An environmentalist view of nuclear

22 December 2017

An anti-nuclear activist in the 1970s was afraid of tyranny. An anti-nuclear activist now is afraid of radiation. But tyranny didn't happen and the effects of radiation are misunderstood. The threat of climate change IS real and, to fight it, we need nuclear power, writes Scott L. Montgomery.

I was in graduate school starting in 1974 at Cornell University in the geosciences and I was a bit of an anti-nuclear activist. I went to Shoreham, which is in Long Island, and tried to stop the bulldozers from breaking ground for a new nuclear power plant. I spent a night in jail. And I marched, and I joined the Clamshell Alliance and the Aberlone Alliance and a number of other alliances. I was certainly anti-nuclear weapons, but also anti-nuclear power, and there was a very specific reason for that.

At that point in time, we were still in the midst of Watergate and the Vietnam era, and there was a great worry about growing state power, and not just state power, but of the military-industrial complex. But it also involved government as a whole. It was corporate power, the defence industry and the military and then it was government power. And nuclear power, having these very large and enormously capital-intensive projects in the midst of public areas, in cities throughout the country, seemed both a sign and a symbol of declining democratic capabilities. It seemed like a march towards tyranny and so there was a great deal at stake.

My understanding from the many readings I've done was that this was true in Europe as well; it was very true in Germany. So, if you were more on the liberal side of things, and you perceived this to be happening, then nuclear power was a very important thing to oppose. Whether you knew what it was, whether you knew how a reactor works, didn't matter because the larger issue was so much larger.

So, even being a scientist, as a graduate student, and going into an area that had a lot to do with nuclear power, in terms of mining and understanding the Earth and its materials, I never spent the time that I needed to spend learning about that technology, or even learning about the science beyond what I'd had as an undergraduate.

Now, 30 years later, climate change has arrived and it's clear that non-carbon energy is going to be the future, and at this point I'm on the other side of academia; I'm teaching courses in energy, and courses in sustainability, which when I started in 2000 was a new concept, at least for me, in terms of an actual policy. But many of the students wanted to know about nuclear power. This is a younger group of people, who did not live through Three Mile Island or Chernobyl; this was before Fukushima, and they were very curious and so it was part of my job to learn about it to the level at which I could teach it at a very basic level. I found myself getting very drawn into it because I realised very quickly that there was an enormous number of things that I didn't know that were very basic. The more I learned, the more I realised how little I had known before and that the issue of nuclear power is much more complex than I had thought.

Of course, tyranny never arrived, but Chernobyl did, and from that point on people were pretty much afraid of radiation and so that was a necessary thing to study. But it was an enormous universe to open up, because as soon as you start to study the medical impacts of radiation on humans, you see that it's not only complex, but that it has been enormously misrepresented in the media and that the public really doesn’t have much of an idea, and frankly they haven't been helped. They've learned to be very afraid of it, but they haven't learned how to learn about it and there haven't been any real opportunities.

So, the public believes that any exposure at any level is deadly or a cause for alarm, and certainly that's not the case. One of the most interesting things was talking to a lot of experts - radiologists, health physicists, radiobiologists, nuclear physicists, and medical professionals who have dealt with the impacts of Chernobyl and Fukushima. That expert community is very clear about the lack of public understanding and that radiation is a very weak carcinogen at low levels, particularly below 100 millisieverts a year, and probably a fair bit higher than that as well.

That's a very high level and when we start to look at the entire universe of dose levels that are set for the public; they are set extraordinarily low and although that makes a great deal of sense from a certain point of logic, it's always defended by people in the radiological community as keeping the public as safe as possible. The problem with this, is that it encodes public terror of radiation, so that at Fukushima even a single millisievert per year above natural background was held to be the level at which people could start to go home, and that's just absurd. You could move from Seattle to Denver and the level would double and so if someone from Fukushima prefecture came to the US and moved to Denver their radiation level would have tripled. They would have been eating food and drinking water whose levels of natural background were higher than was set by the Japanese government for anyone being able to move back into the Fukushima prefecture, within a certain zone within the 30 kilometres exclusion zone.

It's this kind of irony that make someone like me shake my head and say something's really wrong with this; it doesn't make sense, or it only makes sense in a framework of angst and dread and therefore enormously exaggerated words. So, in any comparison between nuclear energy and any of the other energy sources - perhaps with the exception of solar power - nuclear comes out by the numbers as enormously safer.

There has been a mean of 300 reactors working for 55 years, there have been three major accidents and less than 100 deaths. That is not a dangerous technology by any definition. And if there are 5000 casualties from Chernobyl, in terms of thyroid cancer, that is not a definition of a disaster either. There are enormous casualties associated with coal, oil and gas. There's just no comparison. And if we were to talk about hydropower dam failure, even in China alone there have been hundreds of thousands killed in the last 35 years. In one year, 1975 - four years before Three Mile Island - there were a total of nearly 600 people killed by hydropower dam breaks in the United States. None of that made the front pages, except locally. But Three Mile Island, where no one was injured, and where repeated lawsuits have shown there have been no increases in cancer, that's a national psychological landmark that everybody knows about.

So, these kinds of inconsistencies are very disturbing, but they are everywhere once you start to look into the medical side of the nuclear power universe. And that really changed my view very profoundly. That's one of the main reasons I felt writing a book about this would be very important and I wanted to make a difference. I started to write the book a year after Fukushima happened. My co-author, Thomas Graham Jnr, who has been a very well-known, world-renowned non-proliferation negotiator for the United States for 40 years, called me up and said we should do something about this because the world is being deluged through the Internet with negative press and negative impressions of what happened at Fukushima, and no one's talking about the truth of the matter - that none of the public were injured and that this was a non-disaster except for the evacuation. And so, he and I both decided to write this book and try and change attitudes and also open up a lot of the issues - the realities of the medical impacts of radiation; what ionising radiation is and what it does. And we also wrote about natural background radiation and it’s variations around the world. We wanted to look at it empirically.

The book aims to educate people about what is involved with nuclear power and what has been misrepresented, but also why it's been misrepresented. It hasn't been misrepresented for evil reasons, or by just a few activists with a negative attitude, who still have that fear of tyranny; it's done with genuine concern for the public, but it's done out of a tremendous misinterpretation. I have to say that many people of my generation are guilty of the classic definition of bias: When you receive new information that provides support for a different point of view and you ignore it. I can't say that that is true only of the public; there are scientists who respond emotionally that way too, but it's still bias. The amount of information that is available now is enormous and we have summarised a great deal of it in the book and it's well-referenced, so people can check our conclusions and our data right and left, and we would welcome that.

It's too important to have a major non-carbon source continue. Nuclear power is 60% of the non-carbon electricity in the United States and in many European countries even more than that. In Europe as a whole it's over half. We can't afford to give that up and we cannot bet on the future in terms of technologies we don't have. We don't have renewables that can do that; we will, perhaps, in the future, but it seems very foolhardy and essentially unacceptable to bet the future on things that don't exist and have no guarantee of existing.

Climate change is such a threat that we will need everything that we have and that definitely includes nuclear power and its own future technologies. It's an enormous shame with the West, which invented this technology, has frightened itself from expanding, and yet we are watching other portions of the world's expansion beginning. These countries are looking to replace fossil fuels with a non-carbon source, nuclear power, which can give them the electricity they need for their economic development. Coming from the United States, I think it's a shame that a technology we brought to the world is being left to decay within our own shores.

Scott L. Montgomery

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Scott L. Montgomery is the main author of Seeing the Light: Making the Case for Nuclear Power in the 21st Century, published by Cambridge University Press. The book was co-authored by Thomas Graham Jr., a diplomat and negotiator in non-proliferation agreements for the USA. Montomery is a geoscientist, lecturer, and affiliate faculty member at the University of Washington in Seattle.