Defending Science at the Expense of Reason

In The Irish Times (21 April 2011) William Reville wrote that he has ‘become convinced that we should add nuclear energy to Ireland’s mix of power generation technologies’. He then goes on to outline information that is ‘pertinent to the current debate on nuclear energy’.


He begins by explaining how relatively harmless the Chernobyl disaster was by citing statistics from the United Nations Sub Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR).


According to the figures 30 workers died in the first few weeks. 100 workers were seriously injured. Up to 2005, 4,000 thyroid cancers were recorded in children and adolescents. According to Reville 99% of these were treatable but 15 victims died. Apart from these deaths and injuries the UNSCEAR report cited by Reville suggests that ‘the health effects of the Chernobyl accident were very small’.


There is, Reville writes, ‘no evidence of any major public health impact attributable to radiation’. He defends his argument for nuclear power in Ireland on the basis of a lack of scientific evidence for health effects. He is not, however, in any way curious or critical with regard to how this evidence is produced. There is controversy surrounding the UNSCEAR report that Reville quotes with such authority.


There is also, behind all of these claims, a real lack of knowledge. Nobody knows the long-term effect of low-level radiation exposure for an entire population. The ‘scientific evidence’ cited in The Irish Times is based on models constructed from past observations of radiation victims, largely victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which are not directly comparable. In the UNSCEAR report, cancer and disease rates are assessed according to statistical averages for large populations. In a model like this a small population could suffer terribly from radiation poisoning without bucking the trend for a national or continental population. Their suffering would not constitute ‘scientific evidence’.


The hubris, and bankruptcy, of this argument is captured where Reville writes that ‘more than 300,000 people were evacuated from their home areas causing severe social disruption’. There were ‘massive economic consequences and vast numbers of people still suffer from psychological depression. They believe that ‘exposure to radiation has seriously damaged their health, even though there is no scientific evidence that their health is impaired’ Again, he is citing UNSCEAR.


The thinking here is bewildering. The disaster caused the permanent displacement of a third of a million people. It caused the creation of an exclusion zone of almost 9,000 square kilometers. It destroyed local agriculture and the economy. Yet Reville infers that people’s depression is only based on the belief that radiation has damaged their health. This is the logic, not of science, but of accountancy. Here, health is not a state of physical, mental and social well-being. It is the absence of clinically recognised pathologies in statistically significant numbers. The fact that people’s communities and livelihoods have been destroyed is negligible because the statistics do not bear out that their health has been affected by radiation. The inference seems to be that their depression is a product of scientific ignorance.


Reville then turns to Fukushima, the ‘second most serious accident in the history of nuclear power generation’. Beyond affecting workers, the disaster is ‘not expected to cause health effects generally in Japan. (in light of the UNSCEAR statistics on Chernobyl, the word ‘generally’ is important). The argument then takes a schoolboyish turn. The piece reports that the Japanese earthquake killed, according to most recent counts, 14,000 people. While ‘released radioactivity has not killed anyone’. This seems to imply that that ‘safe’ now means not immediately lethal. Long-term radiation exposure is safer than walking down stairs. This sophistry has been trotted out by a number of nuclear industry public relations speakers in recent weeks. Again, it is a blinkered bean counter’s logic, which would be funny if it did not have such traction in mainstream media.


Moving towards his conclusion, Reville mentions a European Union environment poll that shows Irish people to be only ahead of Portugal in our scientific ignorance. The Irish know ‘remarkably little about nuclear power’. Perhaps then we should get over our ignorance and superstition, like the depressives from Pripyat.


For those who don’t know, incidentally, there is also a safe solution for the management of nuclear waste. It can be buried underground, in a geologically stable location, for 100,000 years. I am sure that people living in the year 102,011 will honour the people of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries for bequeathing the care of their rubbish to them. Of course, the nuclear industry, despite its popularity with ‘right wingers’ has always, necessarily, been subsidised by tax payers. Asking generations to pay for the storage of your waste for 1,000 centuries is quite a subsidy. Anglo-Irish, and the other Irish bank bailouts, pale genuinely into insignificance.


In the conclusion, Reville offers his ‘opinion’ that renewable energy sources cannot answer Ireland’s energy needs. Interestingly, they are adequate for most of Spain’s needs but not for ours. Instead nuclear power has an important role to play in Ireland’s ‘mix of power generation mechanisms’.


Reville’s role as a journalist and academic is to promote an understanding of science. The natural sciences that have helped build modern society have their roots in the Enlightenment. They are based in a skeptical attitude towards authority, and the rigorous application of logic and reason. This article seems to reduce 'science' to the unquestioning embrace of new technology. It promotes the nuclear industry. It does little to promote the reason and rigorous open-mindedness that should be at the heart of science.