The nuclear spectrum

A radioactive syringe used for a PET scan.

Radioactive Syringe – Thirteen of Clubs (Flickr)

There seems to be an unwritten rule in the pro-nuclear corner of the internet that you do not talk about nuclear weapons in the same breath as energy production. Any pro-nuclear professional who links the two will be offered words of caution from their more wary peers, who go out of their way to avoid referring to nuclear weapons at all. Which makes sense, of course; if we want people to think positively about us and the services we offer we should of course talk mostly about the good that we do.

So we should really be talking more about medicine.

I’ve used this chart before, but it’s such an important point: the medical industry accounts for 14 times more radiation than the energy industry.

Pie chart on sources of radiation

Image by WNA

This stunned me at first, but it makes sense. Nuclear workers have plenty of resources, regulations and reasons to prevent themselves from receiving high doses of radiation… so they don’t generally receive high doses of radiation. Medical patients worried about cancer, aneurysms, spinal injuries or any of the multitude of conditions nuclear medicine can be used to diagnose or treat will generally agree to receive higher doses of radiation than usual. There are far, far more worried medical patients than careless nuclear workers, hence medicine accounting for so much more radiation than energy.

Fourteen times though. That’s huge! Why don’t we talk about this more? I didn’t even realise nuclear was used in medical procedures in any capacity until I started working in the nuclear industry. Why didn’t I know that?

We need people to be aware that nuclear power plants are part of a spectrum of nuclear technologies. To the right, nuclear medicine. To the left, nuclear bombs. And, there in the middle, the nuclear reactors currently and indisputably producing reliable, low-carbon power around the world.

A spectrum of nuclear applications with a mushroom cloud to the left, reactors in the centre and stethoscope to the right.

The nuclear spectrum, artistic rendering by me

Nuclear accidents belong to the left of centre. Nuclear is an industry and industrial accidents happen. We’re not proud of them and we do our very best to minimise them, but when they happen despite these efforts we should highlight the importance of acknowledging and learning from any mistakes without writing off the whole spectrum.

Gen IV reactors, on the other hand, should go to the right of centre. These technologies are expected to build on the standards of safety, reliability and efficiency the current generation of reactors has set, in the way new iPhone models are expected to constantly improve on the previous generation (which will continue to work just fine for quite some time after the new model is released). They are designed to be nuclear energy enhanced, but we should not focus on them to the exclusion of all other nuclear technologies.

As things stand, the public sees only the centre and left of this spectrum. When we face news reports of accidents, problems or even speculation, it’s tempting to tell people not to worry, that Nuclear Power: New and Improved! is right around the corner and this time of such negative press will be over as soon as Gen IV is embraced. I think it’s good to present nuclear power as a field on the cutting edge of energy production, it helps if people know that nuclear energy technology is still evolving to give us more choices. However, we will face serious problems if the general public decides only a small part of the spectrum is acceptable.

If we gain people’s trust and support for only a narrow group of technologies, we will lose them forever should any of those technologies ever prove to be flawed. In that scenario, the first accident at a Gen IV reactor would see a furious resurgence of anti-nuclear sentiment. And, if we’ve sold them nuclear energy on the basis of “That one is bad, but this one is good!” then frankly we will deserve to lose that trust. In the same way people understand that the weather or food or transport each covers a wide range of possibilities containing different risks and rewards, we need them to accept that nuclear is as related to healing as it is to destruction, if not more so.

We currently have a very accessible talking point through the Ebola outbreak. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which provides an inter-governmental forum for nuclear science and technology, has stepped in to support those trying to manage the outbreak. They offer diagnostic machinery to affected African nations that will allow Ebola to be detected in hours rather than days. There are other ways the nuclear industry can help, such as by providing suitable protective equipment and training in how to safely put it on and take it off. Healthcare workers are contracting Ebola due to insufficient experience in this area; protecting its workers from unseen contamination is a skill at which the nuclear industry excels.

Nuclear medicine adds essential nuance to a technology too often reduced to black and white, right and wrong. For example, there is a global shortage of medical radioisotopes right now which has already deprived too many of diagnosis and treatment, but is a topic near-absent from the climate change-driven discussion around nuclear. ‘Nuclear vs. renewables’ rhetoric just doesn’t take medicine into account, though it does bring up nuclear weapons through such phrases as ‘proliferation concerns’ and ‘security risks’. This is unbalanced. We need people to understand that demanding an end to nuclear means demanding an end to all nuclear, including the part that saves lives (and travels through space, and detects fire and desalinates water).

The rallying cry to shut down all reactors in the world should be weighed up as the life-threatening decision it would be, which is more likely to happen if nuclear were associated with medicine as strongly as it already is with weapons. “End the nuclear age” probably doesn’t seem like such an ethical demand in the face of cancer survivors who owe their lives to radiotherapy. Nuclear is not a single-issue technology and there are multiple reasons to continue working with it. Medicine is a particularly persuasive one.


2 responses to “The nuclear spectrum

  1. millysievert – thank you for starting your blog and for your very engaging perspective on things nuclear. I came across a very interesting video, The Future of Nuclear Technology … After Fukushima ( with Alan Waltar, former president of ANS, presenting at the Beckman Center. It’s a major overview of all nuclear technologies and their economic impacts. I think you would enjoy it, and you might consider embedding it in a post with your comments.

    I look forward to learning more about things nuclear as you discover them and post them here.


  2. Pingback: The most important thing about radiation | Nuclear Layperson·

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