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Explode those nuclear myths
Corrupted perceptions and inverted logic contaminate public perceptions about nuclear energy…
Written in a Chelsea coffee shop on a cool grey morning and dispatched to via a free wi-fi service.

Logic can solve complex problems and help in making assessments and considered decisions. But we often see other factors clouding the picture.

When we find ourselves in a life-threatening situation, with no time to make a rational decision, our instincts keep us alive. On balance, that instantaneous reaction when driving, climbing a mountain, or defending a position in a battle, really pays off.

Possible deaths from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant's failure will almost certainly be dwarfed by the 25,000-plus fatalities caused by March's tsunami.

Yet what I find most curious is that the converse is not true for the more complex and detailed stuff of life. Just give emotion and ignorance one chink of an opportunity and it all goes badly wrong.

Whether you give people as much time to consider, research and think, it doesn't seem to matter. Established opinion, fears, folklore, hearsay, tradition, bigotry and fashion all come into play and the facts are ignored and wrong decisions made.

Here is a topical example - where I perhaps should state that I have no particular axe to grind. I am but a member of the human race who has seen the tragedy of errors that harm families and communities as people shift from one dumb opinion to another, and continue to do so.

Ask anyone about the risks of nuclear power and nuclear bombs and the reaction is predictable. Now tell them that more people die from coal-fired power stations per year than all the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and since. They will not believe you. But today, coal-fired deaths produced by pollution alone in the USA number over 13,000, and the EU is similar, while in China it is over 500,000.

I can't find any figures for the rest of the world but I think it would be reasonable to assume that they will be big. But let's just stay with a modest number of between 500,000 and 600,000 deaths induced by pollution from coal-fired power stations per annum for the sake of argument.

So how many deaths related to nuclear bombs have there been in total over the past 66 years? Worst estimates vary between 150,000 and 250,000 on the detonation day with perhaps the total death toll to date as high as 350,000.

There is a huge variance in the estimates published, and I have tried to use the most reliable sources. At a stretch - admittedly on the wild side - there are some who state as many as 450,000 to 500,000 deaths related to blast and radioactivity up to the present day.

What did these two bombs, and all those atmospheric tests, plus all the big nuclear accidents do to the background radiation on this planet? According to all the studies and reports I consulted – zero. The effect has been imperceptible and cannot be measured.

How many people died as a result of the 1979 Three Mile Island core meltdown in Pennsylvania? Not one. How many died during and after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster? Just 65. So, how many will die in the future? Perhaps as many as 4,000.

Without wishing to be callous here, what is the big deal? What about the millions who die from pollution from coal-fired power stations? Why no media hype and uproar? And why all the wild claims about millions at risk every time there is a nuclear blip?

The big problem in stating figures is the difficulty of getting substantiated and accurate facts. The variance on the initial death toll in Hiroshima and Nagasaki is because of the uncertainty of city occupancy and an inaccurate body count because of wartime chaos. The accurate documentation of the fatalities that followed seems even worse.

Anyway, my point is that the true risks from nuclear power run counter to public perception and would be a big surprise for most. So now let's do a mind experiment and try to rank energy supply industries, from best to worst, and then look at the result normalised for number of deaths per terawatt-hour (TWh) delivered per year.

Energy supply industries normalised for number of deaths per terawatt-hour delivered per year.
Image: Peter Cochrane/

Surprised? I was. Nuclear turns out to be by far the safest bet for humanity with biomass wind and solar needing drastic improvements to their safety record.

The irrational paranoia and fear about radiation now has resulted in the removal of the words 'nuclear' and 'isotope' from instruments and routine medical procedures. A good example are MRI scanners, which were originally called NMRI scanners. Perhaps we should start calling nuclear reactors just reactors.

Today, the focus is on the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant and those who might die in the future as a result of its failure, rather than on the 25,000-plus who are actually thought to have died in the March tsunami. Judging by far more severe nuclear incidents in the past, deaths caused by the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant will be far fewer than media projections would have us believe. Meanwhile, tsunamis, coal and oil have claimed, and will continue to claim, more lives.