Exploding Australia's nuclear delusion

A new survey shows just how little Australians know about nuclear power and the potential for explosion – and this is preventing the country from having a real debate about nuclear's potential.

France has been producing most of its electricity using nuclear power stations for an average carbon dioxide intensity of about 80 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour (gm-CO2/kWh) for two decades. In that time, Australia's electricity has just gotten dirtier, rising from 817 in 1990 to 841 gm-CO2/kWh in 2010.

Germany, the poster child for solar and wind advocates, has dropped only modestly from 581 gm-CO2/kWh in 1990 to 461 in 2010. Switzerland and Sweden have been using a mix of hydro and nuclear to achieve even lower carbon dioxide intensity than France.

Had the rest of the world continued the nuclear energy roll-out begun during the 1970s in response to the oil crisis, we'd face a far less urgent climate change challenge than we do now. So why have we not embraced nuclear electricity and effectively wasted 20 years in the fight to stop the destabilisation of the climate?

Imagine the headlines if a poll discovered that only 10 per cent of Australians were definitely sure that the earth was roughly spherical while 65 per cent believed that it was "definitely" or "probably" flat? Note that this wouldn't be mere ignorance, but unfounded belief in something utterly false. It would be a scandal. There would be tough questions from outraged journalists in tell-all investigative revelations of incompetence from education ministers through to primary school teachers.

Now new independent polling company Virulent Ideas has probed Australian knowledge of nuclear energy and uncovered precisely the same kind of unfounded belief in the utterly false.

The poll found that 65 per cent of Australians believe that a nuclear electricity plant has the potential to explode "like an atomic warhead or bomb" in the event of a "catastrophic meltdown".

No, it can't.

Not ... "it's highly unlikely" or "hasn't happened so far", but it's simply impossible. Nevertheless, 24 per cent thought this impossibility "definitely true" and 41 per cent thought it "probably true". Only 10 per cent understood it to be definitely false.

You can't make a bomb without 'bomb stuff'

To make a bomb you start with specific amounts of "weapons grade" uranium or plutonium and then crash it together at incredibly high speed which requires really special equipment. This isn't like mixing Araldite. Electricity generation reactors don't use weapons grade material and don't have the machinery to do the crashing together. Potting soil may look a little like gun powder but it can't explode. It's the wrong stuff. End of story.

It's only been a couple of years since we had saturation media coverage of a catastrophic meltdown in three reactors at Fukushima in Japan. We had news stories, pictures, diagrams, feature articles, background pieces, aerial shots, satellite shots, nightly live crosses. Every kind of wanna-be expert was put before a camera, but somehow this most basic of facts isn't crystal clear in 90 per cent of Australian brains.

The explosions at Fukushima were not atomic explosions and could never have been atomic explosions.

What about the explosions?

The Fukushima explosions were hydrogen explosions. Spectacular, yes, and potentially deadly for the workers, but not really players in the public death and destruction big league. There are more deaths and injuries on any long weekend on Australian roads.

Natural gas explosions kill and injure people regularly, but how many nuclear reactor hydrogen explosions have you heard of? Three Mile Island? No deaths, no injuries, no cancers, zip other than unfounded fear mongering and China Syndrome Hollywood film myths. Hydrogen explosions at nukes have been extremely rare events and modern designs should make them merely historical memories.

The Fukushima explosions ripped apart the outer structure of buildings designed to keep the rain out and damaged temporary equipment that had been keeping the reactors cool. But they did nothing to the 1.8 metre thick concrete and steel reinforced containment building around the reactor vessel. This containment building is designed to keep the fuel in during all manner of possible but obviously very rare accidents and can also, as it happens, keep a fully loaded jet passenger aircraft out. If Al-Qaeda had targeted a nuclear plant instead of the Twin Towers, the death toll would have been far smaller.

And the meltdowns?

So what is a "catastrophic meltdown" if it isn't something atomically explosive?

Put simply, imagine a nuclear reactor like jug with a heating element which takes rather a long time to cool down after you switch off the jug. Think weeks, not minutes. As long as you keep adding water as it boils off, everything is fine. But if you stop with the water, then the element can get so hot that it melts and forms a slaggy mess on the bottom of your jug. Once the element (the reactor fuel) is uncovered, it becomes damaged and releases both hydrogen and radioactive material. These get mixed with steam as the pressure rises in the jug.

The jug in nuke-speak is called the reactor vessel and it's a thick sealed steel container inside the much thicker reinforced concrete containment building which is inside the outer building that got ripped apart at Fukushima.

The radiation came mainly from the vessel when they opened valves to reduce the pressure as the temperature rose and the fuel melted. In a worst case scenario, the still hot slag could even melt through the reactor vessel.

Even if this happens, the slag can't melt through the containment concrete underneath the reactor. This is "can't" meaning impossible, not "can't" meaning very unlikely.

Why impossible? Because engineers can both calculate and measure the maximum possible energy that can be generated by the slag and it is a relatively simple exercise to ensure that the concrete is sufficient to absorb it, even in the worst case scenario.

Meltdowns are mainly catastrophic for nuclear plant owners because they totally bugger the reactor. However some modern reactor designs feature special ‘slag catcher’ chambers under the reactor. The intent here is obviously to render meltdowns less catastrophic for owners and allow reactor re-use.

What about the radiation?

But are meltdowns dangerous? The biggest danger is radiation leaks which can cause cancer.

The hydrogen explosions at Fukushima wouldn't happen with a modern design, but even these don't make meltdowns anything like as dangerous as motor cars or more mundane things like ladders. Meltdowns are rare dangerous events compared to common dangerous events.

There are almost 1000 people taken to casualty from ladder falls every year in Victoria alone with over 30 major traumas and 3-4 deaths. The triple Fukushima meltdowns injured just 3 workers with minor radiation burns with several more receiving minor injuries during the explosions. World Health Organisation experts en-masse have recently determined that while there may be a ripple in rates of cancer and other diseases, it will be so small as to be undetectable in the general population.

And the workers?

But what about the workers? Those on duty at the time the tsunami hit owe their lives to working at the nuclear plant rather almost anywhere else on the coast. So this gives the nuclear plants some hundreds of lives saved on the credit side of the ledger. So let's just consider the general population.

An undetectable impact or a rise in cancers?

What does it mean to say there might be a ripple (ie., increase) in cancers but that it will be undetectable? This sounds like a contradiction and was misreported by journalists all over the planet, so requires careful explanation.

Here's why the contradiction isn't a contradiction at all. First let's see the crucial quote concerning the general population (p.92) from the actual report:

The present results suggest that the increases in the incidence of human disease attributable to the additional radiation exposure from the Fukushima Daiichi NPP accident are likely to remain below detectable levels.

The WHO press release opened with a similar statement but then, just a few paragraphs latter, presented estimates of cancer risk increases for various groups. How come?

Imagine you drop a rock in a nice flat pond. If your physics is good, you can calculate the maximum height of the ripple as it expands across the water. The results might vary for different shapes of the same weight of rock, but you could get a reasonable approximation. Standing on the banks of the pond, you'll be able to detect the ripple and check your calculations. This all works nicely when the water is calm.

Now drop the same rock in the ocean. You can still run the calculation. No worries. But can you detect the wave's arrival standing on the beach watching the pounding waves? Only if the rock is absolutely huge. It isn't.

What's a detectable cancer increase?

The Fukushima cancer estimates are like those ripple estimates. And the rock is tiny.

How tiny? Let's consider ‘rocks’ which give detectable cancer increases. Lung cancer increases due to air pollution in Japan are detectable, so the Fukushima rock is smaller than that. The deaths and disease from wood smoke generated from cooking indoors with wood or cattle dung are detectable in countries where this happens. This is a 3.5 million death a year problem in places without enough electricity. So the Fukushima rock is way smaller than that.

Greenpeace in India is currently fighting against a huge nuclear plant which would bring electricity to hundreds of thousands, who currently cook with wood. This is anti-nuclear ideology gone crazy. Nuclear electricity after even a worst case triple meltdown is way safer than wood and cattle dung.

I could produce a very, very long list of things far more dangerous than a triple meltdown, but let's just consider one last very relevant example. The Fukushima cancer rock is much smaller than the 500 per cent rise in bowel cancers which occurred in Japan over recent decades after they added red and processed meat to their diet. That's a detectable increase of about 80,000 bowel cancers every single year. Now, that's one mother of a rock!

There's one last wrinkle to iron out of the story. The ripple calculations assume you lob a rock into the pond. One rock, one ripple. That's how radiation models work, because they are based around the exposure of people during the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, where all the radiation was received in one burst ... one rock.

But the Fukushima radiation wasn't like that. It wasn't one burst, one rock, it was more like a handful of gravel and the ripple calculations were done as if it was a rock. The WHO did it this way so that nobody can accuse them of underestimating the risks. They were obviously not worried about scaring the hell out of anybody by overestimating the risks. They should have been.

The other explosion

Compare the Chiba refinery fire with Fukushima.

Never heard of it?

The same quake and tsunami which crippled the Fukushima reactors caused a massive explosive fireball at the Chiba oil refinery. It was a far more spectacular explosion than those at Fukushima, but it appeared once on the evening it happened and then vanished.

The heroism of the firefighters who battled for almost a fortnight to extinguish the blaze went unnoticed. The fire blanketed a vast but unmapped area with carcinogens and otherwise toxic compounds which will send a ripple of future disease and deaths through a huge area.

How big a ripple? Maybe some academic somewhere will start collecting data, but probably not. It was just another accident in the wave of carnage that swamped that part of Japan.

There was no mass evacuation and people just got on with rebuilding their lives.

Was the refinery company to blame? Did they fail to design for such an event? There may well be enquiries and plant redesigns, as there should be, nobody wants events like this. But the global media circus won't report any of it, they'll have moved on. That's just boring techo stuff. Not exciting, mysterious and scary like radiation.

Nuclear ignorance

In summary, while nuclear meltdowns can kill, neither they, nor anything else, can cause atomic explosions at nuclear electricity plants.

Australian nuclear ignorance becomes even more disturbing when you look at the breakdowns. Among younger people 18 to 34, only 7 per cent are sure of the truth. By voting intention, Coalition voters score best of a bad bunch with 14 per cent being certain of the truth, then follow the Greens, Labor and "Other" at 11 per cent, 10 per cent and 7 per cent respectively. Tasmania topped the states for the highest level of the deepest ignorance with 41 per cent being definitely certain that reactors can explode like atomic bombs, with the ACT not far behind on 38 per cent.

Not understanding nuclear energy isn't, in itself a problem. More than likely 90 per cent of Australians probably don't understand the basic principles behind microwave ovens or global positioning satellite systems. But it becomes a problem when false beliefs drive a palpable fear which influences national policy and scuttles an effective response to climate change.

If you think that nuclear electricity plants can explode like atom bombs, then it's not unreasonable to think that numerous plants means occasional atomic explosions and that this might even be a bigger risk than climate change and this is exactly what the Virulent Ideas poll found. One false belief can ripple like a domino of ignorance though a group.

You could have Fukushima style meltdowns on an annual basis and still not come remotely close to matching the devastation of a single climate induced food shortage or cyclone. Cyclone Nargis killed 140,000 people in 2008 and the Pakistan floods of 2010 displaced 20 million. These are the scale of event that should be driving our climate policy, not tiny ripples in the pond.

If you are interested in the full poll results please contact Ben Irvine at Virulent Ideas

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