Nuclear Power Isn't A Green Bullet


One of the loudest nuclear advocates in the land is Professor Barry Brook, a climate change scientist at the University of Adelaide who runs the Brave New Climate (BNC) website.

Brook has hundreds of peer-reviewed publications to his name and has expertise across a (growing) range of scientific disciplines and sub-disciplines. His interest in energy debates stems from his interest in and concern about climate change. He isn’t in any way connected to — or in the pay of — the nuclear industry.

When a scientist with the best of intentions and a prodigious intellect argues that the risks of nuclear power have been overstated and that nuclear power is an essential tool in the battle against climate change, his arguments need careful consideration.

The Brook/BNC mantra is this: "it’s nuclear power or it’s climate change".

However numerous studies exist that map out the options to sharply reduce emissions without recourse to nuclear power.

One of the most practical Australian studies was produced by a group of scientists for the Clean Energy Future Group (CEFG). It is practical in that it makes virtually no allowance for technical innovation, restricting itself to existing commercial technologies. The CEFG proposes an electricity supply plan that would reduce greenhouse emissions from the electricity sector by 78 per cent by 2040 compared to 2001 levels.

The CEFG study can be thought of as a baseline or a "worst case" study, because it makes no allowance for developments in important areas like solar-with-storage or geothermal power. University of NSW academic Mark Diesendorf, who contributed to the CEFG study, has proposed a more ambitious scenario that replaces all coal and gas with renewables.

Barry Brook has shown himself willing to trivialise the repeatedly demonstrated connection between nuclear power and weapons. He has slipped up on this, claiming for example that North Korea never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty although Pyongyang’s accession to — then withdrawal from — the NPT is central to the unfolding story of North Korera’s nuclear prorgram.

Brook claims to be concerned about nuclear weapons proliferation but the evidence suggests otherwise. Here is an example of his indifference: asked at a public forum what needs to be done to fix the safeguards system and what role he sees for scientists such as himself to help address the problems, Brook responded: "That’s a political and legal question and I have no further comment."

To get a handle on the proliferation risks of the nuclear "renaissance", if it eventuates, here are some figures:

• Of the 65-odd countries with a nuclear program of any significance (involving power and/or research reactors), over one-third have used their ‘peaceful’ programs to advance weapons ambitions.
• Of the 10 countries to have built nuclear weapons, six did so with support and political cover from their "peaceful" programs (India, North Korea, South Africa, Pakistan, France and Israel).
• About 45 countries have the capacity to produce significant quantities of fissile material (more or less depending on where you draw the line with small-medium research reactors), and a vast majority of those countries acquired their fissile material production capacity through peaceful nuclear research or power programs.

As former US Vice President Al Gore has argued, a major horizontal expansion of nuclear power will "run the proliferation risk off the reasonability scale".

Brook claims that the integral fast reactors (IFRs) he champions "cannot be used to generate weapons-grade material." The claim isn’t true. To quote George Stanford, who worked on an IFR research program in the US: "If not properly safeguarded, they could do [with IFRs]what they could do with any other reactor — operate it on a special cycle to produce good quality weapons material."

The misconceptions pile up. Brook states: "Prior to the Fukushima Daiichi accident, caused when a 14 metre tsunami crashed into a 40-year old power station in Japan, no member of the public had ever been killed by nuclear power in an OECD country."

However the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) has estimated the collective effective dose to the world population over a 50-year period of operation of nuclear power reactors and associated nuclear facilities to be two million person-Sieverts (it does not provide OECD figures separately). Applying a standard risk estimate (0.05 fatal cancers per Sievert of exposure to low-dose radiation) gives an estimated 100,000 fatalities. Whatever the uncertainties with the dose and risk estimates, and whatever the OECD/non-OECD breakdown, Brook’s statement clearly doesn’t hold up.

Brook states that the linear no-threshold (LNT) theory of radiation exposure and cancer causation is "discredited" and has "no relevance to the real world". However, the 2005 report of the Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionising Radiation of the US National Academy of Sciences states that "the risk of cancer proceeds in a linear fashion at lower doses without a threshold and … the smallest dose has the potential to cause a small increase in risk to humans." And one further example of many, a study published in the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences in 2003 concluded that: "Given that it is supported by experimentally grounded, quantifiable, biophysical arguments, a linear extrapolation of cancer risks from intermediate to very low doses currently appears to be the most appropriate methodology."

The professor gets it wrong on Chernobyl, too. He states: "The credible literature (WHO, IAEA) puts the total Chernobyl death toll at less than 60." However the studies he is referring to do not estimate a death toll of less than 60. He is referring to reports by the UN Chernobyl Forum  and the World Health Organisation in 2005-06 which estimate up to 4000 eventual deaths among the higher-exposed Chernobyl populations and an additional 5000 deaths among populations exposed to lower doses in Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine. (The Chernobyl Forum includes UN agencies such as the IAEA, UNSCEAR, and WHO.)

Still Brook is adamant that "nuclear power is the safest energy option". Safer than wind and solar? He could only arrive at that conclusion by using the nuclear industry’s methodology: only consider accidents at nuclear power plants rather than accidents across the energy chain; understate the death toll from accidents by several orders of magnitude; only consider accidents rather than routine emissions; and ignore the greatest hazard associated with nuclear power — its repeatedly demonstrated connection to WMD proliferation (most recently with North Korea’s use of an "experimental power reactor" to produce plutonium for weapons).

As the Fukushima nuclear disaster unfolded in March 2011, Brook maintained a running commentary in the media and on his website insisting that the situation was under control and that there was no reason for concern.

There was no correction until Brook had been publicly held to account for spreading misinformation. Andrew Bolt from the Herald Sun was urging people to read the "marvellously sane and cool explanation" from "our friend Professor Barry Brook".

Even so Brook wrote an ABC opinion piece in December 2011 which states that "no-one was killed by radioactivity from the event" and is silent on the problem of long-term cancer deaths from exposure to radioactive fallout (variously estimated to be "~100s cases" or "around 1000").

Many people concerned about climate and energy are wrestling with some enormous dilemmas about how to move to a less emissions intensive energy economy.

Some people live in a parallel universe where global warming is a myth, or clean coal technology is just around the corner.

Some people live in a parallel universe where the global transition to renewables is simple, cheap, and potentially quick.

Barry Brook lives in a parallel universe where nuclear power is benign, the WMD problem is trivial, nuclear waste is a multi-trillion-dollar asset, nuclear power is as safe and wind and solar power, ionising radiation is harmless, Chernobyl killed less than 60 people, and problems such as inadequate safeguards will magically fix themselves.

A longer version of this article can be read here

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