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March 28, 2011 | by  | in Online Only |
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Failure to Communicate – A defence of nuclear power, an attack on journalism of fear

Aside – before I start I’d just like to celebrate a research success from New Zealand regarding climate change. One way to reduce carbon entering the atmosphere is to catch it as it leaves smokestacks from coal power plants. It turns out that many common minerals are actually very good at capturing carbon, but they can only be used this way once. Researchers at IRL have found a way to regenerate one of these materials so that it can be used for many cycles. Well done New Zealand scientists!

In the past week I have seen a lot of scaremongering in the media (to be fair, mostly in stuff. And the amount of respect I have for stuff’s journalistic integrity is only marginally higher than my respect for fox news). Not only tales of impending doom from the troubled nuclear reactor in Japan, but also of predicted quakes in Christchurch by Moon Man Ken Ring. I had not lent much credence to his predictions, and so I was quite surprised to learn just how many people fled Christchurch on the 20th. An aunt of mine visiting from the Canterbury region told me that there was not a single airplane seat out of Christchurch unbooked on that day, right down to light aircraft.

I guess it is understandable. People in Christchurch have been really suffering through the recent earthquakes; they’re more than a little weary with the whole situation. I can definitely understand why someone would want to not want to take any further risks and just get out, not have to deal with it anymore. But I think that that only makes the actions of Ring more indefensible. He is feeding on the suffering of Cantabrians.

But Ring is not the only one to blame in this situation, because the media have been playing him up and portraying his predictions as science. Less people would have heard of these predictions and far fewer would have believed him if not for the way the media treated his stories. I honestly don’t know if this is because the journalists who published these stories were largely ignorant of science, or if they did know he was a quack and simply wanted to ‘publish the controversy.’ But either way, as a result of their actions thousands of people have been terrified and stressed.

I’d just like to clarify what I believe here – I don’t at all believe that it was wrong of the media to publish Ring’s beliefs. I am not advocating censorship of our press. But the way they treated his story was wrong, in that vastly more airtime and page space was devoted to his view than was devoted to the findings of science. It’s the same situation as climate scepticism, as I wrote earlier. When one’s only contact with science is through news networks – as is the case with almost everybody – one relies on the accuracy of the network, and I think they have a responsibility to provide that. Giving more press time to experts, or even better, allowing both sides to be interviewed together would be ways to address this.

As is the case with Ring, so is currently the case regarding the troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Much of the newspaper columns of this week have been devoted to shocking stories about radiation levels and cooling system failures in the plant. Although there may indeed be dangers for those within the 20-30km (depending on who you listen to) evacuation zone, it seems fairly clear that those in Tokyo, and elsewhere in Japan, are safe.

In the nuclear power plant case, although the same media-science problem does exist, there are many additional factors leading to public misunderstanding. After all, who really knows how nuclear reactors work? I’m a physicist and I don’t even really know! Without the work of experts to rely on, I would definitely be worried. I think nuclear power has an extremely bad reputation, which these days is largely undeserved.

People think of nuclear power, and particularly of the word meltdown, and they immediately think of either Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. Perhaps even of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Maybe they are also concerned about Iran or North Korea (and I apologise for listing those two countries as if they were similar). In reality, modern nuclear energy generation is considerably safer than fossil fuel energy. This is in some ways analogous to the way in which air travel is in fact far safer than travel by car – regulations have made air travel very safe, but people still fear stepping in a plane much more than they do stepping in a car, or crossing a street.

All of the talk about the danger from Fukushima Daiichi I fear may be overlooking the fact that perhaps 30 human lives are actually in danger, even in the worst case scenario. Those are the 30 that are working there to bring the reactor under control. Evacuations have been made in the immediate vicinity, radiation levels are being monitored. Safety protocols and nuclear technology have come a long way from the mid eighties, and multiple redundant systems have been put in place. The worst thing that can happen in a nuclear meltdown these days is not that hundreds or thousands of people’s lives are put in danger from radiation, merely that there will be a large clean up bill. And even the clean up is well understood too. Nuclear waste can be, and is being dealt with safely.

In fact, the overall impact of nuclear energy on the environment is overwhelmingly positive, because of the amount of carbon emissions it does not produce compared to fossil fuels. In all of the developed nations of the world, there is a strong correlation between GDP and carbon emission. They follow a pretty rigid straight line. All except France, which has lower carbon emissions per unit GDP than the others. The reason for this is the use of nuclear power plants in France.

XKCD published yesterday a graphical chart showing the meanings of various levels of radiation which I strongly suggest you have a look at:

Nuclear energy is, if you look at the facts, actually a very safe and clean method of energy generation. I would be disappointed if countries were to fall back upon fossil fuels as a result of the scare in Japan.

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  1. Electrum Stardust says:

    “In fact, the overall impact of nuclear energy on the environment is overwhelmingly positive, because of the amount of carbon emissions it does not produce compared to fossil fuels. In all of the developed nations of the world, there is a strong correlation between GDP and carbon emission.”

    — One common “failure to communicate” is the simplistic ‘choice’ being ‘offered’ (intentionally or otherwise) to the public: Either fossil fuels or nuclear– there are, and can be, no alternatives. No sun, no wind etc.

    — Another common “failure to communicate” is forgetting the fact that activities that ‘contribute’ to “GDP” can be either good or bad for the environment, for people’s happiness etc. “GDP” should not be worshipped for its own sake. Similarly for ‘productivity’.

    — As for Ken Ring, it is one thing to denounce (correctly) his pseudo-scientific ‘predictions’, it is another to accept as fact that the moon does have some effects (to varying degrees) on our planet. It’s just a question of how much, and in what areas, and—more importantly—how we, as humans, can make use of those scientific facts (if at all). For example, weighing up the dangers of nuclear plants vs dangers of solar energy. Or considering building nuclear plants in the middle of the Kalahari Desert vs next to a major city in the <a href=";)Ring of Fire.

    — In a similar vein, while we all should agree that astronomical bodies do affect (to some extent) life on earth, it simply does not follow that everything that Ren King says is also true- e.g. his views on climate change etc.

    Just some reflections on what is otherwise a pretty decent article.

  2. So the best thing to do is to filter the water which is typically done in power plants with an ion resin filter. The filter itself becomes extremely radioactive but it is contained. When a core is typically shut down, it is the ion filter that is the most active site.

  3. Ben says:

    regarding the GDP/carbon link, I actually strongly agree that GDP is not a good measure of the prosperity or wellbeing of a nation’s people. The only reason I use it here is that it is still the primary figure used in choosing policy.

  4. Quinn Shaw-Williams says:

    Building Nuclear power plants in earth quake prone areas is just plain stupid. On what premise do you state that nuclear power is safer than fossil fuel energy? When was the last time anyone heard of an accident at a fossil fuel plant? Fossil fuel plants don’t contain nuclear radiation, and don’t produce a toxic waste with a half life of 25,000 years. What in inane statement. By what criteria?
    Your not a physicist, your a student studying physics, and could perhaps do with improving your political analysis if you insist on commenting on such things.
    As if fossil and nuclear where the only means of generating power. For frick sake, If scientists and government funding where really doing there job, we’d have this sorted by now, its pathetic, however, as it is, there are plenty of alternatives already.
    The day that New Zealanders let a Nuclear Power on our soil because of the opinion of yourself and fools like you through out the world, is the day I will personally start blowing shit up, and that would dangerous….

  5. Q says:

    See alternative power source here…. the latest and greatest…

    excuse barely coherent rantings above…

  6. Ben says:

    I’d like to point out that 29 New Zealanders died just a few months ago in a fossil fuel accident – the explosion at Pike River coal mine.

    To assuage your fears, I am not recommending the building of a nuclear power plant in NZ. I am also not recommending that nuclear power be used preferentially to renewable sources. I still think there is something to be gained by replacing fossil fuel generation with nuclear in some places around the world.

    The point I was making in this article is that there is a huge gap between the perception of the harm modern nuclear power can create, and the actual harm it can create.

    The article about the tidal power station you link is encouraging! I hear there was a tidal power plant recently approved in near Northland in New Zealand as well.

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