Chernobyl - The Happiness of All Mankind
A still from HBO's series 'Chernobyl': The disaster in 1986 caused 50 to 60 confirmed deaths — much less than feared © Sky/HBO

In March 2011, the Fukushima Daiichi power plant was swamped when a tsunami struck the coast of Japan, leading to a nuclear meltdown in several of its reactors.

The accident sparked an upsurge of anti-nuclear feeling across the country. Angry public demonstrations piled pressure on a jittery Japanese government. So to protect the people from any further risk from such accidents, politicians applied the precautionary principle. Over the next few months, they closed the country’s entire nuclear industry down.

In a recent paper about the Fukushima aftermath, three academics looked at what happened as a result of that decision.

They noted that while closure clearly obviated the possibility of further nuclear accidents, it did not come without cost. Japan depended on atomic power for a third of its electricity. The need to restart mothballed fossil-fuel plants led to a sharp spike in the power price. It rose by as much as 38 per cent in some regions between January 2011 and the following year.

Unlike Europe or the US, most Japanese households use electricity for heating. The price hikes led to a contraction in consumption, especially in winter. The authors concluded that this led to an increase in mortality, especially among the old.

They estimate that more than 4,500 may have died as a result of the high prices that followed the nuclear shutdown, far more than the estimated 1,232 whose deaths are directly attributed to the accident — mainly as a result of the subsequent evacuation (only one is thought to have died as a result of exposure to radiation, although that does not exclude the possibility of more premature deaths in future years).

So in their attempt to protect the public against what appears to have been a negligible risk (that of harm from radiation) politicians had exposed the people to a greater, and entirely avoidable, harm.

Japan is not the only example of such an overreaction. Germany also responded to Fukushima, despite tsunamis not being much of a risk along the Baltic coastline. Angela Merkel announced the accelerated closure of its nuclear plants, a policy that has actually stalled the country’s decarbonisation in spite of an investment of $580bn by 2025 in renewables (and an associated increase in electricity prices of some 50 per cent).

The Chernobyl disaster in 1986, recently the subject of a widely-watched TV series, froze nuclear development in the west for two decades and raised the costs of development markedly. Yet it happened mainly because of a flawed and shoddy design that was never employed outside the Soviet bloc. And even then, the health consequences are often wildly overstated.

Far from the tens of thousands sometimes claimed to have been victims of the disaster, the real numbers are smaller. A BBC investigation in 2011 put the confirmed deaths at 50 to 60. Beyond that we start to drift into conjecture and guess.

None of this is to say that atomic power is without risk to the public. But it points to our difficulty in appraising the real scale of that risk. Geraldine Thomas, a professor at Imperial College who has extensively studied the impact of nuclear accidents, argues that part of the problem is “our excessive fear of one risk: radiation”. It stems from the conflation of civil atomic power with nuclear bombs.

Yet this is entirely erroneous. Power plants do not blow up like atomic bombs. (The explosions at Chernobyl and Fukushima were steam explosions caused by overheating). Nor do they emit anywhere near the same levels of radiation on the occasions when they do fail. An inhabitant of Pripyat, the now-abandoned city next to Chernobyl, might have absorbed 30 millisieverts (mSv) of radiation prior to evacuation. To put that in context, its equivalent to six years living in Chicago (where background radiation is about 6 mSv), or roughly three CT scans.

All of this matters because of the need to decarbonise the world’s energy production. In this massive task we have relatively few proven technologies aside from nuclear to draw on. Renewables produce no carbon, but have other drawbacks such as intermittency. Carbon capture and storage remains unproven at scale and costly.

Of course, nuclear is not without its drawbacks too. Reactors can be very expensive, and also slow to build. Just look at Britain’s £20bn-plus Hinkley Point scheme, already drifting over time and with its costs steadily rising. If nuclear power is to play a major role in decarbonisation, plants will have to come in faster and at lower cost.

But what we should not do though is reject nuclear power out of irrational fears about its riskiness. That would be to repeat on a grander scale the mistakes made after Fukushima. Decarbonisation will be hard enough without zapping our one concentrated and reliable zero-carbon source.

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