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facts about Nuclear Energy: Issue 2: waste and radiation

Like most people I believed that radiation from nuclear power stations, and nuclear waste, were dangerous and potentially deadly if not handled correctly. This has been the mantra delivered to people over the last 40 years.

However, whilst I was told largely by people with "green" political opinions that Chernobyl killed 500,000 people and that nuclear waste remains deadly for millions of years, I also read that Chernobyl killed 56 people and that nuclear waste is no more harmful that the uranium ore it was derived from after 1000 years.

Who is correct?

Well, in fact, both opinions could be seen as correct when viewed with a context, so that context needs to be established.

Some particles in nuclear waste do indeed remain deadly for millions of years, but only if they were ingested in signifcant amounts and it is hard to imagine how that could ever happen. Nuclear waste is solid matter that consists of all elements mixed together so the average level of radioactivity of a block of radioactive waste is no more harmful than naturally-occuring uranium ore after 1000 years. That doesn't take away from the fact that some elements within it are harmful to human health (though not necessarily"deadly") for millions of years, but only if we assume that we will never find a cure for cancer in that time. For all we know, within 500 years we'll be able to transplant our conciousness into a new body so worrying about the danger of radioactive particles in 1 million years time seems worrying about nothing.

Further to that, though, is quite how "deadly" radioative waste actually is. I read this article by James Lovelock, http://www.ecolo.org/lovelock/Nuclear_lifeline_en.pdf in which he describes quite how dangerous nuclear waste is not:

"even if you found yourself right beside some un-shielded fuel taken out of a reactor one day ago, you would still have two minutes to get away virtually unharmed: it had been taken out a year ago you would have five hours"

For me, this puts a very different perspective on the supposed dangers of nuclear waste than the one I had believed before. Nuclear waste, then, is deadly in the same way as asbestos, or bleach: only if ingested in large amounts, and this is most unlikely to happen, if not altogether impossible. Nuclear waste is simply not the danger that we have been lead to believe. Turned into solid matter and buried underground renders it safe as far as anything can reasonably be expected to be.

As for the danger of radiation itself, it has become clear from reading several websites that the amount of radiation in the exclusion zone around Fukushima is less than the amount of radiation one would receive living in Cornwall. The reaction of the Japanese government would appear to be one of assuaging public fears rather than any genuine concern for human health.

Chernobyl is said to have caused 500,000 deaths according to many in the 'green' movement, but read closely and what they appear to mean is "500,000 people will have been exposed to higher levels of radiation than otherwise and this will affect their longevity in some way". Firstly, there is no suggestion that a small increase in radiation, such as you would get flying on a plane, shortens life in any way. But even if it did it ignores the relative dangers of almost everything in the environment - including oxygen which is carcinogenic - that can potentially shorten lives. There has been no statistical increase in radiation related deaths as a result of Chernobyl and the 'green' movement are simply scaremongering. They dislike nuclear weapons and see nuclear energy as its close relation and oppose it for that reason. It would be helpful if they just said that and didn't attempt to lie and exaggerate to make their case.