Physicist Chris Feetenby replies to Dr Peter Hodgson's arguments in favour of nuclear power
NUCLEAR radiations affect us all, and public awareness of the dangers of an increase in the background radioactivity has been great in the whole of Europe; in Britain we have been advised not to drink rain water because it might produce a slightly increased risk of cancer in years to come. This is a sensible precaution though on the borderline of being obsessive.
But, even without any accidents at nuclear power plants, the effect of nuclear power will be to increase the background radiation in a small • way. Large amounts of radiation will not be released suddenly into the atmosphere but there will be a steady overall increase with greater than average increases near the dumping sites for the nuclear waste.
The increase in background radiation is certain; it will be larger rather than smaller if (a) ,there is an increase in the number of nuclear power stations, (b) there are accidents at nuclear installations, (c) the dumping policy is not rigorously controlled. Although these increases are likely to be small they will be permanent. .
The Chernobyl disaster reminds us that plutonium with all its possibilities for warfare is produced as a by-product in nuclear reactors. In the Times of April 30 Ian Smart suggests that the design of the Chernobyl reactors is only comprehensible if considered as a means of producing plutonium for military (or further civil) use, as well as for generating electricity because its uranium fuelrods can be exchanged at any time, without shutting down the reactor. To produce plutonium suitable for weapons these fuel rods should be withdrawn and reprocessed within two years.
The optimum period for electricity generating is five years but then the plutonium would be suitable only for making further reactors, not bombs.
An article in the Guardian on March 14 suggests that before 1969 civil reactors in this country were used to produce weapons grade plutonium. Since then, in the UK, civil and military reactors have been sharply distinguished. Our military plutonium comes from two special reactors at Calder Hall and Chapelcross (which produce some electricity as a byproduct). However, we must remember that it would produce some electricity as a byproduct). However, we must remember that it would be possible to shut down a civil reactor within two years of refuelling and recover weapons grade plutonium. In the end it would be the integrity of the Central Electricity Generating Board which would prevent this.
It ought also to be remembered that, quite apart from any radioactive properties, plutonium is a highly toxic chemical and although the aim of reprocessing should be to recover all of it, yet some of it escapes into the environment.
Actual situations may fall short of the ideal. The Observer of February 28 carried reports of an escape of a plutonium mist in February 5 and, even more alarmingly, suggested that "large amounts of plutonium were deliberately discharged into the Irish sea between May 1952
and March 1953". We must count ourselves fortunate that the Chernobyl accident does not seem to have polluted the environment with plutonium.
Radioactive Iodine-131 has probably become the best known of the products of the fission process which releases the energy from uranium. It can be very dangerous, but it is short-lived. Some of the other radioactive products remain dangerous for thousands of years. The dangers of a large release of these into the atmosphere are obvious but the
alternative of storage for this period of time is not without its hazards.
The allocation of sites for disposal over this time scale provides a major new problem; once the waste is there we are burdened with it for the rest of our lifetime and many future generations will be affected by our decisions. The disadvantages of acid rain from sulphur in fossil fuels and of the heating up of the earth by the "greenhouse" effect produced by carbon dioxide from burning anything with carbon in it are quite insignificant in comparison with the disadvantages of radioactive materials.
The contamination of hundreds of miles of country round about a nuclear accident poses all the problems of background radiation discussed at the beginning of this article in a much more acute form. The worst reports from Chernobyl seems to suggest that an area the size of Britain was seriously affected. The explosion (caused by chemicals but releasing radioactivity) gave rise to deaths within the immediate vicinity but this wider area will have been affected in a less obvious way.
There will be extra deaths from cancer over the years and, most seriously, the ground will be contaminated so that crops cannot safely be grown for many years. Such an accident in Britain would have a major effect on our well-being and survival as a world power.
An accident of this kind must not be allowed to happen. Much has been made of the superior design of Western reactors but as pointed out in the Observer of May 4 some of our oldef reactors do not have the containment buildings which would have reduced the scale of the Chernobyl disaster.
The hope for the future must surely lie in the development of power from fusion. This is a quite different process from fission and, at present, energy can only be released from it (by mankind) in an uncontrolled way — the so-called "hydrogen bomb". (The sun, of course, pours out its energy all the time by this means.) In the process of fusion the by-products are much less harmful and the supplies of fuel abundant — the heavy water which is present in all water, notably sea-water.
If we abandoned our nuclear power industry altogether we might not be in a position to put the technology into practice when it becomes available but I believe we should be putting our efforts into this kind of research and attempting to make our existing nuclear power stations as safe as is humanly possible. It would be quite wrong to commission any further nuclear power stations at present.