Recent events in Japan have reinvigorated the debate on nuclear power, so we invited Professor John McInerney from the Physics Dept. in UCC to give us a better insight into the subject. John gave us a wide ranging talk, covering the effects of nuclear radiation, the best known nuclear disasters, the future of nuclear power and the implications for Ireland.
“Microwaves in general are not harmful, including the ones in cell-phones and radars.”
Early in the talk, John dispelled with the idea of non-ionising radiation being responsible for detrimental health effects. “Microwaves in general are not harmful, including the ones in cell-phones and radars. Unless you cook yourself. If you stood in front of a 10KW radio antenna it would be bad for you. It would serve you right. That’s Darwin’s principle at work”.
He also had some bracing thoughts on fossil fuels. “We are very bad statisticians. About 40% of people are killed by cardiovascular diseases, another 40% are killed by malignancy. Most cardiovascular events happen prematurely simply because we are breathing particulate matter that’s drenched in organic compounds or tars or carcinogens of one kind or another, and that’s mostly due to the burning of fossil fuels.”
John explained that radiation is all around us and that most of it is man-made. We will get exposed to anything between 20 and 50 millisieverts each year just through natural sources of radiation. Nuclear power facilities are designed not to contribute in any significant way to this background exposure and there is no way that, even under the most extreme conditions, that a nuclear power station can explode in a nuclear fireball.
The talk then turned to the major incidents that have played out over the past few decades. On Three Mile Island: “Nobody was killed. There was no excess mortality. No excess cases of cancer as far as anyone has determined. But what happened? The US quit building nuclear reactors. They build coal fired power plants instead, which are a million times worse”. On Chernobyl: “It was the worst, the most unforgivable, the most sloppy, the most base, the most vile – it was a combination of many different things, none of which should have ever happened. Maybe a few hundred people died as a result of excess exposure in Chernobyl. It’s a tragedy but it shouldn’t be the reason to shut down an entire industry”. On Fukushima: “Compared to Chernobyl, it’s like night and day. A 1960’s type accident, using 1960’s technology. The reactor containment vessels did what they were supposed to do, but it isn’t normal to put the spent fuel pools right beside the reactors”.
“You’ve got to know what you are doing. You can’t have amateur crews. You should not cut costs. If anyone is running nuclear power, it should not be a commercial company.
Nuclear technology is not risk free. “You’ve got to know what you are doing. You can’t have amateur crews. You should not cut costs. If anyone is running nuclear power, it should not be a commercial company. There should be no profit motive. It should be run by the government. It should be run according to the strictest standards”. He cited the US Navy, the biggest operators of nuclear power generators by far, who are not known to have had a single accident.
Pebble Bed reactor technology was cited as something that Ireland could get involved in if the political will was there. Pebble Bed reactors do not require coolants or reactants and they cannot go on fire. But this is unlikely to happen anytime soon. “There is no nuclear power, or nuclear physics, or nuclear engineering programme in this country, and there won’t be until the government lifts this ridiculous legal restriction on having nuclear power. If you compare what happened – if you look back to the 40’s and 50’s – where there was rural electrification and the building of Ardnacrusha, and the government turned to the universities and said they wanted all these people trained for the ESB – we want to start electrical engineering departments – go for it. And this is why we are where we are today. They need to do something similar. They are not even having the discussion.”
“Do whatever you can – put solar panels on the roofs, conserve where you can. You are always left with a couple of gigawatts that you have to generate.”
John is a proponent of green fuels, but with current technologies they won’t come close to meeting worldwide demand. “Do whatever you can – put solar panels on the roofs, conserve where you can. You are always left with a couple of gigawatts that you have to generate. If you can’t use fossil fuels, you have to do something like this. It takes 20 years to build something like that, so if you are not deciding to do it now, by the time the 20 years are up and the lights are off, everybody is pointing fingers at each other. What’s the point? You are out of the game. You are back in the Stone Age.” He pointed to France, who have embraced non-fossil fuel technologies, including nuclear. “When the rest of us are in the dark, the French will be living the beautiful life”.
We would like to thank John again for speaking to us on this very important subject. It was a fascinating talk that deserves further discussion. We hope to have a video of his presentation up on our YouTube site in the next few weeks.