Is Nuclear Power Safe?

Tested for radiation (Reuters)

The BBC produced a documentary called “Is Nuclear Power Safe?” which aired on september 15. In the documentary they examine nuclear safety and consequences of accidents in light of the events at Fukushima.

Jim Al-Khalili, a professor of nuclear physics, handles the presentation and narration of the documentary. And states his case that nuclear energy is a lot safer than most people think. And that radiation from fallout isn’t as bad as generally believed.

And during this documentary he seems to give very reasonable explanations and evidence that support this:

If you’ve watched it there is a chance that his arguments indeed sounded very reasonable. But if you have a very basic familiarity with certain historic events, and what the scientific literature says about these events, this documentary would have set off a lot of red flags.

Al-Khalili omits a considerable amount of information and makes some basic errors he shouldn’t have made. For this blog post I’ll focus on one event he tackles in the documentary: Chernobyl.

By Elena Filatova

I actually balked when he downplayed the radiation that was emitted from the Chernobyl disaster. For this article I couldn’t find the tapes I needed, but There are even recordings with visible flashes in them. These flashes weren’t caused by improper handling or development, they are caused by radiation hitting the film and interacting with it. Yes, radiation was high enough to affect normal film in the city Pripyat (the city built close to Chernobyl for the workers and their families).

This exposure had very real consequences for the people living there. Not to mention the sacrifices of the workers that were sent in for support and disaster control. These effects are not limited to the cases of thyroid cancer that are mentioned in the documentary. It has been wel documented that all kinds of diseases and malformations are significantly higher due to their exposure to radiation (I’ll spare you the pictures).

Even the lower radiation levels that are present in the Fukushima region can have very real and dangerous consequences for people that venture into the exclusion zone. They won’t be as severe as Chernobyl but there will be consequences if we let people back in with radiation at current levels.

The following video by investigator Goddard’s Journal gives a far better rundown of the problems in this documentary than I ever could:

I’ve expressed my doubt about current nuclear reactors before, especially the older reactors. And yes the new models are a lot safer than these old reactors. But we still are left with huge amounts of nuclear waste that takes thousands of years to decay. And if something goes wrong with a reactor, it can go horribly wrong. A nuclear disaster has the potential of rendering a small country into a wasteland for hundreds of years.

But I’m not against nuclear power in itself, my beef is with the existing reactors, and predominantly the waste they create. I’m really looking forward to new technologies like travelling wave reactors or thorium fueled nuclear reactors. Both reactors ‘burn’ and reduce the waste current reactors produce. And best of all, thorium reactors can’t experience a catastrophic meltdown. With how they are designed, and the physics involved, it just isn’t possible (thorium reactors need an outside source of neutrons to sustain the reaction).

So I’m very curious and mildly enthusiastic about these potential new technologies. And if they deliver what is being promised we can start looking at how safe and economic feasible they are. But until then, I’m not a fan of nuclear reactors. Even though they probably will play a role in reducing our usage of fossil fuels.

Collin Maessen is the founder and editor of Real Skeptic and a proponent of scientific skepticism. For his content he uses the most up to date and best research as possible. Where necessary consulting or collaborating with scientists.