Martin Freer is Professor of Nuclear Physics at the University of Birmingham and Director of the Birmingham Center for Nuclear Education and Research. He is a member of the University of Birmingham’s policy commission on nuclear energy, which later this year will publish Nuclear Power: What Does the Future Hold?
The dramatic events that unfolded at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear-power plant after last year’s tsunami are commonly referred to as “the Fukushima disaster.” We need look no further than this description to begin to understand the significant misconceptions that surround nuclear energy.
It was the tsunami, caused by the largest earthquake ever to strike Japan, that killed more than 16,000 people, destroyed or damaged roughly 125,000 buildings, and left the country facing what its prime minister described as its biggest crisis since World War II. Yet it is Fukushima that is habitually accorded the “disaster” label.
In fact, although what happened was shocking, the events in the hours and days after a giant wave slammed over the nuclear plant’s protective seawall might be interpreted as a remarkable testament to nuclear power’s sound credentials. To be sure, the environmental impact on those living close to Fukushima may take many years to remediate. But the response in many quarters – not least in Germany, Switzerland, and other countries that immediately condemned and retreated from nuclear energy – once again typified an enduring lack of knowledge concerning two fundamental issues.
The first is safety; the second is radiation. We need to promote a much more inclusive and informed dialogue about both if nuclear power is to be assessed on its genuine merits, rather than dismissed on the grounds of little more than ignorance and intransigence.
Would the many people who would ban nuclear power also prohibit air travel? After all, the parallels between the two industries are central to the question of safety.
We are often told that air travel, statistically speaking, has a better safety record than any other form of transport. The numerous interrelated reasons for this might usefully be summarized by comparing an airplane to a bicycle.
The chart at left, of fatality rates for our main energy options, is courtesy of Cambridge physicist David MacKay, from his not to be missed “Sustainable energy without the hot air“. Dr. MacKay is now Chief Scientific Advisor for DECC (UK Government Department for Energy and Climate Change).