Matt Lewis

Some perspective on nuclear power

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor

The nuclear crisis in Japan has obviously renewed concerns about nuclear energy.  While this is a legitimate debate to have, few political reporters — let alone the general public — have the scientific knowledge necessary to make informed decisions about whether or not the risks associated with such a disaster outweigh the benefits enough to warrant changing energy policy.

There is little doubt that previous nuclear disasters such as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl greatly damaged the cause of nuclear energy in the eyes of the American public, which, in turn, impacted U.S. energy policy for decades.  But was it warranted?

One way to answer this question is to examine history.  And the best place to look is to Chernobyl — still by far the worst nuclear disaster in history.

In his book, Physics For Future Presidents, Richard A. Muller asks a tough question that political leaders should consider:  “Was the evacuation of the Chernobyl region wise?”

At first blush, almost every one of us would probably answer: “Yes!”

But, as Muller explains, the answer to whether or not evacuating is prudent is more complex than most would think:

Imagine that unless you left, you would get a radiation dose of 45 rem [that dose increases your cancer risk from 20% to 21.8%].  If given the choice, would you give up your home in order to avoid this increase?

Muller goes on to ask:

… If you were president, would you feel right forcing people to evacuate, or would you let them decide?  The risk seems small, but among a population of 30,000 people, the additional 1.8% would yield 500 excess cancers.

Even after learning that the exposure from Chernobyl would have increased a person’s risk by just 1.8%, my guess is that most Americans would still opt for evacuation.

But consider this: Because of radon (which leaks naturally), people living in Denver, Colorado are currently exposed to about 0.1 rem (rem is the unit for measuring radiation exposure) per person per year than someone living in, say, New York City.

This adds up over the course of a lifetime, and as Muller notes,

you could save 4800 lives by evacuating Denver right now.  That’s more excess death than is expected from the Chernobyl nuclear accident!

While living in Denver is arguably more dangerous than living near a nuclear plant (especially considering how unlikely it is that a disaster will occur), it is clear that nuclear energy has a much worse PR problem.

As the Telegraph’s James Delingpole recently noted, according to a “600-page September 2005 report, written jointly by 8 UN specialized agencies” there are reasons people assume past nuclear disasters were worse than they actually were.

The reasons include,

‘Confusion about the impact has arisen owing to the fact that thousands of people in the affected areas have died of natural causes. Also, widespread expectations of ill health and a tendency to attribute all health problems to radiation exposure have led local residents to assume that Chernobyl related fatalities were much higher than they actually were.’

Every death hastened by exposure to radiation is a tragedy, but it’s also fair to note that every activity man engages in requires an element of risk.  The question is whether or not the hysteria regarding nuclear energy is warranted — and whether or not the dangers outweigh the benefits.  Based on the numbers, it appears the answer is “no”.