Nuclear fission, like any other energy source, carries benefits and risks. In discussion on future deployment of different sustainable energy sources, the commentary in this blog has placed a lot of emphasis on the rational weighting of factors such as: (i) lives lost per unit of energy delivered; (ii) costs expended and opportunity losses; (iii) reliability and stability for electricity provision, including essential services; (iv) risks of catastrophic failure of technologies (e.g., hydro dam burst, nuclear meltdown, fossil fuel explosions, super-volcano wipeout of solar capacity, etc.), (v) ability of different technologies to effectively mitigate anthropogenic global warming and close down fossil-fuel power stations [perhaps the most important single factor]; (vi) security of fissile material; (vii) …and so on.
However, there is one topic, related to the above, that has never been broached here. I was reminded of this recently by Geoff Russell:
About the only criticism of nuclear power that still carries any weight with me is the issue of what happens to a nuclear plant when civil order breaks down. I envisage something like Toshiba batteries all over remote areas of the planet or in clusters in not-so-remote areas but want to know more about what happens to a bunch of such batteries around Kampala during a coup or civil war. I figured a specific BNC thread on the issue might be helpful.
The recent riots in the U.K. — a small-scale example of civil disorder, shows that such examples of societal breakdown are not inconceivable. The most likely significant event is during open warfare, however, as Geoff pointed out. How vulnerable would current nuclear installations be to an invading army, for instance? Would they try to destroy them (in order to spread panic among the populace), or preserve them for the use of the occupying force? If civil society broke down, who would close down and secure the nuclear power stations? In the greater scheme of things, would this even be a high priority? Are there examples of wars in the last 50 years in which the invaded nation had nuclear power plants?
I frankly don’t have any ready answers. I suspect that some technologies would be far safer than others in such circumstances — for instance the Toshiba 4S batteries that Geoff mentioned would be self-cooling and buried underground. Tom Blees, in Prescription for the Planet, noted the following:
Though terrorism had always been a safety consideration even before its recent prominence in the public consciousness, there are several design features that can be utilized to make the reactor complexes essentially terrorist-proof. As with the European Pressurised Reactor, the containment building can be built to withstand a direct hit from a fully fueled jetliner. A web of heavy cables can be suspended like a net above the containment and control structures, which would preemptively shred any incoming aircraft even before it made contact. But even better than that would be to simply mound earth over the critical structures [such as a next-generation reactor like the Integral Fast Reactor] once they’re built, effectively keeping them above the water table but nevertheless taking advantage of the structural impregnability of massive amounts of earth. Building such a structure with its sole ingress being via blast doors would make it virtually impervious to terrorism of any kind…providing security even against crashing airliners and all but the most formidable burrowing bombs.
There is an alternative way to look at this issue, of course.
Consider some of the major conflicts over the last century and what motivated them: the regional wars between Iraq and Kuwait in 1991, Germany’s invasion of Russia during World War II, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and its annexation of China and parts of Southeast Asia in the 1930s and 1940s, and so on. They were energy and resource wars – evidence that nations have, historically, resorted to war when the fuels and materials critical to their economic well-being are threatened.
Imagine the pressures for conflict in a future where oil is running short and climate change is causing shortages of clean water and productive agricultural lands.
Nuclear power offers us the opportunity to avoid future energy shortages and also move beyond today’s situation where a few geologically fortunate nations have the lion’s share of the world’s oil, natural gas and coal.
Nuclear power is an incredibly concentrated form of energy which will last for millions of years once the awesome potential of fast reactors and liquid fluoride thorium reactors is fulfilled. This offers humanity’s best hope of an equitable energy future, with the resources to solve the really tough environmental problems of this century and beyond.
Finally, it is worth considering where we can make the greatest carbon and energy gains before tackling complex and politically laden nuclear weapons proliferation issues. The 40 nations with commercial nuclear power also produce 84 per cent of global carbon emissions. This figure increases to 58 countries covering 93 per cent of emissions if we include countries like Australia with research reactors. Deploying new nuclear reactors in these countries, all of which are already technically capable of producing weapons if they so choose, would be a minimal extra proliferation risk. So, we can solve more than 90 per cent of the current carbon pollution problem before the issue of deployment in potentially risky or unstable nations is even considered.
Conclusion: we should move people out of downtown Tokyo into the highest radiation centers to reduce years of life lost. Living with air pollution is worse than living with radiation contamination. This is true even if you believe LNT and more true if you believe low levels of radiation are hormetic.
Anyway, I look forward to your thoughts on the risks of nuclear energy in times of civil disorder — how problematic, how bad relative to the alternatives (might their failure trigger disorder?), and what measure can be taken to minimise risks?
Filed under: Nuclear