Sixty years ago we were in love with nuclear power. The new atomic age promised super-fast aircraft, cars and even vacuum cleaners powered by reactors. Most of all, it heralded a new age of clean, cheap and inexhaustible energy.
But it’s fair to say that the love affair is well and truly over.
These days we see nuclear power plants as barely tamed demons, straining to unleash Armageddon and barely held in check by the feeble humans that operate them.
The earthquake that last year caused accidents at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power station – and the recent revelation that human failure contributed to it – have only served to reinforce our mistrust of this most dangerous of creatures.
But is it fair?
There have been several recent studies on occupational deaths in mines, oil rigs and power plants that include fatalities indirectly related to power generation – such as those caused by air pollution or radiation.
These have all shown that energy generated from fossil fuels, in particular coal, comes with the highest death toll by a huge margin – and that the safest way to power the planet is with nuclear energy.
At Fukushima, two workers were killed in an explosion caused by a build-up of hydrogen and several hundred died as an indirect result of the disaster.
But so far there have been no reports of radiation-related deaths, although the highest estimates show up to 1,000 people could be at risk.
At Chernobyl – the nuclear industry’s worst disaster – two people died in an explosion and another 28 perished as a result of radiation exposure in the months that followed the 1986 meltdown. The most pessimistic estimates predict that up to 33,000 premature deaths will be caused by emissions over the long term.
But in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese cities where America dropped atomic bombs in 1945, researchers tracked 120,000 residents to study long-term mortality rates. By 2000, more than 42,000 of the residents had died – but only 822 of those deaths were deemed to be related to radiation exposure.
Compare this with the 3million lives that pollution from coal-burning power plants claims every year.
Add that to the six coal miners that die every day in China alone and you’ve really got to ask: Why do we honestly think energy extracted from coal is safer?
The mysterious case of the radioactive apartments
In the early 1980s, a company based in Taiwan made a batch of steel rods that were used in the construction of an apartment complex.
Unfortunately, a fair amount of the highly radioactive isotope cobalt-60 was accidentally mixed in during the manufacturing process.
For 15 years, residents lived in 1,700 apartments while they were subjected to emissions about 30 times higher than normal background levels.
When the mistake was discovered, worried officials surveyed past and present occupants and expected to find a sort of mini cancer epidemic.
About 160 incidences of cancer were expected by scientists among the 10,000 flat-dwellers under normal (non-elevated radioactivity) circumstances.
Irradiated residents would probably exhibit many more cases, they thought.
But to their astonishment, researchers found just five examples of cancer – a rate that was 97 per cent lower than the average population.
Birth defects were also found to be 94 per cent lower than normal.
The exposure had immunised the residents from cancer, it was suggested, when the findings were published in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons in 2004.
This article isn’t intended as pean for nuclear power. Instead it is intended to remind that, although it doesn’t get the headline real estate of nuclear accidents, fossil fuel-derived power is not the safe option many of us believe it to be. Nor we are suggesting that nuclear power is the ideal solution to our every growing power needs – an ideal solution would totally safe and perfectly clean (and not even the most fervent fans of nuclear power could argue that it is). But fossil fuel reserves can’t forever and our planet can’t take much of the environmental punishment, so, at this point in time, nuclear power is the only realistic (albeit flawed) alternative we have available.