Boris Johnson restated the UK government’s commitment to nuclear power. But of six sites identified for replacements for the country’s ageing nuclear reactors, three have now been abandoned, two are waiting approval and just one is under construction. So is it time to reassess our attitude to nuclear power?
Consider this conundrum: when you talk to climate scientists you quickly discover they are far more worried about the dangers of global warming than most of us. Some tell you privately that they have had counselling to cope with the psychological effects of knowing the world is facing an impending disaster and not enough is being done.
Meanwhile, speak to experts on the effects of ionising radiation and you find they are surprisingly relaxed about the risks low-level exposure poses to human health – certainly far less so than most people.
Despite the popular anxiety about this form of energy, it’s hard to see how the UK government can meet its carbon reduction targets without new nuclear. Not least because decarbonising transport and home heating will involve a massive increase in electricity demand.
You only have to watch HBO’s stunning drama, Chernobyl, to understand people’s fears.
Who could watch the power station workers’ bodies visibly breaking down as they lie in hospital and not be afraid of radiation?
You’ll be even more apprehensive if you venture down the online rabbit hole.
The estimates for the number of deaths from the Chernobyl disaster that you can encounter there quickly spiral into the hundreds of thousands.
Some studies claim a million people have already died because of exposure to the toxic plume that spread across Europe in the wake of the accident back in April 1986.
The real numbers
Any idea how many deaths can actually be directly linked to Chernobyl?
According to the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), 28 plant staff and emergency workers died as a result of radiation exposure.
There were also over 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer among people who were children or adolescents at the time of the accident. Fortunately, because thyroid cancer has a very good survival rate, as of 2005 only 15 cases had proved fatal.
And these deaths were avoidable, according to UNSCEAR. It says these cancers were caused “almost entirely” by the Soviet authorities’ failure to prevent people drinking milk contaminated with radioactive iodine.
But, even if we include them, according to the UN in 2005, just 43 deaths could be directly attributed to the worst nuclear disaster the world has ever seen.
The true figure for deaths that can be directly attributed to Chernobyl will ultimately be a bit higher than that, say radiation experts, but not much.
What about low-level radiation exposure?
But what about all the other people who were exposed to radiation, you are probably asking. The disaster at Chernobyl is reckoned to have produced 400 times as much radioactive material as the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.
Here’s what the UN has to say on that: “to date, there has been no persuasive evidence of any other health effects in the general population that can be attributed to radiation exposure.”