]]]]]]]]]]]]]] A SHARED NUCLEAR SECRET [[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[ By Petr Beckmann 5/29/88 [This article is very similar to the one that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on December .. 1987. The reason why it differs is not that I disagree with the editorial changes made by the WSJ, but that I do not have the time to redo the original version that I sent them (and of which I still have the disk file.] There is a secret jealously guarded by both the antinukes and the nuclear industry: that per megawatt-hour of delivered electric energy, nuclear power is, by any criterion, very much safer than any other source of electric power. To conventional wisdom such a statement sounds absurd; but that is only because the point is rarely discussed -- nor ever seriously disputed. Yet the validity of the statement does not emerge from com- puter simulations; it emerges from physical laws and simple counts by the coroners. The ultimate reason for the superior safety of nuclear power lies neither in its strict regulation nor in the cleverness of its gadgets, but in three of its inherent properties. First, when it does get out of control, which is less likely than with other power sources, its threat unfolds slowly, giving time to countermeasures, including evacuation. (How do you evacuate when a dam breaks or oil storage tanks blow up?) Second, its only threat is the release of radiation -- a genuine and lethal threat, but even if all precautions and countermeasures should fail, it is a threat whose consequences are still small com- pared with the risks we take, for example, with hydroelectric power -- which can kill 100,000 people within minutes. Third, its greater concentration of energy (some three million times higher than that of coal) results in far safer fuel transporta- tion, far safer waste disposal, and in the possibility of preventive measures that are quite unthinkable with conventional power plants. In waste disposal, for example, nuclear wastes are not only some 3.5 million times smaller than fossil wastes produced from the same ener- gy, but unlike fossil-fuel wastes, they are toxic only temporarily: after 500 years they are less toxic than coal ash, some of whose in- gredients are toxic forever, and a significant part of which is now "disposed of" in human lungs. Even by sabotage, terrorists are quite unlikely to inflict as much damage on the population as they could by blowing up a hydro- electric dam or by letting the smoke from a burning oil tank farm do its work. But the real death and disease toll does not come from these dramatic incidents. It comes from the premature deaths and the dis- eases inflicted by fossil fuels, mainly on the elderly. They are demonstrable statistically, but individually unattributable, and therefore undramatic, but they are shockingly numerous nevertheless. The best available study is that by the Brookhaven National Lab, which correlated air pollution and its results over the entire area of the US. The results imply some 37,000 premature deaths attributable to coal-fired electric power in the US every year -- with pollution con- trol equipment in place. (The recent trend of prolonging the life of less strictly controlled, older coal-fired plants, which was not fore- seen by the study, is likely to increase that number.) The comparison is well illustrated by Three Mile Island and Cher- nobyl. The dead of Three Mile Island have gone unnoticed, though more than 300 people died in the first 6 years after the accident: they died in the cycle of the SUBSTITUTE power that had to be brought in to replace the far safer power of the nuclear reactors -- one crippled by the accident, the other shut down by the politicians. As for Cherno- byl, during its short life of 27 months, Unit IV saved more lives from coal than it took by radiation (or will take in the future, for coal has delayed deaths, too). The superior safety and healthfulness of nuclear plants is well known to scientists working in this area quite independently of the nuclear industry. The issue has been discussed in books by Prof. B.L. Cohen of the University of Pittsburgh, Prof R. Wilson of Harvard, Prof. J. Fremlin of the University of Birmingham (England), and others. Prof. Cohen points out that even if the grossly inflated and unsubstantiated claims of the Union of Concerned Scientists were true, they would still make nuclear power many times safer than coal. It is obvious why the antinuclear movement, which gains its adhe- rents on moral grounds, is covering up this moral issue. But why does the nuclear industry conceal it? Because its biggest clients, the utilities, use mostly fossil- fired power, especially coal, and the nuclear industry is loath to offend them. There is a well-kept truce between the nuclear and coal lobbies. It is justified by a not very meaningful phrase about the desire "not to play up one form of energy against another." But this policy, which has allowed the anti-nukes to masquerade as moralists and to induce a public phobia against the very word "nuclear," is one adhered to only by the Washington lobbies. In min- ing, power production and engineering (which are less adept in getting media attention), it is well realized that coal and uranium stand and fall together, for the antinukes are not so much antinuclear as they are anti-energy. Moreover, there is one thing clearly more dangerous to life and health than coal, and that is no coal, for the biggest enemy of life and health, as shown by the statistics of history and geography, is the lack of energy. The Atomic Industrial Forum used to have a strict policy of con- cealing the nuclear-fossil comparison in matters of safety and health. It has recently been merged with another organization into the US Council of Energy Awareness. The reorganization was accompanied by personnel and, presumably, policy changes. It is greatly to be hoped that the new organization will at long last let the big secret out of the bag. * * * * * [***** The following "Verification aid" was not meant for publication, but was attached to aid the editors in checking the validity of my statements. *****] VERIFICATION AID Consequences of a radiation release: "Potential for reduction in the predicted release of radioactive materials following a severe nuclear accident," Congr. Resrch. Service, Libr. of Congr., March 1983; M.Rosen, M. Jankowski, "Reassessing radiation releases," Intl. Atomic En. Agncy. Bulletin Autumn 1985; see also IAEA Intl. Symposium on Source Term, Oct 1985. 100,000 deaths in an earthquake: Univ. of Calif. at L.A. report to Calif. State Legislature, 1972. More details from Prof. Thomas J. Connolly, Mech. Engrg. Dept., Stanford Univ., Stanford, Calif. (The report states that five dams in California may cause more than 100,000 deaths on failure, and one of them up to 200,000.) 37,000 premature deaths/year from coal-fired plants: Report by the Biomedical and Environmental Assessment and Atmospheric Sciences Divisions of the Brookhaven National Lab, 1977-8, quoted in "The Di- rect Use of Coal," Office of Technology Assessment Report OTA-E-86, April 1971. The figure forecast for the pollution control in place by 1985 was actually 50,000; I have prorated it for the fraction of coal burned for electricity (not metallurgy and other). For more details, contact one of the Authors of the report, Dr L.D. Hamilton of Brook- haven National Lab (Upton, Long Island, N.Y.). [*** This suggestion was meant for the WSJ editors, and is not extended to Fort Freedom visitors. P.B. ***] Chernobyl saved more lives than it took: the median no. of pre- mature deaths/year from coal-fired power is 77 per 1,000 MW, or for the 27 months of unit IV, some 160 deaths. This calculation is per- formed by US standards; Soviet power plants, which often burn low- grade coal and have far lower environmental standards (which are not enforced or publicly scrutinized anyway), would have an even larger death toll. The three books mentioned are: B.L. Cohen, "Before It's Too Late," Plenum Press, New York, 1983; R. Wilson, "Risk/Benefit Ana- lysis," Ballinger Publ. Co., Cambridge, Mass. 1982; and J. Fremlin, "Power production: What Are the Risks?" Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1987.
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