Mummy, mummy, there's a nuclear monster!
Go back to BED! No more stories from Auntie Fear for you
But these people are frightened! It's cruel to tell them not to be! Eh?
It is a total certainty that no child has or will suffer any such exposure. Occasionally, radio-iodine levels in water have been sampled at a rate which, if babies drank such water constantly for a year, they might achieve that one-in-a-million chance of dying decades down the road. No baby will be able to do so for a year, as radio-iodine stopped being produced at Fukushima when the cores scrammed a month back. Already, more than 95 per cent of what was there has decayed away into inoffensive xenon: in another month this figure will be well above 99 per cent.
As this is written, even these minuscule, barely-measurable health effects are disappearing. In only one village in Fukushima province does the tapwater remain above the can-a-baby-drink-it-for-a-year benchmark.
That's it – that really is it. You can forget all the rest of it – "radioactive water released into the sea" etc. None of that offers any measurable possibilities of harm – though of course, nearby nations are seizing the chance for a bit of fisheries protectionism and baseless consumer panic worldwide will surely hit Japan's fishing industry hard.
So why have the Japanese authorities raised the incident to a 7? After all, my god, this is the highest possible rating for a nuclear accident. Surely this must be serious?
Well, the Japanese government says it has done this purely on account of the calculated airborne emissions figure, an order of magnitude less than Chernobyl – or if you like, within an order of magnitude of Chernobyl.
In reality, the rise to Level 7 is a result of the constant badgering both from inside and outside Japan to the effect that the Japanese government is not taking this seriously. By calling it Level 7, the authorities are saying that yes, they assess the Daiichi situation as extremely serious. They really do care.
This is the problem that everyone faces, who describes nuclear incidents as they really are – that is, insignificant. You are accused of being heartless, of failing to care about or empathise with people who are terribly frightened. You have committed the same sin as bracingly telling a toddler that there is no monster under his bed and that he should go back to sleep.
Part of the problem here is that in the case of nuclear dangers it is rather as though the toddler had a mentally troubled aunt or uncle who, in addition to telling the kid fairytales at story time, insists that the monsters in the stories are real.
The people in charge of story time here are the media, and like many of us finding ourselves troubled by bizarro in-laws, the media fails – seldom really even tries, often enough – to prevent the mad aunt telling the kids rubbish.
The good old Beeb, for instance – Auntie Storytime herself – briefly denied the monster's existence a little while back: but then felt compelled to allow "the other side of the story" from crazy Uncle Greenpeace:
The accepted wisdom has been that the consequences of a catastrophic nuclear accident may be large, but that the frequency is low ... Given that only a few decades, rather than millennia separate the accidents at Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island it is clear that nuclear operators and/or regulators are significantly underestimating the inherent risks ... in the EU, renewables installations provided the majority of new capacity in 2008 and 2009 ... the ongoing disaster at Fukushima has highlighted the environmental, societal and economic impact that nuclear power can have in extreme conditions.
Actually as we have seen the consequences of a "catastrophic" nuclear accident are either zero (Fukushima, Three Mile Island) or minuscule (Chernobyl actually killed fewer than 60 people). Nuclear is far and away the safest means of generating power, with deaths per terawatt-hour a tiny fraction of those resulting from low-tech means such as coal and wind.
Renewables plants did indeed provide most new capacity in the EU – but in fact most production came from new gas, as renewable "capacity" is a largely meaningless figure.
Indeed, Fukushima has highlighted the impacts nuclear power can have under extreme conditions, but not in the way that uncle Froggatt says: environmental (nil impact), economic (slim to none impact – some 40-year-old plant written off a few years early, rolling blackouts mostly didn't occur and ended altogether yesterday) and societal (cretinous panic impact only).
Even the Guardian's famous treehugger George Monbiot rebelled in the face of the global idiocy, joining many another well-known Green before him in suddenly noticing a strong smell of coffee. But the Graun couldn't bear to tell the toddlers the truth straight: again, mad Auntie Fear was invited in so as to present a "balanced view".
Nobody dares to be so heartless as to tell the frightened toddler outright to go back to sleep. Baseless fear is coddled, tolerated, treated as understandable and reasonable – and often enough, wantonly pumped up in pursuit of fringe agendas or readership figures.
As for the INES nuclear incident scale and Fukushima's new 7 rating – the highest possible – you could draw various lessons from that.
But the only rational conclusion to draw is that an industry which can have an accident at the extreme top of its possible internationally agreed accident scale without killing a single person is already so safe that it probably deserves to relax its costly precautions quite a lot – rather than having them cranked up yet further, as seems all too likely.
If nuclear were allowed to be as dangerous as gas – that is, perhaps somewhere in the region of 400 times as dangerous in terms of deaths per terawatt-hour – there can be little doubt that electricity would become extremely cheap, maybe indeed too cheap to bother metering it for most users. Waste could be dealt with and supplies extended by many times by simply reprocessing fuel, something which the fearmongers have already managed to ban in many countries.
That would not only mean realistic prospects of low-to-zero carbon emissions: it would also mean no need to much care about the opinions of various unsavoury regimes around the world, or to funnel revenue to them to spend on weapons. Cheap nuclear energy would hugely boost economic performance. It would also offer effectively unlimited fresh water supplies, and realistic options for space travel beyond low Earth orbit.
Some of us at least are getting a bit sick of the idea that you simply aren't allowed to tell frightened people quite bluntly to act their age – and we're getting more than just a bit sick of irrational or unscrupulous fairytale-spinners making them frightened in the first place. ®
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