No blog from me for a while, apologies.
However, I have an article up on Spiked today about the real and metaphorical fallout from Fukushima. Last week, UK monitoring stations detected infinitesimal quantities of iodene-131 from the accident there, leading to some strange comments from politicians and the media.
‘Fukushima radiation from Japan’s stricken plant detected across UK’, reported the Guardian, followed by a half-hearted attempt to emphasise the HPA’s advice that there was no risk present to human health. This included repeating the HPA’s ‘warning’ that ‘radiation levels in the UK could rise’. However, it’s hard to construe as a ‘warning’ the advice that even raised levels ‘will be significantly below any level that could cause harm to public health’. This was followed by a story that Alex Salmond, the Scottish first minister, had claimed that the HPA had delayed publishing their advice in order to prevent causing embarrassment to the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment – headed by erstwhile chief scientific adviser to the UK government, Sir David King – which was due to make a public call for investment in nuclear energy.
I think this shows some of the limitations of contemporary politics, not just environmentalism.
I have to admit, I have been surprised at the absurd levels of radiophobia surrounding this accident. I was hoping to put the scale of the ‘radiation from Japan’s stricken plant detected across UK’ into some numerical perspective. Here’s the start of that attempt, which I didn’t put into the article,
A slightly morbid experiment often given to science students is to estimate the number of molecules of air in our lungs might have also been exhaled by some historical figure during their final breath. Einstein is a popular and poignant choice. The outcome of the estimation varies, depending on how much attention to detail one wants to pay and which assumptions one makes, but it’s possible to argue that in each breath we take, there are 15 molecules which were also present in Einstein’s last gasp. This would seem remarkable, except that there are approximately 40,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules in each breath we take.
It struck me, however, that if there’s anything rational really driving radiophobia, it’s not any actual risk that can substantiated which bothers the anti-nuclear lobby. Instead, like many climate-alarmists, it’s mere theoretical possibility that really panics them. This enters the nuclear debate, just as with the climate debate, via the precautionary principle. This, I think, can be best summed up as ‘risk-analysis without numbers’. It doesn’t matter how you populate any such calculation with actual numbers (ie ‘knowns’), its what you don’t know which weighs the most.
As I mention in the article, no doubt this comes across to many as ‘pro-nuclear’. But the point is not to extol the virtues of any particular means of producing energy. What is at stake in the discussion about how to produce it is the benefit it creates for us. Not just ‘us’ here in the west, where more expensive energy has a relatively limited impact (for the moment, at least, though I’m sure the increasing cost of energy will begin to start having much more serious material and social effects in the future), but also for poorer parts of the world, who will really have to suffer the effects of Western anxieties about climate and nuclear.