Thursday 24 October 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'Nuclear solution for this rock, stuck in a hard place'

Heretical concept: there is staggering ignorance on nuclear power three decades on from the Chernobyl disaster. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Heretical concept: there is staggering ignorance on nuclear power three decades on from the Chernobyl disaster. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

There's no doubt that climate change and species death are the biggest issues facing the planet.

As much as many of us have rolled our eyes at some of the apocalyptic visions which are presented to us as if they were Holy Writ, the days of outright scepticism are over and we shouldn't make the mistake of letting our derision for the messengers overshadow the basic message.

The basic message is this - we've depleted most of our resources, and the ones we haven't yet depleted continue to cause harm to the environment.

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There are plenty of things we can do as individuals.

For instance, single use plastic bottles will, hopefully, soon go the way of those old plastic shopping bags we never see anymore.

We should also pay more attention to the food we eat, particularly fish. After all, cod and even tuna have been hovering on the brink of near extinction for the last few years and it is predicted that large sharks could be extinct within the next 50 years.

But when it comes to environmental matters, all questions lead back to the damage we are causing through our sustained use of fossil fuels.

It's all very well to demand that nobody ever travel by plane again - unless you're Emma Thompson, of course - but that's simply not going to happen.

Similarly, the finger wagging about everything from driving your car to even using your barbecue only serve to irritate most regular people. Even when we accept that we will continue to need some sort of power source which doesn't wreck the planet, there does not seem to be too many viable alternatives.

Wind and solar power are too expensive and too inefficient to become the main supply. So the obvious answer is, and always has been, nuclear power. Yet as soon as anyone mentions the solution staring them in the face, they're treated like some insane social pariah who is happy to irradiate the planet.

The new HBO/Sky Atlantic drama, Chernobyl, started on Tuesday night and it's safe to say that the show won't exactly popularise the idea of nuclear power.

Chernobyl, which blew one of its reactor cores in 1986, remains the world's largest nuclear power plant disaster.

It emblazoned itself on the minds of several generations and became, in its own way, the ultimate deterrent against support for nuclear power.

I was a member of CND in those days and I remember the sense of validation that many equally idealistic young people felt when news of the disaster broke.

This was proof positive that the nuclear genie should never be allowed out of the bottle and we all went on marches and wore badges with phrases like "nuclear power - nein danke".

The accident caused thousands of deaths at the time, damned a generation to inevitable thyroid cancer and turned half of Ukraine into a glowing wasteland.

Except that we can't be 100pc sure that it did.

Figures from the World Health Organisation (WHO) - backed up by the International Atomic Energy Agency - claim that only 56 people have died as a direct result of the radiation released at Chernobyl, with around 4,000 eventual deaths expected.

The agencies also dispute causation in other illnesses, such as certain childhood cancers, that are routinely linked to the explosion.

While other bodies dispute these figures, the problems around researching and reporting the effects of Chernobyl mean that all that is 100pc verifiable is that it remains the world's largest nuclear disaster. And if it was catastrophic, why was Chernobyl allowed to continue to operate all the way up to 2000, when it finally shut down under international pressure?

Keeping an open mind on the actual effects of Chernobyl is not a contrarian position - at least, not if you're reading the data from the WHO and the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation which show the impact as relatively negligible.

This data shows that of the 350,000 people who were forcibly evacuated from the area, far more died from suicide than the accident itself - which was the fault of human ineptitude and communist bureaucracy.

Nobody is denying what can happen when rigorous safety procedures aren't followed, but that's no excuse for the intensive scaremongering around nuclear power.

It's also a reminder that for many on the environmental Left, nuclear power is an heretical concept. Due to the conflation between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, the two were seen as indistinguishable and that has led to the staggering ignorance which, more than three decades later, still holds sway.

Critics will simper that even one death from nuclear power is too many but hundreds of people died in mining accidents in 2018 and the WHO estimates that up to 1.5 million people die from air pollution every year.

So why won't we even have a discussion about the benefits of nuclear power?

After all, if we are to believe the tales of our imminent demise, surely the cheapest, cleanest and, yes, safest, form of energy is the way to go?

Sadly, I wouldn't bet on it.

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