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March 09, 2006

They still don't get it ...

A news headline in one of the national daily's caught my eye this week and caused a sharp rise in my blood pressure. The Independent ran the headline "Nuclear Power - expensive, dangerous and unwanted" or words to the same effect. The article then went on to rehearse all the usual arguments about how much better and safer wind turbines and "renewable" sources of energy would be and how dangerous nuclear power is, how difficult to dispose of the waste, etc., etc., and so forth, etc.

They still seem to be unable to grasp that some of the contamination that occurred in the past was a result of our not fully understanding some of the matters we have since learned - by experience - to be important. How much contamination arises from burning fossil fuels - besides the usual list of Carbon Dioxide, Sulphur Dioxide and the range of other "greenhouse" gases? Quite a lot actually, many of them even less well understood than the odd stray nuclear particle! The generation of power from coal certainly kills many more people each year than the nuclear industry has killed since the first nuclear reactor went "hot", and the wind turbines they love so dearly are decimating the wild bird population, are a hazard to aircraft and pump out vast amounts of non-ionising radiation in the form of magnetic fields that exceed by a huge factor those that have exercised minds on the anti-mobile phone mast debate. The noise of the turbine apart, I would not want one of these things within several miles of my home!

Part of the problem is the misunderstanding of the difference between "high" level and "low" level waste from the nuclear piles. In fact the "high" level end waste is very small indeed - nuclear fuel rods are recovered, stripped, the Uranium fuel processed to remove the unwanted isotopes and the Uranium re-enriched and returned to it's "carrier" for re-insertion into the nuclear pile it came from. Recyclable and reusable. Very nearly a perfect example of a "renewable" energy source. The small amounts of unusable material that remains is extremely long lived and very dangerous and all sensible processing plants take proportionate precautions. The larger problem is the "Low" level waste, contaminated clothing, tools and other equipment. Yet even this can be safely cleaned and then destroyed or stored until the mainly short-lived isotopes they hold have decayed to the point of safe disposal.

There have also been huge advances in safety, in containment and in operating procedures since the days of the Windscale fire and the Chernobyl catastrophe. It is important to remember that neither of these involved a "nuclear" explosion, one was a straight forward fire in the graphite core - successfully extinguished - and the other a very large scale steam pressure burst. Chernobyl certainly scattered radio active material and some nasty isotopes across a very large area of the European continent and the Northern hemisphere, but the reactor involved was an out of date design being subjected to a procedure designed by a bureaucrat to go wrong from the start.

If the current population levels remain or continue to rise, planting wind turbines and wave power generators will certainly not fulfil the demands for energy. In fact the changes they will cause in the local environment will have an impact no one has yet fully assessed. These will get even worse if the demand for power increases due to the "global warming" we are threatened with - ironically by the same bunch who so strenuously oppose nuclear power. Nuclear may not be able to provide all the answers, but it does offer two very important advantages. It doesn't pump tons of Carbon Dioxide, Monoxide and Sulphur into the air. The waste heat doesn't dissappear up the chimney to help heat the atmosphere and it does provide a cheaper source of energy than many would have you believe.

Unfortunately the author of the article has, as is now usual with the media, allowed their personal prejudice to cloud what could have been a useful and informative piece. To suggest, as the headline certainly does, that nuclear should be removed from everyone's thinking, is the argument of the simpleton. We simply cannot afford to rule out anything at this stage and would be extremely foolish to rule out the one source of energy which is both plentiful and capable of giving us reliable and relatively reasonably priced power.

The main problem with making progress on nuclear energy is not the waste management or the "safety" issues - Scotland's granite pumps out more "background" radiation than Dounreah ever will - but prejudice. Prejudice is, unfortunately, frequently a stronger force than common sense.

Posted by The Gray Monk at March 9, 2006 02:16 PM

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