So you want to know why the Jetsons, Futurama, Dan Dare, Thunderbirds future never happened? Blame the nuke-fear mongers
Spent fuel recycling would enormously improve the economics of nuclear power. Not only would it mean getting much more energy from a given amount of uranium (this is relatively unimportant, as the cost of uranium fuel is a tiny proportion of the cost of having a nuclear powerplant), reprocessing would cut the amount of waste that had to be managed to a few per cent of present levels. Waste management is one of the major costs of nuclear power, so this would make nuclear electricity hugely cheaper.
Anti-nuclear activists, despite their dislike of waste, generally campaign against reprocessing – both to worsen nuclear economics and because it involves creating isotopes that can then be used to make nuclear weapons. The idea is that these might then somehow be stolen by inimical persons who would then somehow be able to make atomic weapons with them, or something. Such isotopes are of course already created routinely in national weapons programmes but the peaceniks have lost that political battle so they prefer to ignore this.
Meanwhile followers of internet debate have been intrigued by the case of Josef Oehnen, an engineering prof at MIT who wrote an email to a relative in Japan explaining that there was no need to flee in panic due to the Fukushima situation following the quake.
This relative posted the email on a blog and it was subsequently viewed by millions, spreading the sensible, properly informed reassurance that was so lacking in the days following the quake. (We should remember that even in the case of Chernobyl – far less Fukushima – it is now well known that needless fear and stress caused far and away more health and economic damage than radiation possibly could).
Some minor details in the email subsequently turned out to be mistaken, but its broad thrust – that there was no need to worry – turned out to be entirely correct. The technical description of boiling water reactors, radioisotopes emitted from them etc, was very sound.
Nonetheless Oehnen was subsequently persecuted mercilessly by fearmongers, environmental zealots etc. Various journalists "discovered" that he is not a nuclear engineer, and took issue with his private statement to his cousin that "there was and will not be any significant release of radioactivity from the damaged Japanese reactors".
In fact Oehnen is not a nuclear engineer. He is something much better for the purposes of analysing disaster consequences, an expert on industrial risk. And in the atmosphere of hysterical fear amid which he wrote, his assertion that there would not be any significant radiation release looks very sound indeed – given that nobody at all, not even any worker at the plant, has yet suffered any measurable health consequences from radiation released at the site.
We here at the Reg are still glad we linked to his assessment in the first days of the crisis, and that we early on reported the truth about Fukushima – that on the facts of the case it has been a triumph for nuclear power, not a disaster. We took a lot of flak for that, too – but unlike Dr Oehnen we're used to it.
We'd also recommend the excellent analysis offered by Wade Allison of Oxford university (an expert in both nuclear technology and risk) belatedly published by the Beeb, though sadly buried among scores of webpages and broadcasts of Fukushima scaremongering. Allison points out that at least half the problem in situations like these is the underlying principle of nuclear safety risk management. This is As Low As Reasonably Possible (ALARP) or Achievable (ALARA).
Thus such things as radiation dose limits or permissible levels of iodine-131 are not set rationally, they are set to be as low as they can possibly be. For instance, absolutely no measurable health consequences at all result from radiation doses of 100 millisievert a year: if everyone in the UK were subjected to such doses for ever, nothing – no extra cases of cancer, nothing – would happen.
And yet even nuclear workers in small numbers are only permitted to sustain doses of 20 millisievert annually – they can only go to 100 or 250 in emergency situations. Large populations are only allowed to sustain 1 millisievert/yr above normal background (itself already 2 or 3).
These mad, fear-driven, irrationally-low safety levels - multiplied in the case of food or water limits by regulations framed in terms of a year's consumption by high-risk individuals etc etc - mean that even quite minor situations like Fukushima produce "radiation levels x thousands of times the maximum permitted". Even the unfeasibly low amounts of plutonium now found at Fukushima – remember that this plutonium is causing the soil there to be about 2 per cent as radioactive as human bodies are – gets reported under headlines beginning with "URGENT". Even the insignificant levels of caesium so far found are such that many nuclear regulators would advise people to abandon their property because of them: the IAEA has said that Japan should extend the Fukushima evacuation zone, in fact, though sanity appears to be prevailing in Japanese government circles for now.
These crazy "safety" limits are the reason why nuclear electricity never became too cheap to meter; why we don't heat our homes and industry electrically and perhaps drive electric cars too, emitting no carbon at all (and funnelling no huge fossil-fuel payments to unsavoury tyrannies); why we don't today have nuclear-powered rocket ships able to fly to orbit cheaply without throwing most of themselves away, and nuclear plasma-drive cruisers capable of reaching Mars in weeks. In short, irrational fear of nuclear technology is what has stolen away the brilliant Jetsons-style future that was envisioned for us 50 years ago – and may yet steal it from our children.
If humanity can't rid itself of its primitive, hysterical fears – if people can't learn to cope mentally with actual powerful modern technologies more capable than fire and windmills and social networking – then we face a bleak, troublesome, mundane future indeed, one which will probably mean an end to human civilisation down the road rather than its long-term survival. ®
Some of you aren't going to believe this, but the comments on this story are not disabled intentionally - we are working to get them turned back on but are having technical difficulties. You can drop back into the previous Fukushima stories in the meantime if you like.