How Green is Nuclear Power? The Safety Question

Nuclear power divides opinion, and safety is one of the basic areas of disagreement. While many Greens are opposed, some scientists such as Dr James Lovelock, creator of the Gaia Hypothesis, support nuclear power on pragmatic and environmental grounds.

Although nuclear catastrophes form a staple of science fiction – not to mention the Simpsons – supporters cite the industry’s excellent safety record, and claim it is the most rigorously regulated and monitored sector in the energy market.

Based at the University of Bath in England, Professor Anil Markandy is a world leader in the field of environmental economics. His conclusion after reviewing the health impacts of various forms of electricity generation in Europe is that:

“The health burdens [are] greatest for power stations that most pollute outdoor air (those based on lignite, coal, and oil). The health burdens are appreciably smaller for generation from natural gas, and lower still for nuclear power.”

A major study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology claims that nuclear power has the potential to be both safe and green. It recommends a tripling of nuclear energy production in America by 2050:

“Such a deployment would avoid 1.8 billion tonnes of carbon emissions annually from coal plants, about 25% of the increment in carbon emissions otherwise expected in a business-as-usual scenario.”

Questions about the MIT study, however, could arise from its funding source, which came in part from The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. A lead author of the study, Professor Paul Joskow is also President of the Sloan Foundation as well as Director of the Exelon Corporation – America’s leading producer of nuclear power. The perception of a conflict of interest provides ammunition for the study’s detractors.

The impact of the Chernobyl disaster on the popular perception of nuclear safety cannot be overstated. 27 years after the explosion of the reactor in the Ukraine, an uninhabitable Exclusion Zone still exists, extending nearly 20 miles in all directions from the former nuclear plant.

More recently, the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear plant in northeast Japan has vividly illustrated the risks of nuclear power. The 2011 disaster resulted in Japan’s Prime Minister pledging to shut down the country’s entire nuclear energy programme. Within days, Germany also closed eight of its older reactors and brought forward plans to decommission the rest by 2022.

Defenders of nuclear power note that tens of thousands of workers worldwide have died in traditional coal and gas-powered energy plants. They criticize a knee-jerk response to the extremely small loss of life following the world’s very rare nuclear catastrophes.

The threat of terrorist-related outrages, however, adds another dimension to public fears over nuclear safety. The nightmare scenario of terrorists obtaining nuclear material – even low-quality and in small quantities – for use in a radioactive dirty-bomb, allows the popular imagination to run riot.

Can nuclear power be considered part of a sustainable future in the face of climate change? Or are the risks just too high? Comments welcome as always.

  • MountainMonkey

    I’m just not convinced the risks are just *that* high. After all, as you mention, there are many more deaths resulting from traditional fuel plants, and yet those stories just don’t seem to appeal to the media imagination in the same way… As for the heightened impact risk from terrorists, fear inducing as the idea may be, I struggle to envision the *actual* risks being anywhere even comparable to the inevitable depth of suffering that will be caused if the world’s carbon budget is allowed to simply and steadily get spent.

  • Alastair Shaw

    In the end, the pragmatic case for nuclear power may win out. Especially, as you point out, when compared with the alternatives.

    Thanks for commenting.