Wade Allison, Emeritus Professor of Physics and Fellow of Keble College, Oxford > As the world discusses sources of energy it is spooked by an eighty-year-old fear of ionising radiation and all forms of nuclear energy. But evidence from simple observation shows that this fear is simply misplaced and that everybody should be confident in making a future with nuclear power.
Everybody knew. It was in the papers, announced by the Emperor’s Chamberlain on TV and leaked in reports from inside the Palace, no less. It only remained to admire the New Clothes when the Emperor stepped out in public for the first time.
But then the evidence showed that there were no clothes, as only the innocent eye of the country lad saw. Hans Andersen’s story is just for children? Think again.
Everybody knows that nuclear radiation is dangerous – imagined to be the most dangerous invention ever made by man. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki it mesmerised the Cold War era. Nobody could escape its influence, and today it still evokes the ultimate threat in international politics.
Everybody knows that in 1986 many thousands of people had to be evacuated from a huge zone around the nuclear plant at Chernobyl, the source of the worst ever nuclear accident. Everybody expects this zone to be uninhabitable for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years.
But nobody told the animals in the evacuated region. Like the lad in Hans Andersen’s story, they saw only the evidence, the re-wilding of the zone. They were not evacuated; they were not told that they had been irradiated by an unseen deadly curse; they did not watch exciting disaster videos; they simply enjoyed the departure of humans. Indeed, numerous wildlife videos show that they are thriving today, whether radioactive or not.
And what happened in the nuclear “disaster” at Fukushima Daiichi in 2011? The extreme reaction by the authorities and the media caused severe mental, social and economic hardship, although no health effect of the radiation “is ever likely to be discernible” – as the UNSCEAR Committee eventually reported. No such panic would have occurred if adequate public education had been given in schools – as it is in Japan for the real danger from earthquake and tsunami. But such knowledge and familiarity with nature is needed worldwide. Mankind did not invent nuclear radiation, only the horror story that he has mistakenly spread with it. Natural science explains that nuclear energy and its radiation are essential ingredients of the environment that were particularly active before the Solar System formed. Then, even to survive on Earth at all, biological life had to evolve layers of fool proof protection against radiation despite its energy. Only when it succeeded, did life in our naturally radioactive environment become possible. That is just one of the reasons why radiation is particularly safe in practice and nuclear power has such a clean safety record.
And we should not leave the story of Hiroshima and Nagasaki without comment. As in the Tokyo raid five months earlier, the death toll was high, largely due to blast and firestorm. But later cancer deaths from the radiation were less than a percent, and the genetic mutations featured in horror movies never happened.
Unfortunately, fantasies like nuclear phobia get stabilised by disengagement, the self interest of expert groups and intellectual intimidation. Fear reduces the likelihood of searching discussion. Closed professional committees insulate opinion from re-examination – as Upton Sinclair wrote “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it”. And then people feel inhibited – they think they might not be intelligent enough to understand a matter said to be complex. In these ways, nuclear phobia has become locked in public thinking despite the evidence.
Better might be expected of academia, but there, too, studies are segmented into separate disciplines that obstruct questions across boundaries. In particular, physical scientists and biologists have been too mutually isolated for the truth about radiation safety to be openly discussed. Funding, posts and departments concentrate on core subjects seen to be exciting, not on their connections.
But in clinical medicine, at least, nuclear technology and biology do meet head on. Marie Curie, winner of two Nobel Prizes in nuclear science, is best known for her seminal work in radiation medicine a century ago. If she were to return today, she would not credit the extreme precaution that now suffocates her legacy to human health, society and the natural environment. Today, the truth is that, if fossil fuels and the totally inadequate contribution of renewables are rejected, the safe and powerful contribution of nuclear energy is the energy source that remains and that mankind needs. Marie Curie said “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” A fear of nuclear energy, like that of thunder and lightning, should be dispelled through a simple confidence in natural science. Indulging in nuclear phobia is a costly aberration that the world cannot afford.
Emeritus Professor of Physics and Fellow of Keble College, Oxford
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