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Wednesday, 1 August 2007

The bogeyman of science, nuclear power

As the fourteenth (or is it twentieth?) declaration of a comeback for nuclear power hits the newspapers once again, Paul Guinnessy asks what stories should science journalists consider covering on the industry?

On a recent visit to the UK, I had lunch with some friends who work in the arms control community and who had a unique problem. One of their oldest members, a physics professor who had recently died had left a suitcase in their northern office, which they believed contained radioactive material. It had been in the basement for about 30 to 40 years. One brave soul put on a protection suit and opened the case while waving a Geiger counter around. Inside was a small piece of folded aluminium foil, which, when opened, contained a small piece of metal that caused the readings on the Geiger counter to go off the scale. A hasty conference shouted through the door led to the decision to reseal the foil, and the suitcase. Only paperwork that was deemed too sensitive to be read, was to be put next to the case while they figured out what to do, and whether the building needed to be evacuated during the suitcase’s removal.

Their response is a classic example of why science journalists are needed to help the public not to be scared to death about radioactivity. Radioactive materials usually consist of alpha, beta, and gamma ray emitters. Alpha emitters are very intense, extremely dangerous if ingested, but have a very short range. A sheet of paper can block an alpha emitter. Beta radiation has a longer range, but can be stopped by aluminium foil, while gamma radiation is more penetrating.

The fact that the radiation emitter in the suitcase was wrapped in aluminium foil suggests that it would be safe to pick up, as it was probably a beta/alpha emitter. Handheld Geiger counters are notoriously useless in telling you what radiation you are being whacked with, so seeing one go off the charts can sometimes cause unnecessary panic. In this case, the most important point that they forgot is that physics professors aren’t crazy enough to leave radioactive materials in the basement, unless they believe the materials are adequately shielded.

This then leads to the issue of the new interest in nuclear power. The planned resurgence of the nuclear industry in the UK is an interesting case where environmental, science, business, and political journalists will all be writing on various aspects of the unfolding story. Although the UK government appears committed to nuclear power, and the commercial sector claims to be willing to invest in it, unless the public is convinced that new power plants will be safer, cheaper and more efficient than their predecessors, it is unlikely that someone is going to build them. Over the next few months there will be a campaign to influence journalistic opinion one way or another. Both sides of the issue, the anti-nuke brigade and the pro-nuclear lobby, are going to be throwing statistics at journalists left right and centre.

How should science journalists approach this issue? What type of stories could they write about the industry?

Both sides of the nuclear debate have valid points (as The Guardian helpfully pointed out a few weeks ago), and there will be the temptation to just write a 'he says, she says' sort of article. But there is also an opportunity to do some interesting digging beneath the surface.

As many of you know, the domestic nuclear industry no longer exists, having dwindled as few or no reactors were ordered. Instead, the European company Areva, and three Japanese companies, Toshiba, Hitachi, and Mitsubishi, are the leading reactor builders. What expertise the UK has is is similar to its US counterparts, squeezing the maximum performance out of old reactors, by running them at higher temperatures and upgrading parts of the system to limit refuelling and reactor downtime. A look at this process, what did they do to improver reliability, is running an old reactor safer than building a new plant, might make a nice piece.

There is also the concern about whether nuclear plants will release radioactive plumes into the atmosphere, so a comparison with coal-fired power plants, which release radioactive plumes all the time, might lead to some surprising conclusions.

Other questions to ask are: Where will the UK buy its uranium fuel and uranium ore from? How do you create uranium fuel and what procedures are in place to minimize waste, both at the point of creation for the fuel, and after its been used. How long will a nuclear power plant have to be off-limits before you would walk safely inside a reactor? Are the standards for nuclear waste storage, particularly on the length of time the waste has to be contained, based on science? Or on an arbitrary number pulled out of a civil servant's hat? What are the scientific implications for the UK if Europe pulls ahead in nuclear power, and leaves the UK behind? Is there enough scientific and technical staff in the UK to build, service, or run new nuclear power plants? As the US no longer has the expertise to repair its own reactors and subcontracts the work to the Franco-German company Areva.

And for your business colleagues, who is paying the bills, investors, utilities, or the government? Who is buying up all the potential sites for the reactors, and was there heavy trading in the shares of those companies just before the government announced the new reactor building consultation process? There are lots of potentially useful stories waiting to be written about the nuclear industry. I hope this gives you some ideas towards writing some of them.