Our irrational fear of nuclear power is undermining the search for a safe, clean source of energy, argues Paddy Regan.
Three places: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima. And three more: Banqiao, Machhu II, Hiakud. Most people react with horror to the first trio, while the second three locations usually draw a blank look. In fact, the latter were the sites of three major hydroelectric dam failures: in China and India in 1975, 1979 and 1980, which were directly responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands. In contrast, the death toll directly associated with radiation exposure from the three best-known civil nuclear accidents is estimated by the World Health Organisation to be conservatively about 50, all associated with Chernobyl.
Nuclear power has had a pretty bad press recently. In the post-Fukushima world, major power companies such as the German-owned E.ON and RWE-npower have taken the decision not to invest in building new nuclear power stations in Britain, citing costs in the current economic climate.
Some activists argue that the economics of construction and operation of nuclear power stations are sufficiently prohibitive that increased investment in safe, renewable power supplies such as offshore wind projects are a more attractive option.
But why is nuclear power now so expensive? I suggest that it is at least partly due to an inflated analysis of the potential health risks associated with civilian nuclear waste in particular, and an exaggerated assessment of “nuclear risk” in general.
It is true that the management of waste reactor fuel is a significant fraction of the overall costs, but if nuclear waste disposal were calculated in proportion to the actual risk associated with the hazard, the prohibitive economics of nuclear power would be reduced significantly.