An Inconvenient Perspective

There’s a common objection:

Adding more nukes increases the risk of an accident.

This is a great example of an effective little sentence message which conjures mental images of Chernobyl’s gaping roof or Fukushima Daiichi’s spectacular hydrogen explosion. It plays on ingrained radiophobia. And it’s not at all hurt by the fact that it’s true, at least statistically.

But if you think about it in context with other risks which civilisation is prepared to take, how legitimate is it? Put more cars on the road, get more accidents. Open more airlines routes, witness more crashes. Develop more coastline, suffer more storm damage. These examples are accepted as progress. The first example is all but ignored by western cultures, but it illustrates a dramatically bigger problem, since cars can interact unpredictably on the roads. One accident can conceivably trigger bigger destruction.

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Nuclear plants, even each reactor at a given plant, will not affect others like traffic does. Look at exactly what we’re considering: the next reactor accident will most likely be isolated, contained within the sealed structure (at least initially), and the result of inadequate cooling. Yes, Russia still operates a few RBMKs, but the question pertains to building more nuclear power capacity, and that won’t include the RBMK reactor. New reactors have the benefit of sixty years of history and exhaustively studied accident conditions, and as with all high technology, expert understanding of nuclear power and reactor design expands and becomes more complete over time – old knowledge isn’t somehow replaced with different but comparably limited new knowledge.

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So let’s look at an actual example. In 1980 France began producing electrcity at new plants like Tricastin, then added the bulk of capacity over the following ten years. Acording to the logic we’re addressing, each extra reactor increased the risk of nuclear catastrophe. Some reactors have been retired, but France currently operates fifty-eight for commercial power, with the most recent being connected in 2002 at Civaux. For twelve years already, France has increased its chance of some sort of meltdown or loss-of-containment event – something that will release considerable radiological contamination – by fifty-eight times from 1980 levels, with the odds being nearly that high for much of the preceding period.

I would absolutely love to visit France, and I would undoubtedly fly there, despite its worst national air disaster having happened within the discussed timeframe. 228 people were lost.

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Dare I say it, maybe there’ll never be another catastrophic accident with radionuclide release. Or if that’s hard to imagine, maybe there’ll be release, but the affected public will be prepared through education regarding the true risks and benefits of radiation, instead of being bombarded with scaremongering from emotional, knowledge-deficient anti-nuclear institutions. I’m far more certain, if history is any guide, that this is what would save lives.

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