11 FEBRUARY 1989, Page 9



Nuclear energy is threatened by its high cost

after privatisation, but Andrew Kenny

pleads for it as far safer than coal

I AM a vegetarian and therefore a suppor- ter of nuclear power. I became a vegeta- rian 20 years ago because I believed that the farming and slaughter of animals was cruel and because I thought it was a shameful waste of food to take the grain that could feed ten people and give it to a beast to produce only enough meat to feed one person. My reasons in short for turning to vegetarianism were respect for man and nature. These are precisely my reasons for turning to nuclear power. Rather late in life I changed careers, be- came an engineer and Joined an electricity util- ity. They required me to spend one and a half Years at a coal station before I could join the nuclear section. My stay at the coal station shock- ed me and greatly in- creased my zeal for nuc- lear power. I have taken a vow to myself that if I ever have children I shall not allow them to grow up near a coal sta- tion (I should be per- fectly happy for them go grow up near a nuclear one). But distance from coal power is not enough to escape its menace.

I support nuclear power for one reason only: that it is cleaner and safer than any other practicable large-scale scource of electricity. The best way to see this is in the question of waste. In the case of nuclear Power, a small amount of uranium is dug out of the ground, refined, passed through a nuclear reactor, stored and then returned to the ground again. The original uranium lYing in the ground is mildly dangerous in that it emits a radioactive gas, radon, that naturally seeps out of the ground some- times causing lung cancer. The nuclear waste is dangerous in the short term but in the long term, because of its shorter half-lives, it is less dangerous than the ore it came from. In the case of coal power, a huge amount of coal is dug out of the ground, passed through a coal furnace and converted into dangerous substances which are then either poured into the atmosphere for plants and men to breath or dumped onto ash tips, leaching their poisons into the water courses. The original coal is quite safe. The coal wastes are very dangerous, and unlike the nuclear wastes, many of them remain dangerous forever.

Nuclear power produces only one form of pollution, radiation, and only two possi- ble dangers, cancer and genetic disease. Even in these it is overshadowed by coal. Large amounts of radiation can certainly cause cancer but low levels of radiation are a natural and inescapable fact of life. Soil, milk, stone, wood, flesh — these are all radioactive and with the sun they give us a `background radiation', which is massively larger than any radiation received even on the doorstep of a nuclear station. Certain regions of the Earth, because of their geology, have abnormally high background radiation, thousands of times higher than that emitted by a nuclear power station, but no unusual rate of cancer has been seen in any of them. Coal, too, is radioactive and, having heard that a coal station routinely emits more radiation than a nuclear one, I put radiation badges on the workers of our coal station and measured the levels there. Sure enough, the radiation next to the coal station was twice as high as that next to our nuclear station, but this was a trivial result as the levels were both very low and the higher altitude of the coal station would have had an effect.

Far more serious are the chemical cancer agents from the coal sta- tion. In the short time I lived in the small township at the coal sta- tion, two people, one the power station mana- ger's wife, died grim deaths by cancer. Their deaths are doubtless of no statistical significance but the carcinogens in the coal wastes are a hard fact. They include organic carcinogens such as nitro-samines and benzopyrenes and, worse, heavy metals such as cadmium and arsenic. Cadmium is normally locked safely into the coal but when the coal is burnt in the furnace the cadmium vaporises, turns into tiny particles, passes through the smokestacks and spreads through the atmosphere to settle finely on the ground where it dissolves in water, enters human tissue and causes cancer. Cadmium has a half-life of infinity. It remains dangerous until the end of time. When Chernobyl's ruined reactor has be- come less radioactive than the soil in your back garden, when the Pharaohs' mighty pyramids have crumbled into sand, when our sun has become a Red Giant and boiled our oceans dry, the cadmium from your local coal station will still be as deadly as on the day it left the smokestack.

Radiation in large amounts is known to cause genetic damage in animals, especial- ly the hapless fruitfly, but the curious fact is that it has never been observed to cause genetic damage in human beings. The first generation of survivors after the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were minutely studied but the babies born to them showed not the slightest increase in abnor- mality. Now coal power stations emit many chemicals, such as the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), known to cause genetic defects in animals. It is likely that they do the same in humans but this is not yet known. Those cartoons of two-headed children, so liked by the anti-nuclear bri- gade, apply at least as well to coal power.

By every measure the death rate from coal power is much larger than the death rate from nuclear power. Per unit of energy extracted, coal mining claims more than ten times as many deaths as uranium mining. Far worse are the civilian casual- ties. Study after study into the deaths caused by coal pollution agree that the figure is about 50 deaths per medium-sized coal station per year. This figure is neces- sarily tentative because coal pollution is diffuse and insidious in its effects. It translates into 25,000 deaths per year in the United States and 1,700 deaths per year in the United Kingdom. The World Health Organisation estimates that the Chernobyl accident may cause 1,600 premature deaths over the next 30 years. Thus coal power in the United Kingdom kills more civilians in one year than Chernobyl will kill in 30. And Chernobyl is the only civilian nuclear accident ever to claim a life. Three Mile Island killed nobody, injured nobody and exposed the nearest civilians to radiation less than one tenth of one dental X-ray.

The direct human casualties from coal power, although far larger than from nuc- lear power, are dwarfed by the devastation coal causes to the environment. Acid rain, caused by sulphur oxides (Sox) and nit- rogen oxides (Nox) from coal stations and other burning of fossil fuel, has already caused vast damage to the planet's lakes and forests and the damage is spreading. Even more ominous are the future con- sequences of the millions of tons of carbon dioxide that coal stations pour into the atmosphere. The 'greenhouse effect' has been much in the news recently and the strange weather the world has experienced this year may or may not be due to it. The global weather system is very complicated and very finely poised, and it is difficult to make short-term assessments. But what is absolutely certain is that the fragile balance depends crucially on the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and that amount is rising inexorably. We are sliding towards some immense change, perhaps a catas- trophe. The human race is threatened by several rising trends — the population growth, the demand for resources — but of all the graphs of doom none gives such apocalyptic warning as the rising level of carbon dioxide. The future of our civilisa- tion may well depend on reversing it.

Nuclear stations produce not one drop of acid rain, not one breath of carbon diox- ide.

There is no such thing as a clean coal power station. A 'clean stack' simply means that the visible pollution, the dust (smoke), has been removed. But most coal pollution is invisible. Only a minority of advanced coal stations have chemical scrubbing and even these only attempt to reduce the sox and nox. None try to remove the heavy metals. It is impossible to remove the carbon dioxide.

The most fanatic antagonists of nuclear power are forced to admit that its safety record is without equal in power genera- tion. But, they cry, what if the really big nuclear power disaster happens? The really big disaster will not happen because it cannot happen. No nuclear power accident can match the damage done by the routine operation of coal power stations. The superb safety record of nuclear power in the West is not because of any superhuman diligence by nuclear engineers — indeed many of them were hair-raisingly sloppy in the early days — but because the designs they have chosen are intrinsically safe. Chernobyl happened because the RMBK reactor was not intrinsically safe. Nuclear power, unlike any other large industrial process I can think of, offers itself to inherent safety. There are nuclear reactor designs now on the drawing board in which safety is entirely passive: human operators will control the reactor only while it is running within safe limits; if it deviates from the limits, the laws of nature will overrule the operators and shut the reactor down safely. Nuclear power, safe now, offers yet more safety in the future.

Then the inevitable question: if nuclear is so safe, why is it so feared? Why is there such hostility against it?

The first and obvious reason is the link with the Bomb. Natural uranium contains 0.7 per cent of Uranium 235. To make a bomb you need at least 90 per cent. Nuclear power reactors have less than six per cent, which is why it is physically impossible for them to explode like an atom bomb. It is sometimes thought that nuclear power is the veil behind which governments make nuclear weapons; if so it is a transparent veil, which any nuclear inspector can see right through. Weapons grade fuel can be made through two routes: enrichment of Uranium 235, a conspicuous, difficult and enormously ex- pensive process, or production of Pluto- nium 239 in a production reactor, different from a power reactor and much simpler. A nuclear power programme is more a hindr- ance than a help to any country bent on making nuclear weapons. Indeed, the spread of internationally approved nuclear power under the supervision of a Non- Proliferation Treaty that gave full access to nuclear power technology in return for opening their facilities to international inspectors would be the best way to deter countries like Israel, Pakistan, South Afri- ca and India from developing nuclear weapons.

The usual explanation for the witch- hunting in the 16th and 17th centuries is that in a time of change and new know- ledge people sought certainty by chasing a recognisable demon. Today, in an age of space-shuttles and computers, where the average housewife in London or business- man in New York has an understanding of the natural universe that is little different from that of pre-historic man, nuclear power seems mysterious and therefore a suitable object of dread. Witch-hunting soon becomes institutionalised. In the 16th centurY, an ambitious clergyman knew he would not help his career by declaring suspected old ladies harmless; and he would do it a power of good by burning them. Similarly the modern witchfinder, the investigative journalist, knows that he must keep de- nouncing nuclear power even if he realises it to be quite safe — which, to be fair, given the stupendous technological ignor- ance of modern journalists, he probably does not.

A paradoxical reason for the fear of nuclear power is its unique ability to take precautions. Precautions scare people. An ambulance parked conspicuously on the beach and marked 'shark attack unit, would frighten bathers rather than reassure them. Nuclear is able to take precautions

and does so; coal is unable to take them and does not. When you have been work- ing near the reactor, you are scanned for radioactive •contamination because it is so easy to do so; when you have been working in a coal mill, you are not examined for particle penetration of the deep lung tissue because it is difficult to do so. It is quite easy to collect and store nuclear waste and so it is done. It is impossible to collect and store coal waste and so it is not done. The nuclear safety measures are highly visible and make people nervous. There are passionate and articulate pro- nuclear voices within the nuclear industry but these voices are deliberately silenced by the industry itself. This was my biggest surprise on entering it. But it is easy to see why. The best argument for nuclear power is simply a comparison between its dangers and the dangers of all competitiors, includ- ing the renewable sources, but mainly coal. (If you look at any pro-nuclear book you will always find it compares dangers. If you look at anti-nuclear books you will find they ignore most dangers of coal, such as cancer.) Nuclear stations usually belong to utilities, such as the CEGB, which make most of their electricity from coal. The dangers of coal are much greater than those of nuclear but less well publicised and of course the utilities want to keep it that way. When I first joined our nuclear section, I was asked to write a publicity blurb to attract young people to a career in nuclear power. I did so, and included a comparison between nuclear waste and coal waste. My blurb was published in full, eXcept that all reference to coal waste was removed. Some people suspect that the Power utilities are covering up a big secret about nuclear power. They are right. The big secret is that nuclear power is very much safer than coal.

Indeed if I were an engineer in the CEGB, I would be in trouble for this article. This is why I am coyly avoiding naming my country or utility. If privatisation in Britain were to mean the nuclear power stations becoming independent of the coal ones and competing against them, then the propo- nents of nuclear power would be free to go onto the attack and the British people would soon hear what the people in the industry already know, that coal stations are ecological time bombs. For me, and I am not alone, the most wonderful artefact of our civilisation is the steam locomotive and I am sure that coal's magnificent machines will remain in the folk memory of our race long after they have been condemned to scrapyards and museums. There is nothing in nuclear power that can match the romance and splendour of the coal age. Nuclear power is a bit of a bore but it has arrived, perhaps at the eleventh hour, to offer us salvation from looming ecological disaster. If we do not take up its offer, our grandchildren and their grandchildren will neither understand us nor even forgive us.