04/29/2014 08:17 EDT | Updated 06/29/2014 05:59 EDT

Why You Should Stop Worrying About Nuclear Radiation

Bloomberg via Getty Images
A Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) employee wearing a protective suit and a mask, center, uses a dosemeter as he measures radiation inside the central control room for the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors at the company's Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, on Monday, March 10, 2014. Tepco's Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant had three reactor core meltdowns after it was hit by an earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. Photographer: Koji Sasahara/Pool via Bloomberg

Editorializing in the UKs Independent newspaper in 2004, renowned scientist James Lovelock, shocked the mainstream environmental movement by voicing support for nuclear power: "Sir David King, the Government's chief scientist, was far-sighted to say that global warming is a more serious threat than terrorism. Nuclear energy has proved to be the safest of all energy sources," he said. "Its worldwide use as our main source of energy would pose an insignificant threat compared with the dangers of intolerable and lethal heat waves and sea levels rising to drown every coastal city of the world."

Lovelock said that worrying about getting cancer from nuclear radiation is pointless taken in the context of global warming. "We must stop fretting over the minute statistical risks of cancer from chemicals or radiation. Nearly one third of us will die of cancer anyway, mainly because we breathe air laden with that all-pervasive carcinogen, oxygen."

Other high-profile proponents of nuclear energy are Christine Todd Whitman, former New Jersey governor and head of the Environmental Protection Agency, respected scientist James Hansen and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates. In 2013, Academy Award-winning director, Robert Stone, made a controversial documentary called Pandora's Promise, which argues in favour of nuclear energy.

The film follows five leading environmental activists who had become pro-nuclear because they realized that the measures used to fight pollution haven't made a dent in climate change.

Pandora's Promise argues that the problem with nuclear is the outdated technology, developed when the Cold War raged, of light-water reactors instead of new-generation breeder reactors. A breeder reactor can run off of the fuel it produces at a higher rate than it consumes. It basically breeds. This fuel can be cycled many times through the reactor as opposed to the light water reactors, which have only one cycle.

The film makes the startling assertion that only wind turbines are safer than nuclear. It then claims that many more people are killed by air pollution from burning coal than from nuclear energy generation. Renowned earth scientist James Conca says "the poorly-considered drive to swap nuclear with natural gas and gas-dependent renewables will erase the recent benefits gained from replacing old coal plants with gas. " Even nuclear-skeptic Al Gore has started to come around to the merits of the new generation of reactors. On the seven-year anniversary of An Inconvenient Truth in May 2013, Gore said, "if they can successfully build these smaller, safer, passably safe modular reactors that come in smaller increments at an acceptable cost, then I think we could see a renaissance in the nuclear industry, 10, 15, 20 years from now." Westinghouse Electric will definitely be part of that renaissance.

The same company that made your blender and toaster started fuel tests for its Small Modular Reactor [SMR] in 2013. The SMR produces only 225 megawatts, far smaller than traditional reactors, but can be built in pieces and assembled on-site. Its containment vessel is 89 feet tall as opposed to a traditional reactor's 250 feet. The SMR is cheap to build because it uses standard turbines from General Electric rather than custom-made parts from overseas. The day may come when we embrace nuclear energy rather than shrink from it with fear.


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