The recent negotiations with Iran have brought nuclear weapons back into the forefront of the public’s consciousness, if they ever left it. This leads to some misplaced sentiments about nuclear energy due to the closely linked history and science of nuclear technology for war and peace. There is no doubt that nuclear bombs are terrible weapons of mass destruction but so are certain chemical agents and yet there is not the same level of public and political angst about building chemical plants as there is over nuclear power stations. The civil chemical and nuclear industries are both strictly regulated but the chemical industry has had some horrific accidents, such as at Bhopal, India in 1984 where 8000 people were killed when a pesticide plant leaked toxic gas, or more recently in the US when a fertilizer plant in West, Texas exploded killing 15 people and levelling hundreds of homes. These incidents are not well-known outside of the engineering industry whereas by contrast the nuclear industry has had a small number of very well-publicized accidents that have killed very few people, or no one in the case of the recent accident at Fukushima.
People will argue that I am ignoring the long-term effects of exposure to radiation so it is appropriate to examine the evidence. The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima killed an estimated 130,000 people, mainly due to the blast rather than radiation, while a long-term study of survivors within 10 kilometres of the explosions has found increased incidents of cancer arising from radiation exposure. Following the Chernobyl accident in 1986, 240,000 workers were exposed to radiation levels higher than 100 millisieverts and 28 died from acute radiation sickness (ARS) that year. The World Health Organisation estimates that about 4000 of these workers will die from cancer as a consequence of their radiation exposure about another 9000 amongst the exposed population in Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine. These are large numbers but represent only about a 1% of the total number of cancer deaths in these populations from other causes, for instance smoking caused about 294,000 deaths in the roughly the same twenty years in Belarus.
It’s time we decoupled the use of nuclear technology in war and peace. We don’t handicap other technologies used in war and peace with the same indistinguishable associations. We use fossil fuels to power tanks, jet-fighters and warships and then burn so much of it for peaceful purposes that 1.2 million people died prematurely last year from the pollution it generated [see my post entitled ‘Year of Air: 2013’ on 20th November, 2013].
Little, M., 2009, Cancer and non-cancer effects in Japanese atomic bomb survivors, Journal of Radiological Protection, 29(2A):A43-59. http://iopscience.iop.org/0952-4746/29/2A/S04;jsessionid=7838AA7D498065F13C23094F1D01DBBA.c3
Cardis. E., et al., 2006, Concer consequences of the Chernobyl accident: 20 years on, Journal of Radiological Protection, 26:127-140. http://iopscience.iop.org/0952-4746/26/2/001/pdf/0952-4746_26_2_001.pdf
On a small scale this effect is comparable to the public perception of casualties from shark attacks versus those from road accidents.