Nuclear Folly

I’ve been annoyed by the number of pro-nuclear essays doing the rounds ever since the Fukushima incident. The number of environmental experts springing up is staggering. “Nuclear is actually safe!” they bellow, and flaunt some dodgy infographic about radiation charts to prove their point.

This is ignorance on a grand scale, and is adequately dealt with in this essay. But first, you should know that the other end of nuclear production (the bit the fans don’t tell you about), is pretty shocking:

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nn2JjavSuPc 500]

For nuclear power, you need uranium ore, which at current capabilities of technology is “uneconomic and uses more energy to recover than it will ultimately produce”. Then what tends to happen is that the companies devastate foreign communities who don’t really know what radiation is.

The largest uranium producer is Kazakhstan, not exactly the most stable of regions in the world. None of the others are all that local, which means you have to ship the ore across half the globe – also generating an environmental impact (this stuff doesn’t come over for free). Once the world looks to nuclear power more seriously, those uranium prices (hell, it’s a finite resource, too) aren’t going to be all that stable. They’ll go up and up.

Oh, and there’s the stuff about dealing with nuclear waste. Our current best guess is to dump it in a hole and hope that the next few thousand generations of children can come up with a solution.

It’s also worth noting the effects of when things go wrong, which has so frequently and casually been distorted in the news. This Greenpeace scientific report concerning Chernobyl:

involved 52 respected scientists and includes information never before published in English. It challenges the UN International Atomic Energy Agency Chernobyl Forum report, which predicted 4,000 additional deaths attributable to the accident as a gross simplification of the real breadth of human suffering.

The new data, based on Belarus national cancer statistics, predicts approximately 270,000 cancers and 93,000 fatal cancer cases caused by Chernobyl. The report also concludes that on the basis of demographic data, during the last 15 years, 60,000 people have additionally died in Russia because of the Chernobyl accident, and estimates of the total death toll for the Ukraine and Belarus could reach another 140,000.

When nuclear goes bad, it’s not simply an overnight disaster: it’s a multi-generational, landscape-devastating catastrophe. Add to this that new nuclear sites are prime terrorist threats and are generally set by the coast (not great in a future of rising sea levels), and that no one has come to an agreement on how to dispose of nuclear waste, no wonder they can only ever be insured by your tax money.

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About Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.


  1. Excellent rant. Thanks for the link to the Busby article; it lays out some of the issues that have nagged at me but that I haven’t go the information to explicate. I wish more people would think critically about this issue rather than just nod at the experts’ proclamations. Several of my friends have now said that they are more for nuclear power because of the accident. It still boggles my mind.

  2. Thanks, John. Yes, it’s interesting how people have become pro-nuclear out of this, isn’t it? I think what the surprising thing is, is not the radiation from nuclear power, but the everyday radiation levels, or perhaps that during x-rays etc., that people expose themselves to. Either that, or the corporate PR companies for nuclear power are in overdrive out of this to make the best of a bad situation…

  3. I can’t believe that people are actually more in favour of nuclear energy after the accident, though I suppose that it can be argued that the Fukushima plant was older technology. Still, the inherent dangers when there -is- an accident – as probability dictates that eventually there likely will be again – make even better modern precautions seem insufficient to me. Great article, though.

    Regarding the link, I agree with his main point, although I do think that such a silly statement as ‘lost 90% of the matter in the universe’ lets it down a little.

  4. Mark, I’ll go ahead and play devil’s advocate and ask: what you would replace nuclear power with? It currently represents about 1/5 of the world’s power. Green power alternatives like wind, solar, and hydroelectric all have limitations as to where they can be used. I certainly don’t want an expansion of coal-fired power plants, and I’m guessing you wouldn’t either. But all that power has to come from somewhere. At the moment, nuclear seems, to me, to be the best of a bad set of options for large-scale power generation.

  5. Hi Greg,

    Indeed it does, but it doesn’t have to be nuclear. The options are vast.

    From carbon sequestration (a lot of investment going into this); offshore wind (the UK could become a net energy exporter if it used a good chunk of its current potential at current levels of technology; what’s more offshore windfarms become artificial reefs that benefit wildlife). Solar could be huge across places like Africa with the right investment – with HVDC (the big development) cables, the future for renewables is incredibly accessible. You could even power Europe with African sunlight (given those cables are used). It’s about making sure the right thing is done in the right area (solar in the UK is pointless, for example). It’s all very achievable.

    Of course, you could improve heating efficiency in poor housing (which I believe the UK government is intending to do) and reduce the amount of energy we use.

    Plenty of options are on the table!

  6. I’m amazed that people see the Japan incident as a good thing for nuclear power. Personally I was annoyed at the “close down all nuclear power plants” based on the grounds of earthquakes when many countries aren’t near faultlines.

    What I find interesting here though is the fact that nuclear power would just shift the political problems of oil to uranium.

    The main problem though is “are people willing to consume less power than they currently are”. This will be the driving force to how long nuclear power stays. The “green” options you list are all good and definitely need to be implemented but they’ll have to be before nuclear power is downisized. The question becomes trickier still if you factor in diminishing fossil fuels too.

    Personally I’m all for the UK and other countries trying to become self reliant with their energy sources. I think solar power is a great idea for Africa but I worry that the rest of the world will use up their land yet again (solar farms in anywhere other than deserts are just going to take away farmland). I also wonder (emphasis on wonder as opposed to know) what chemicals etc are in solar panels as they probably aren’t the cleanest of things to dispose of either.

    Energy has a price and sometimes i think we all need to think more about the energy we waste as much as how we attain it. That said wind power seems pretty good overall 🙂

  7. Hi Neil,

    Indeed – people seem to very quickly forget that, as if Nuclear is some magic solution. You’re also right to flag up the resources for solar panels – and, as you say, energy always has a price.

    I can honestly say that the plugging in the right renewables to the right location, combined with more innovative solutions in the home, energy reduction in general (better insulation), and carbon sequestration (those coal powered plants don’t seem to be going anywhere unfortunately) then we could start to turn things around.

    And I should say that I do love a good wind farm. 🙂

  8. I’m sure in a couple hundred years time (although hopefully sooner) people will look back on the last century’s attitude towards power consumption and generation and think we must have all been insane not to use the obvious alternatives.

    It is a shame that just over a year ago the UK was talking a big game about becoming leaders in “green(er)” energy and now it seems a bit dead again.