a completely safe reactor. Nobody ever planned to make a bad one. Before any of the above, the authorities would have claimed that the reactor was perfectly safe for the public. Six weeks ago, they would have claimed the same for Fukushima Daiichi. After each accident, there would be an inquest discussing lessons learned, and improvements to be made in future. Yet we don’t live with the reactors of the future. We live with the ones we have right now. Yesterday’s perfect designs.

If a citizen hears a scientist telling them that this latest disaster will never occur again when the next new wonder-reactor becomes available – why would they not check their history books? Can we give them an honest assurance that there will never, ever be another reactor crisis?

4. When nuclear power stations go wrong, people get hurt.

My old uncle Billy had a wonderful explanation for the reason why he enjoyed plumbing, but was scared to attempt electronics. “When plumbing goes wrong, the worst you ever get is wet”.

When nuclear power goes wrong, people get far more than wet. The question of whether the benefit is ultimately worth the risk must rest with those who will suffer from its consequences. That is not a question for science to decide.

*     *     *

The OECD survey has shown that fears of a blanket mistrust of nuclear energy is misplaced. The public has a good understanding of the complex costs and benefits of this form of energy. Science cannot presume that all objection derives from ignorance or a want of specialised knowledge.

The public appreciates the need for a world without fossil-fuel pollution. It is prepared to stand in the rain. What it requires from nuclear science is not impatience, but an umbrella it can trust.

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One Comment leave one →
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