An Inconvenient Perspective

There’s a common objection:

Adding more nukes increases the risk of an accident.

This is a great example of an effective little sentence message which conjures mental images of Chernobyl’s gaping roof or Fukushima Daiichi’s spectacular hydrogen explosion. It plays on ingrained radiophobia. And it’s not at all hurt by the fact that it’s true, at least statistically.

But if you think about it in context with other risks which civilisation is prepared to take, how legitimate is it? Put more cars on the road, get more accidents. Open more airlines routes, witness more crashes. Develop more coastline, suffer more storm damage. These examples are accepted as progress. The first example is all but ignored by western cultures, but it illustrates a dramatically bigger problem, since cars can interact unpredictably on the roads. One accident can conceivably trigger bigger destruction.


Nuclear plants, even each reactor at a given plant, will not affect others like traffic does. Look at exactly what we’re considering: the next reactor accident will most likely be isolated, contained within the sealed structure (at least initially), and the result of inadequate cooling. Yes, Russia still operates a few RBMKs, but the question pertains to building more nuclear power capacity, and that won’t include the RBMK reactor. New reactors have the benefit of sixty years of history and exhaustively studied accident conditions, and as with all high technology, expert understanding of nuclear power and reactor design expands and becomes more complete over time – old knowledge isn’t somehow replaced with different but comparably limited new knowledge.


So let’s look at an actual example. In 1980 France began producing electrcity at new plants like Tricastin, then added the bulk of capacity over the following ten years. Acording to the logic we’re addressing, each extra reactor increased the risk of nuclear catastrophe. Some reactors have been retired, but France currently operates fifty-eight for commercial power, with the most recent being connected in 2002 at Civaux. For twelve years already, France has increased its chance of some sort of meltdown or loss-of-containment event – something that will release considerable radiological contamination – by fifty-eight times from 1980 levels, with the odds being nearly that high for much of the preceding period.

I would absolutely love to visit France, and I would undoubtedly fly there, despite its worst national air disaster having happened within the discussed timeframe. 228 people were lost.


Dare I say it, maybe there’ll never be another catastrophic accident with radionuclide release. Or if that’s hard to imagine, maybe there’ll be release, but the affected public will be prepared through education regarding the true risks and benefits of radiation, instead of being bombarded with scaremongering from emotional, knowledge-deficient anti-nuclear institutions. I’m far more certain, if history is any guide, that this is what would save lives.


Anti-Reality. Anti-Nuclear.

This is a sort of personal one, folks.

Growing up in Australia, my experience informs me of a prevailing anti-nuclear sentiment which tends to cling like a habit. I think I remember asking about what was going on when this Chenobyl thing was smoking away on the tv, and received a basic explanation couched in concern over general safety and unrelated events like Hiroshima and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

My father’s old watch had a radium dial. I’d nick it at night to stare at the glow. Despite being fascinated with nuclear energy as I grew, the habit remained, preened by the weapon testing efforts of the French in the 90s, the concerns over long-lived waste. I read Niven and Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer and remember being surprised and intrigued that not only was the fictional San Joaquin nuclear power plant depicted as entirely benign, its functional survival became pivotal to the survival of civilisation.

Then there was the controversy around the proposed waste dump in my state. Fortunately, I’d started uni by that time and could consult lecturers on the matter. Turned out there was radioactive waste stashed under the chemistry department. I finally faced my first fear at a proper personal level: the radiation wasn’t doing anyone any harm.

If you are worried about radiation (like what you might imagine is floating around in those pictures of deserted Fukushima villages, or out to sea east of the crippled power plant), please indulge me for a minute, and imagine not being worried or afraid of it.

Now, ask yourself, how much you actually know about nuclear energy?

I ask myself this all the time, and my only response is to seek out more information. After all, you can only know something if it is true. I found a blog by a retired professional which brings together much of what I have absorbed disparately via comment threads and web surfing over many years.

The way I see it, you can make do with the old way of absorbing news, which will essentially always pander to the ingrained habit of nuclear scepticism – why risk putting readers off and losing advertisers? Or you can treat that as a launch pad and delve for the unfiltered facts which will actually serve to inform you and benefit your knowledge. There is always confirmation bias to be wary of, but that is why, despite the now-obvious urgency of this issue, it has taken me years to reach this position. And confirmation bias swings both ways, remember.

So if the first time you thought hard about nuclear was after the Touhoku earthquake and tsunami, and found yourself freaking out about radioactive oceans, there is a sober voice to calm you. Ever wanted to know what actually happened in the Ukraine? It’s sort of hard to believe that there are several plants like Chernobyl still operating without incident, let alone the fact that the other three reactors at the site carried on generating quite safely long after the disaster. But somehow, they were safe enough.

Even Three Mile Island seems more like a cautionary tale in the success of redundant safety systems of Gen-II reactor designs when presented by someone who understands everything about it.

Another great communicator is Gordon McDowell. I’m proud to have helped crowdfund his upcoming documentary.

There’s a common brand of environmentalist who is ready to quote respected, consensus scientific conclusions on the likelihood and consequences of climate change due to our civilisation’s GHG emissions, but then perpetuate misunderstanding and paranoia regarding nuclear power and the nature of radiation with little or no respect for the facts presented by comparable scientific institutions, nor the experience of professionals such as our blogger above. I’ve noticed something about such hypocrites: they’ll never ask you why you’re in favour of nuclear.

The information I’m sharing is about being consistent in these issues. I hope it gets you thinking. And more importantly, I hope it gets you knowing.