Last time I wrote about pesticides and how we are worried to death about 0.01% of the pesticides that we ingest (the synthetic ones) instead of the 99% which seem to be as bad if not worse. Another area which I think is often associated with irrational fear is nuclear power. The word "nuclear" seems to elicit a knee-jerk kind of reaction in many people. Take for instance Nuclear Magnetic Resonance imaging (NMR for short), a very powerful and quite safe diagnostic method. People were very reluctant to use this method, seemingly only because it had "Nuclear" in the name. In part because of this fear they have now changed the name to Magnetic Resonace Imaging (MRI for short), and the technology has been a major boost to diagnostics as well as to research.
The following arguments are to a large extent a reflection on Richard Muller's (see picture below) paper with the title "The witch of Yucca Mountain". I can warmly recommend the article but if you want the same information in video format you can go here and forward to 47min and listen to the rest of the lecture (it is very entertaining).
It is no secret that we are facing an energy crisis. I am personally not convinced that CO2 emissions is an important contributing factor when it comes to Global warming, however, the fact of the matter is that our fossil fuels will eventually be used up and when there is none left we will need a different source of energy. Fission of uranium and plutonium is not an endless source of energy, however, it would provide us with energy for quite a while. Yet many countries do not want to build these Nuclear power plants, largely because of what I think is irrational fear…
Before I encountered Muller I associated nuclear power plant accidents with Chernobyl (see picture). However, Chernobyl was not a typical nuclear power plant. Its design was the worst imaginable and as Muller explains in his lecture such a design is completely prohibited today. The worst case scenario for a modern nuclear power plant is the nuclear meltdown. For a meltdown to occur, it is required that 4 different independent security systems which are inspected regularly, break down simultaneously which is not at all likely. If however, the highly unlikely worst case scenario would occur, and the radioactive material would penetrate meters of steel and concrete and go into the ground and the gases escape we would still not have anywhere near the same levels of radioactivity that were present after Chernobyl because the radioactivity leaks out into the ground instead of being blown up into the sky. I can understand that people want Nuclear Powerplants to be safe, however, there seems to be some sort of obsession here. People seem not to worry about other types of dangers. What if a chemical plant blew up? What is the worst case scenario there? Or what about the laboratories where they deal with the Ebola virus, what would happen if all their security systems broke down?
There is also a major concern about nuclear waste. The plutonium waste coming from a nuclear power plant has a half life of about 24.000 years meaning that after 96.000 years 1/16 of the radioactive waste will still remain. The question which does not yet have an answer is, where are we going to store this waste? In United States, Yucca Mountain, a place with very few earthquakes, was chosen as an ideal storage site. If the unthinkable would happen at Yucca Mountain, and all the radioactive waste would leak out, it would still be in small non-water soluble glass-pellets, so it would not mix with the ground water. Furthermore, even if Yucca Mountain was filled to its capacity limit and all the radioactive waste leaked out into the ground water and then out of the pellets in which it is cotained (this scenario has already passed into science fiction), the water would still not reach even a fraction of the radioactivity levels present in the Los Angeles drinking water! The drinking water that the citizens of Los Angeles are drinking is from the Colorado river which flows through many valleys with Granite. Granite contains some fraction of percentage of uranium which is slowly dissolved in the drinking water, thus making it radioactive. Because there is no agreement on where to store the waste today, today the radioactive material is simply sitting in a building next to the nuclear plant, not an ideal storage site.
To sum up, instead of storing the nuclear waste in the safest imaginable location where it has virtually no chance of leaking out, and even if it would leak out it would not be a major disaster, it is stored in buildings next to the power plants, which is a much less safe location, all because of the irrational fear among the public.