Nuclear power: The case for By COLIN KEAY; Sunday 29 April 2001 It is 15 years since the world's worst civil nuclear disaster. Following the destruction of the Chernobyl power station's No. 4 reactor, the very name Chernobyl has struck fear in the minds of many. The thought of radioactive poisons falling from the sky on defenceless citizens and their families, like a monstrous human equivalent of a bug spray, is a horrifying threat magnified by ceaseless anti-nuclear hype. Outside of scientifically authored books and papers, one needs to search hard in this country to find any items sympathetic to nuclear electricity generation. So, with a reliable body of facts to draw on for perspective, it is time to take stock. As nuclear disasters go, how does Chernobyl rate? It was certainly the worst non-military accident. To keep things in perspective, the second-worst nuclear power accident occurred seven years earlier in the United States in 1979 when one of the two reactors at the Three Mile Island power station suffered a serious meltdown. It was a financial catastrophe for Consolidated Edison but no lives were lost because the reactor's containment structure confined all but a few harmless wisps of vented radioactive gases. But Chernobyl was far worse than Three Mile Island because the lack of a containment structure allowed about two-thirds of the core radioactivity to be spewed into the atmosphere by an ensuing graphite fire and blown by winds over much of Europe. However, past military activities have released into the environment more than a hundred times as much. That brings us to consider the human toll of nuclear electricity generation. Even allowing for the poor record of this industry in the former Soviet Union, nuclear power has proved to be the safest source of electricity in the world. Chernobyl remains the only incident where lives have been lost as a direct result. Of the thirty-one killed initially, twenty-eight deaths were radiation related. Numbers as high as eight figures have been bandied about, from sources in the imagination rather than reality. Here is what the authoritative United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation had to say almost a year ago: "Apart from about 1800 cases of thyroid cancer in children exposed at the time of the accident, there is no evidence of increased overall cancer incidence or mortality 14 years later ... not even among the recovery operation workers." Most thyroid cancers are completely curable, and few are fatal. In 1990, I visited a scientific research station in the Chernobyl fallout zone where their unexposed films were densely speckled by radioactive particles. The scientists vacuumed up the fallout, buried it and went about their business. The staff treated me to a picnic lunch out in the fields. "Eat our food, don't eat our grass," they joked while their children skinny-dipped in a nearby stream. Tourists now visit the Chernobyl nuclear power station and take lunch at a nearby restaurant. The Chernobyl fallout was generally less than the natural level of radioactivity experienced with no adverse effects by inhabitants of high background radiation regions of Brazil, Cornwall, Iran, Kerala and Sri Lanka, and even our own Kakadu. However, the danger of the fallout was widely exaggerated, leading to widespread fears of deformities in the unborn. There are estimates that upwards of 50,000 needless abortions in Europe resulted from such scaremongering. Sooner or later, the Chernobyl disaster will be seen in its true light: a temporary setback in the global development of nuclear electricity generation that is unlikely to recur. The world has now accumulated more than 15,000 reactor-years of safe operation and, as Sir Fred Hoyle puts it, "married couples receive more radioactivity from each other than they get from the (civil) nuclear industry". That very much maligned industry saves the emission of billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. The benefits of nuclear electricity are not lost on many of our neighbors on the Pacific rim to the north. If Australia persists with ridiculous anti-nuclear attitudes and negative legislation, we will only have ourselves to blame when future energy shortages bite and we could conceivably end up as the poor white trash of the South Pacific. Look at what's happening right now in California where they are suffering power blackouts as a consequence of unwisely cutting back their nuclear electricity generating capacity in favor of poorly performing alternatives. In the words of Ed Zander, president of Silicon Valley's giant Sun Microsystems, "We have no power, the economy is imploding ... California is finished". Dr Colin Keay is a retired academic who taught advanced nuclear and reactor physics at the University of Newcastle. He has no connection with the nuclear industry. Nuclear power: The case against By PETER GARRETT; Sunday 29 April 2001 The case against nuclear power, like nuclear weapons, rests on the unalterable fact of the deadly and long-lasting effect on human health and the environment that follows from exposure to radioactivity produced by the nuclear industry processes: mining, fission and waste. Any proponent of nuclear energy must first confront history and answer the experiences of Hiroshima, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. All these places experienced nuclear disaster and all suffered a legacy of loss, psychological trauma and material damage. After Hiroshima, we witnessed the appalling consequences of the use of nuclear weapons, and yet nuclear weapons and nuclear power remain joined at the hip, leading to the spectre of plutonium terrorism and the use of low threshold nuclear weapons in the Gulf War. Three Mile Island is a reminder of the consequences of human error, which, incidentally, effectively ended America's love affair with nuclear energy. In the US, successive administrations have wrestled with issues of liability, disposal of the existing reams of nuclear waste, and clean-up of nuclear sites with little resolution. The American public well understands that the margin of error at a nuclear power plant is slight and that mistakes can and will happen. As we mark 15 years since radioactive plumes of smoke billowed across Europe, the lesson of Chernobyl, with its radiated lands and people, should also be well learnt. The accident caused the deaths of more than 30,000 people and large tracts of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus are still contaminated. The workers who attempted to clean up the accident - now surrounded by a 30- kilometre no-go zone - experience significant health problems. Dr Yuri M. Scherbak of the Kiev Institute of Epidemiology and Infectious Diseases estimates a tenfold increase in thyroid cancer affecting children in Ukraine as a result of Chernobyl. The cost of the accident likely exceeds the contribution made by the nuclear industry to the Soviet economy. Yet, despite this graphic example, governments and big business are flying the flag for nuclear power as an alternative to coal-fired power and marketing nuclear power as a panacea for the greenhouse effect. Despite no new reactor construction in Western Europe or North America, and the World Bank's refusal to provide loans for the upkeep or renewal of reactors, nuclear power is being promoted to Eastern Europe and Asia by power utilities whose traditional markets have closed in the West. In Australia, approvals for uranium mining, often on Aboriginal land, have increased, and a new reactor, taking a significant portion of the science budget, is being constructed in the southern suburbs of Sydney. Australia has taken an increasingly permissive role in the nuclear cycle, unaware, it seems, that the costs of the nuclear option are high and that there are real alternatives in the energy-efficient sector to meet energy demand. Nuclear fails as a safe source of energy for several reasons. It requires enormous infrastructure and, with laws, regulations and monitoring, it will remain inherently unsafe. It contributes to the growth of nuclear weapons-grade material and the transport of these radioactive materials across the globe, thus making the world less secure. It is more expensive than conventional or alternative power sources because construction, maintenance and waste disposal are all highly energy intensive. Large and expensive plants are irrelevant to the needs of people in most countries, including Australia. Decommissioning of nuclear facilities is a hazardous and hugely expensive exercise at a cost that would have to be borne by later generations. Finally, there is the Achilles heel of the nuclear industry: the safe disposal of hot, difficult-to- manage and highly toxic waste. After six decades of expensive research, no method has been satisfactorily developed to prudently and safely isolate nuclear waste from people and the land they live on for the very large time periods required. For those Australians pondering the merit of Australia becoming the nuclear waste dump of the world, a proposal actively advocated by the Pangea Resources Corporation, the spectre of increasing volumes of nuclear waste being moved through our ports and along our roads and streets, and then for radioactive isotopes to reside in the Australian hinterland well past any foreseeable events in our lives, grand finals, cities fading away, rivers taking new directions, should give pause for thought. Our energy needs should be met by increasing energy efficiency, developing natural gas- powered plants and the use of abundant renewable resources (wind, solar, biomass and micro- hydro). We can employ people and their ingenuity in developing this new industry and lessen our impact on the environment if we choose a non-toxic and sustainable energy path in the coming century. The nuclear option should be rejected because it contravenes the principle of sustainable development, it unnecessarily jeopardises human health and the environment, it flies in the face of common sense and it betrays the experiences of those, for example, the people of Chernobyl, who have already suffered. Peter Garrett is president of the Australian Conservation Foundation.