Wednesday 19 June 2019

John Crown: Our judgement was distorted by Chernobyl tales

We need to discuss nuclear power as a serious option. So let's do it openly, writes John Crown

Even if you are sceptical about global warming, the case for reducing our dependence on carbon as an energy source is overwhelming.

In the first instance carbon fuels are non-renewable. They will run out. There will come a time when the oil, gas and coal will be gone. Many argue that we are already at or near "peak oil", when the maximum rate of petroleum extraction is reached, and production begins to decline. Some contend that vast untapped reserves still exist in North America and in off-shore sites, and that the barriers to their exploitation are "above ground", ie, political and environmental. Even if the decline in production is slow, however, the growth in demand is not, and a burgeoning world population together with growing industrial and domestic demand in rapidly developing parts of the world, especially India and China, will magnify the supply crisis.

The second argument is economic. We are hugely dependent on imported fuels. This is not some theoretical abstraction. This dependence was recently used as an argument by those who insisted that we must stick with the terms of our bailout, warning that Ireland-bound, oil-laden tankers might turn about if we welched on our debts. Even if we discount such a doomsday scenario, the sheer economic drain of pouring billions of euro into the hands of foreigners is huge.

The third reason for reducing our dependence is geopolitical. The world has not been blessed in the stewardship of most of our petroleum resources. Most are controlled by highly unreliable regimes in highly unstable regions.

So what are the alternatives? Domestic petroleum may provide some temporary solution, but it too will run out. Renewable energy (eg wind, solar, tidal) might revolutionise the field, but it might not, and even if it does it will likely take years to develop the technologies for mass exploitation.

What of nuclear energy?

The Irish collective approach to nuclear power was heavily influenced by the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine, an accident which resulted in the release of a radioactive cloud over neighbouring Belarus. The impact of the accident on our folk memory was reinforced by the prominence of well-meaning charities, which collected millions of punts on the premise that an unimaginable public health catastrophe was unfolding before our eyes.

It is widely assumed that the medical and health consequences were vast, with some speculating that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of deaths had occurred as a result. In addition, who can forget the harrowing, horrifying, heart-rending pictures of deformed children born in the region in the aftermath of the disaster, children whose birth defects were blamed specifically on radiation poisoning?

Irish people responded with characteristic generosity to appeals for aid, and millions of punts were collected for relief programs which brought children for holidays in Ireland. It was claimed that weeks spent here added years to their life expectancy.

So after 26 years, what were the actual health consequences?

The burden was overwhelmingly borne by the courageous Soviet plant workers, firemen, and clean-up crew who went right into the stricken plant, 134 of whom suffered acute radiation syndrome. Twenty-eight of these heroes died, many agonisingly. Eighty-seven remain alive. The estimated reduction in life expectancy of the clean-up crews is two-and-a-half years (smoking or obesity reduces life expectancy by approximately 10-15 years).

What about the general population in Belarus and the Ukraine, and beyond? Figures from the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation are very reassuring.

In the first instance there was no increase in birth defects, even in the affected regions. None. Zero. Sadly, approximately two per cent of all newborns worldwide suffer from congenital malformations. This figure did not go up after Chernobyl. The children whose deformities were highlighted by the charities did not develop them as a result of radiation.

There was an increase in thyroid cancer in children. This is a rare disease, and one which is near-uniformly curable. In the aftermath of Chernobyl it remained rare and remained near-uniformly curable. It is estimated that one new case per million children per year occurred worldwide. In the most heavily irradiated areas, the incidence reached 100 per million.

There was no increase in any other cancer.

The cultural, psychological and political impacts of the Chernobyl disaster were huge and out of all proportion to the real health effects. The choice we face is not between nuclear Armageddon and arcadian energy nirvana, but between developing non-carbon-burning sources, and species extinction.

Let us have a mature debate.

Follow me on Twitter: @ProfJohnCrown

Senator John Crown is a consultant oncologist

Sunday Independent

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