Andy Blowers looks at why radioactive risk generates anxiety and opposition to nuclear energy in the BANNG Column for Regional Life May 2021
What is it about nuclear energy that causes most people instinctively to react against proposals such as the new nuclear project at Bradwell? The answer is, it is all about RADIOACTIVE RISK, the anxiety created by fear of the incalculable effects of radioactivity on environments and human health and wellbeing. It is fear grounded in knowledge of the possibility, however remote, that radioactivity causes leukaemia, cancers, genetic mutation, injury and death.
What is Radioactive Risk?
Risk from proximity
There is evidence of association between nuclear facilities and leukaemia clusters and a well-known study for the German Government suggests the risk of childhood cancers increases with declining distance from nuclear power stations. And there is anecdotal evidence, too, supporting the idea of elevated risk from Bradwell, for example. That said, in general, the statistical evidence is inconclusive and, though there is a clear correlation this does not necessarily amount to a proven case of cause and effect. Even so, radioactivity does cause cancer and, therefore, anxiety from proximity to nuclear facilities is a natural, even normal, reaction.
Risk from accidental or deliberate release
Unanticipated, incidental release through leakage, human error or malevolent attack (including cyber). Nuclear accidents causing loss of life, damage and environmental contamination are far more common than is realised. The secrecy, security and cover-ups around nuclear facilities result in many accidents that go unrecorded or ignored such as the 28 year Tritium leak at Bradwell. There are landscapes of nuclear risk, sealed off and inaccessible, hazardous places such as Sellafield. I recollect the remark of a renowned radiation scientist with whom I was standing on top of tanks at Sellafield containing 99% of the radioactivity from spent nuclear fuel; ‘You could say we are standing on the most dangerous place on earth’, he said.
Low probability but high consequence risk of meltdown resulting in unknowable casualties, widespread health impacts, incalculable damage, destruction and contamination such as has occurred at Chernobyl, Fukushima and elsewhere. Such accidents are portrayed as unique events which ‘could not happen here’. But, they can and almost certainly will happen again, somewhere, sometime. It is the possibility, however remote, of something cataclysmic happening that strikes a latent but morbid fear among the population living in areas surrounding nuclear power stations. People well understand that the risk is vanishingly small but they also know that if a mega accident should occur at a power station nearby, death and destruction will inevitably ensue and the consequences will be long-lasting.
Most people have a view about nuclear power; very few are neutral or indifferent. Even at a national level, polls regularly indicate that well under half the population favours nuclear power. Locally, in areas where new nuclear power stations are proposed, opinion is more against. And, when people are told that highly radioactive spent fuel will be stored on site for at least 150 years the reaction is overwhelmingly hostile. At least this seems to be the case among the Blackwater communities.
A decade ago BANNG carried out a face-to-face petition all around the Blackwater to gather people’s views about a possible new nuclear power station at Bradwell. This was a prodigious feat undertaken over several months, talking to ordinary people about their feelings and opinions, door-to-door, outside shops, on beaches in villages and in town centres. While we cannot claim representativeness or statistical precision, our petition provided an opportunity for people to discuss their views and was a far richer source than any on-line polling could ever be. Altogether, we gathered 10,000 signatures from eighty per cent of those we contacted opposing the power station.
Why take the risk?
According to its developer, Bradwell B would make ‘a vital contribution to meeting the UK’s future need for low carbon, secure and affordable energy’ and would bring employment, investment and growth to the local area. The argument that nuclear energy is vital is crumbling as we speak. In terms of cost, timescales, safety and security, nuclear is a non-runner against the cheaper, more reliable and resilient suite of alternative and renewable technologies. If nuclear is not necessary then any reasons for taking the risk disappear.
Nuclear risk is avoidable risk; it is also a moral issue. The possibility of inflicting untold harm to environments, rivers, estuaries and coastlands, to human health and wellbeing must be avoided. The probability of imposing incalculable and potentially catastrophic risk on generations to come is, simply put, immoral.
The words of the BANNG petition, submitted just over ten years ago on February 11 2011, are as pertinent now as they were then. ‘We, the undersigned, wish to express our strong opposition to the construction of a new nuclear power station at Bradwell and the storage of highly radioactive waste on site.
We, therefore, demand that the Government reject this proposal’.