There have been no fatalities yet as a result of the explosions and resulting radiation leaks at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant, although some of the heroic workers have been injured. Compare this with he death toll from the 11th March 2011 earthquake and tsunami which is sitting at over 14,000, with a further 13,000 still listed as missing; it is likely that the final death toll will exceed 25,000. Even so, this is only a tenth of the number killed in the earthquake and resulting tsunami that struck in the Indian Ocean on the 26th of December 2004. Why then are we so obsessed by the fate of the nuclear plant rather than about all those others who perished from a nasty trick of nature, or all those displaced and struggling to scratch an existence?
On the 25th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, in which 56 people died as a direct result of radiation exposure, the anti-nuclear lobby has hit fever pitch. Official estimates by the Chernobyl Forum, a group which includes the International Atomic Energy Authority, the World Heath Organisation, United Nations Environmental Programme amongst others, put the long term death toll which could be linked to the accident at 4,000. Compare this with the 4,749 killed in China's coal mines in 2006 alone. Greenpeace put the estimated death toll at 100,000, which is horrific, but similar in number to coal miners which have been killed over the past quarter century.
And what of the environmental impact? The long term exclusion zone is only 30km around Chernobyl, less than 3,000 square kilometres, within which wildlife has undoubtedly been affected by radiation. Compared this with 28,000 square kilometres and 2,100km of coastline affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, some of which is still affected by residual oil some twenty years later, and Deepwater Horizon was much bigger.
So the worst Nuclear disaster the world has seen is no worse in terms of fatalities or environmental damage than more traditional energy sources such as coal and oil and the risk of another Chernobyl or Fukushima are very low: lessons have been learned from Chernobyl and the same design flaws which allowed it to melt down are not present in western reactors or more modern reactors and the Tsunami that hit Fukushima has been estimated as a 1 in a thousand year event.
The carbon dioxide emissions are much lower than for fossil fuels so why doesn't the environmental movement, which relies on rational, evidence based science to support the idea of climate change and the need to act on it, not use the same sound scientific and engineering principles to support new nuclear power stations?
There are two principle environmental reasons: fuel and waste.
Relatively small quantities of Uranium are required to fuel nuclear power stations, however extraction can lead to environmental pollution. Substantial quantities of rock needs to be excavated to extract the useful Uranium and this spoil can contain radioactive material. In Australia and Canada, where much of the world's Uranium is mined, the control of this spoil, and the extraction process in general, is supposed to be to a high standard (ISO14001).
By far the greater problem is that of waste, particularly the high level waste such as spent fuel rods, which contain material with half lives measured in tens of thousands of years to tens of millions of years. Storage for these materials has still not been developed beyond the basic concept of deep geological storage. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority(NDA) is currently spending around £4billion per year on managing the waste legacy, building ground level repositories and decontaminating sites in what can only be considered a temporary measure. Time scales for completing this exercise range from 70 years to 100 years and will allow some sites to be put to new uses while others will retain waste repositories. The projected cost for this is over £40billion according to the current NDA strategy.
These decommissioning costs are not included in the costings for new nuclear power stations, since the ultimate long term waste storage solution has yet to be developed, and this gives the impression that nuclear power is cheaper than the whole life cost would suggest.
In my opinion, this remains the one major technical or environmental barrier to development of new nuclear power stations to replace those coming off line in the coming decade. If this problem can be solved and the whole process from cradle to grave properly controlled then nuclear power could well provide the cornerstone of a low carbon future. If.
Post Script: A more detailed discussion of the damage done by radiation exposure from nuclear accidents and other sources is presented here: http://www.carboncommentary.com/2011/03/29/1888#more-1888