Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Nuclear waste storage

Now here is an interesting proposal:
A former Australian prime minister has proposed that the country offer to store the world's nuclear waste in its vast desert interior and use the money earned on environment and social welfare programmes.
Bob Hawke, who led a centre-left Labor government from 1983 to 1991, stunned political and business leaders when he made the proposal at an informal debate, widely reported in local media on Tuesday.
"What Australia should do in my judgment, as an act of economic sanity and environmental responsibility, is say we will take the world's nuclear waste," Hawke said.
"Australia has ... geologically the safest places in the world for the storage of waste," he was quoted as telling a gathering of Australian alumni of Oxford University.
Labor opposition leader Kim Beazley said the plan was not party policy but Tony Abbott, the conservative government's health minister, said it was a good idea even though the government was not considering importing nuclear waste.
"It is a visionary suggestion but unfortunately there are a lot of politics in this," Abbott told Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC) radio.
We absolutely need to have a more thorough public discussion of what risks are inherent in nuclear waste (both in dealing with the waste itself and regarding potential terrorist attacks) and what current and potential solutions are being considered. One often hears there are big problems but rarely is there any constructive debate on how these could be overcome.
Here is an interesting article on how dangerous radiation actually is:
The massive (some might say hysterical) reaction to the explosion in Chernobyl has its roots in the year 1958, when radiation scientists concluded that any amount of radiation could be dangerous and thus should be avoided. They had their data from the consequences of the nuclear bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They had calculated the doses that the people in different circles around Ground Zero had received and correlated those with statistics of disease and death. A straight line emerged, which seemed to confirm a dose effect relationship: the more radiation one receives the higher the chance of death.
Not completely, however. Some people had received an amount of radiation that was about 50-100 times the normal, natural, background radiation that the rest of the Japanese receive (about 2.5 milliSieverts/year). In this group of so called Habakushas (bomb survivors) they could not find enough cancer deaths to create a decent statistic that showed radiation is carcinogenic even at these low doses. So the straight line of dose and effect suddenly stopped. The graphic should have read: No more data available but instead the scientists simply assumed that the dose-effect relationship would continue: any amount of radiation is dangerous. There is no level below which radiation is safe (a threshold) it was claimed, and they called it the LNT-hypothesis for Linear No Threshold. So soon after the devastating explosions of the two bombs this reasoning may be understandable, but even at the time several scientists protested it. A scientist bases work on data, not on assumptions, they said, but they were ignored. The LNT-hypothesis still has no scientific basis, but it is nevertheless the rule and the major cause of the disaster that Chernobyl ultimately became.
In the past half century it became clear that there are many places on earth where background radiation is 50, 100 or more times higher than the sea level average of 2.5 milliSievert. Parts of Iran and India and China, the beaches of Brazil, parts of Central Europe, the southwest of France, Norway. In all these places epidemiological studies were started and they produced a remarkably consistent picture: the people there have either the same or a slightly lower chance of cancer compared to their less-irradiated countrymen. They live just as long or a little bit longer.
Studies among radiologists and workers in nuclear factories gave similar results: a little extra radiation is either harmless or beneficial. And the same goes for studies of accidental exposure: high levels are dangerous, lower levers are harmless or are even beneficial. Researcher Sohei Kondo found in Hiroshima and Nagasaki that some people have a higher life expectancy after the bomb and a lower chance of cancer. And in Chernobyl it is shown again: the thousands of liquidators -- the firemen and emergency workers -- have the same chance of cancer as the average Russian population (somewhat lower, though not significant). This is why Jaworowski is convinced that the 4,000 radiation-induced cancer victims will never materialize in Chernobyl.
Do read the whole thing. It is important to realize, as the author points out further on, that spending money on anti-radiation measures, where this level of radiation is not harmful, takes away money from other more effective initiatives:
Research has shown that the average amount of money a hospital in the US spends to save a life is $44,000. That implies that if you waste a billion dollars you do not have enough money to keep more than 20,000 people alive. These are the real ethics of radiation protection (or protection against any other risk). If you spend your money on small risks you have nothing left for the big risks. And that is exactly what radiation scientists have forced us to do. The rescue operations in Chernobyl saved lives at a price of $2.5 billion each, according to Jaworowski.
No doubt the numbers can be haggled over, but just to get a general idea, for each person saved we gave up the possibility of keeping alive 50,000 people in the US, or any other number of projects around the world that could have saved more lives. Maybe we need to rethink our priorities...

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