Thursday 22 September 2011

Should Britain go non-nuclear?

Despite the catastrophe in Fukushima and a lively debate in many countries on the continent, the British public shows little interest in a full scale debate on the risks and benefits of nuclear energy. The government's position, that nuclear is part of the energy mix required to meet energy demands in the next two decades, appears almost non-controversial here.

Even some of the most vocal critics of nuclear industry in the past have joined the ranks of the advocates of this type of energy, probably motivated as much by the hope that heavy use of nuclear energy may help the government to meet its emissions targets in 2020 rather than by a rational risks and benefits analysis.

Such a 'tacit consensus' may be strange given the scale of the Fukushima disaster. The almost complete absence of a debate on the issue is, however, bizarre.

A recent BBC programme tried to raise some controversy by questioning this consensus. Jim Al-Khalili in his programme on Fukushima and the risks of the nuclear industry asked the question how safe it is, and whether or not its safety record should be a matter of concern (you can watch his programme here

While Al-Khalili freely confesses to have an interest in the matter (he is a physicist), he maintains that he  approaches the issue with an open mind. His main argument, developed as he travels to Fukushima and Chernobyl and interviews experts and ordinary people in both regions, runs like this: The thresholds where radiation is deemed to be dangerous are set so low that a reasonable way of dealing with risks that radiation poses to human life is prevented. If the thresholds were adjusted upwards, people could more quickly be re-settled in the exclusion zone around Fukushima. His argument culminates in the claim that there have only been two deaths from the catastrophe at Chernobyl that can be causally attributed to radiation.

While the programme does show the anguish and suffering of those misplaced by the Fukushima catastrophe, his argument counters its message that nuclear energy is dangerous by arguing that, if more sensible risks assessments of radiation were done, re-settlement at Fukushima could be quicker than anticipated at present.

I call this the scientist view and I have to admit (being one myself) that I always found this way of 'assessing risks' troubling. In essence, Al-Khalili asks us to be rational about the risks and the potential damage if nuclear energy goes wrong. Compared to how many people die in traffic accidents every day, the nuclear industry is one of the safest around, so the argument goes.

Yet this is a deeply disturbing notion, as well as shortsighted and simplistic. If we fail to count the human costs of evacuation, re-settlement and possible radiation and contamination, we are basing our cost/benefit analysis on a false prospectus. Yes, people can be moved elsewhere when soil is contaminated and large swathes of the countryside are made uninhabitable. But we have long ago stopped thinking in merely pecuniary terms.

Loosing your home and your job, on top of loosing everything you cherished causes deep emotional traumata. Such hurt and pain incurs social and economic costs as well. It may be difficult to imagine what it means if 80 square miles of landscape (as in Fukushima) are devastated until we think of it as happening in North Wales, leading to the evacuation of Liverpool. Al-Khalili offers us an insight into the worst of scientific silo thinking. Good scientists have long time ago abandoned this type of isolated calculations when it comes to human and social risks.

Scientists like Al-Khalili usually object that this leads to emotional arguments which scientists are not capable of assessing. Yet, we, as a society, must acknowledge the human dimension. That's why scientists should never be in charge of making decisions for society as a whole. Their view is a legitimate contribution to the larger debate, yet should not provide us with the only benchmark for our thinking.

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