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McCracken: Fears often don’t match fact with nuclear energy

The current world human population is 7.3 billion. That number is expected to grow to somewhere in the neighborhood of 11 billion by 2100.

How are all these people going to be supplied with energy, the basis of life and society, while keeping the planet healthy? Doing so will take changes in the way people think about energy and how it is produced. One such change that must come is in the use of nuclear power. The generation of electricity through the power of the atom must play an increasingly larger role worldwide in the coming decades if the future of the human race is not to be compromised.

In this column, I describe a couple of things that will help shape the future of nuclear power, keeping in mind that a vigorous future for that technology stands to bring increased prosperity to Nye County and all of central Nevada.

Conservative vs. Liberal Split

Eduardo Porter, a business columnist for the New York Times, has pointed out (4/20/16) that there is a wide and interesting split between liberals and conservatives on the issues of nuclear power and global warming. How this split plays out will impact the future of nuclear power in this country.

Conservatives, he writes, tend to favor nuclear power but are against the concept of global warming. According to a Pew Research poll, 60 percent of Republicans, compared to 35 percent of Democrats, favor building more nuclear power plants. From a different perspective, 65 percent of scientists want more nuclear power.

Conservatives tend to reject the idea of climate change, while liberals typically support it. For example, both Donald Trump and Ted Cruz oppose the idea of climate change, with Ted Cruz calling it a hoax used to justify government takeover. Climate research strongly supports the idea of human-caused changes to the climate and points to the burning of fossil fuels as a primary cause. This split between liberals and conservatives on these issues complicates the solution of our long-term energy problems.

Fears of Nuclear Power

A second factor concerns the widespread misunderstanding of the dangers of radiation associated with nuclear power production. In few areas of modern life is the disjunction between widely-held fears of something and the corresponding scientific understanding more dramatic.

Dr. James L. Conca is a senior scientist with UFA Ventures, and a weekly contributor to Forbes on energy issues. He and other researchers have pointed out something that is well understood by scientists but not widely recognized by the public. The negative health effects from exposure to radiation are not linear; that is, greater radiation exposure does not necessarily cause more damage. Huge doses do cause damage; small doses do not. It is a fact that within the range of relatively small radiation exposures typical of the operation of nuclear power plants, there are no measurable ill health effects.

This principle can be seen at work in the two largest accidents at nuclear power plants. By far the biggest of such accidents was the one at Chernobyl in the Ukraine, then part of Russia, on April 26, 1986. It destroyed Unit 4 of the nuclear facility there and, due to a plant design that would not have been allowed in the United States, considerable amounts of radioactive materials were released into the environment. The accident made headlines around the world and fed people’s fears of radiation and nuclear power. Thousands—even a million —people were widely reported to have died.

About 1,000 heroic emergency workers fought the fire in the first days following the accident and some 340,000 people ultimately were evacuated from the area or resettled. Some refused to move. Five million residents of nearby Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia received minor doses of radiation. About 600,000 recovery and operations workers have since worked at Chernobyl.

Over the years, the health effects of what occurred at Chernobyl have been intensely studied by health professionals. A report by the United Nations concluded there was “no evidence of a major health impact related to ionizing radiation 14 years after the Chernobyl accident. No increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality that could be associated with radiation have been observed.” And those results have held up. Fewer than 100, mostly those first emergency workers, have died from the radiation and, Conca observes, “resettlement is now considered a grave mistake that destroyed the lives of an entire generation.”

In reporting the Chernobyl story, the media played to people’s fears of radiation, blowing the true threats to health way out of proportion. And, of course, the mass media has never stepped up to set the matter straight. The American people and the rest of the world have been left to stew in their unjustified nuclear power fears.

Much the same thing happened at Fukushima, Japan, when on March 11, 2011, flooding caused by a huge earthquake in the ocean damaged the nuclear power facility’s backup generators. Though no one has yet died from that accident, the media again played it up heavily.

Chernobyl and Fukushima were by far the two largest nuclear power-related accidents ever to occur. David Ropeik is an instructor at Harvard Extension School and the author of “How Risky Is It Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.” He states, “leading health scientists say the radiation from Fukushima has been relatively harmless, which is similar to the results found after studying the health effects of Chernobyl.”

He points out that the World Health Organization did a 20-year review of the Chernobyl disaster and found that “its psychological impacts did more health damage than radiation exposure did, and a principal cause of the population’s debilitating stress was ‘an exaggerated sense of the dangers to health of exposure to radiation.’” He points out that researchers are seeing the same thing happening at Fukushima. One study found that stress among children in the Fukushima area was double the stress levels of other children in Japan.

Yes, mistaken beliefs can do real damage!

I would argue the same thinking needs to be applied to Yucca Mountain. Let’s put the anti-science attitude and fearmongering behind us. The naysayers have played on mistaken beliefs and irrational fears of nuclear power long enough.

Let’s get Yucca Mountain back on track for the benefit of Nye County, Nevada, America, and the world!

As James Conca says, “the nuclear power industry is still the safest industry in the world by any measure.”

Bob McCracken has a doctorate in cultural anthropology and is the author of numerous books in the Nye County Town History Project.

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