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Terry Pratchett and the nuclear energy debate


Frank Hughes, my favourite uncle (the one who shot the telly with his old service revolver in the late 1950s to demonstrate the principle of implosion to his children) once told me that one thing he’d had to do in his long career as a general engineer was to design a container for nuclear waste.

I’ve since been questioned on key points in this memory by my beloved, whose many decades of living with me, plus his training as a lawyer, occasionally moves him to question the reliability of my recollections.

‘I’m not in the dock!’ (My usual rejoinder in such conversations.)

‘No love, only the witness box.’

‘Well, he did shoot the telly! I remember Mum and Dad talking about it before he came over for a visit in the 80s. They were saying that it was only one of many examples of how he was mad but really, really clever.’

‘Yes, but even he wouldn’t have shot the working family TV set. Surely it was an old one that they didn’t need anymore. Probably in his garage gathering dust.’

‘There you go, puncturing my little bubbles again.’


'Since our esteemed Leader of the Federal Opposition has reignited the appetite for the dream of unlimited energy from atom-splitting, we have to think about the risks again. Is it more dangerous to keep burning coal and gas and oil and boil the planet than to have a few Chernobyls or Windscales? How do we balance such risks?'


‘Aren’t you the one who has to get all the facts right?’

‘Give me some chocolate. I need to think.’

Whether or not the telly that got shot plum spang in the cathode tubes was a working one with programs that annoyed the critic in him, or whether more economically sound considerations of old-TV-disposal prompted Uncle Frank’s science demonstration, the second part of my recollection is sound. He did design containers for nuclear waste that was to be disposed of in the Irish Sea.

I remember being scandalised. How could he let himself be mixed up with the evils of well, nuclear-anything? Nuclear was a thing we were marching about in the early 80s, whether it was against the prospect of nuclear war or mining uranium at Coronation Hill. We didn’t like it because it was dangerous in more ways than you could shake a non-proliferation treaty at. It had to be stopped.

‘How could you? Why did you accept the job?’

He never minded being questioned about why he did things. He liked to think freely and was the main agnostic in a large family that was legendary for devoutness despite never producing a single vocation to the religious life.

‘It would be a cliché to say that someone had to do it, love. And I wanted to make sure it was done properly. In the end I came up with a kind of bottle that has to last at least a thousand years.’

‘A bottle?’

‘Well, imagine a container that’s seamless except for the hole at the top through which you must insert the material. Then you have to seal it as perfectly as you can. And guarantee it for a thousand years.’

‘But isn’t radioactive waste dangerous for half a million years?’

‘By that time, darling, we sincerely hope that science will have advanced enough to deal with it. That’s the theory at any rate, and it’s the best we can do with a really bad job.’

‘But, OK, forget waste, what about the unsafe reactors? Aren’t you afraid that there could be a China Syndrome, a real meltdown?’

‘No darling. That’s why we have a thing called a SCRAM drop. If things go too far and it gets too hot, the rods just drop into the core. Ruins the entire reactor though. Very expensive. You’d only do it if there was about to be a catastrophe.’

He was, like so many in the nuclear industry, really confident that things could be managed safely.

I wasn’t, and still don’t share his confidence, but I adored him. We all did. He was safe and honest and did his best.

We had more reason than most in the North of England to hope that radioactive waste containers would last long enough to be a mere triviality to the splendid technological utopia of a millennium hence. In October 1957, the Windscale reactor pile in Cumberland (now Sellafield in Cumbria) had a fire that burned for three days and released a lot of radioactive iodine gas into the atmosphere. I was eight at the time and we lived just south of Manchester. Kids were most vulnerable to it, because being exposed to any radiation before puberty is a cancer risk and this one has had long-term effects on many people of my vintage. Thyroid problems can arise when prophylactic doses of iodine aren’t given. And they certainly weren’t given to anyone I knew at the time. Mustn’t have panic among the voters. The government was keen to sweep all discussion under rugs that got lumpier and lumpier as revelations filtered through. Many years later, I had to have my thyroid removed and I’m certainly not the only one.  

And now I remember that milk was contaminated too. Milk wasn’t safe to drink for months from the surrounding dairy farms, and so they poured all the milk into rivers and the sea because the strontium-90 that also came out of Windscale binds to milk, or at least the calcium in it. Cattle ate the grass and drank the water that was full of radioactive stuff. I suppose that it wasn’t really safe to eat fish from the Irish Sea for some time after as well, but I haven’t heard anything about that.

Yet here I am at this advanced age, still making a nuisance of myself and certainly not planning to die of radioactivity from the 50s. However, since our esteemed Leader of the Federal Opposition has reignited the appetite for the dream of unlimited energy from atom-splitting, we have to think about the risks again. Is it more dangerous to keep burning coal and gas and oil and boil the planet than to have a few Chernobyls or Windscales? How do we balance such risks?

This came up in 2007 when I had the pleasure of interviewing the late and wonderful Terry Pratchett, who in some ways reminded me of my Uncle Frank. A similar freedom of speculation, a steely attention to the basics of humaneness, and a great, even romantic, love of science.

We had a lovely chat about the environment, because in 2007 we had real reason to hope that because the new POTUS wouldn’t be a Bush, and possibly would be a Democrat, that some sanity would prevail in energy policy. After all, we all knew who should have been president for the previous eight years but at least Al Gore was about to tour the world talking about the inconvenient truth of global warming. So we were all going to rev up the renewables and save the world, weren’t we? Anyway, back then Sir Terry questioned my prejudice against nuclear energy.

‘What was the outcome for the entire population surrounding Three Mile Island?’ he asked me. (I do tend to get cross-examined a bit, and I hope it keeps me honest.) 

‘I dunno. What was it?’

‘Well,’ he said triumphantly, with the air of someone who had said this before and still enjoyed its effects, ‘The overall health of the population improved greatly!’


‘Well, the US government was so concerned that there would be endless lawsuits from people with every imaginable ailment that they provided special healthcare in that area for everyone for years after. So that population was much better off than the average American.’

Way back then, Terry Pratchett was already installing solar panels and energy-saving stuff in his own home. He told me that one thing that anyone can do to help reduce local heat signatures and improve the Earth’s albedo was to paint our roofs white. And yes, we did that and it makes a huge difference in summer. Our little brick veneer house is as cool as a stone church on hot days. I gloat about it a bit and annoy people. I just wish everyone’d do it too, instead of building McMansions with nasty hot bogan-black roofs.

Anyway, if one has to look at prejudices, I guess that I still have some, shall we call them misgivings, regarding the Hon Member for Dickson. I disagree with him quite vehemently on many things, but not on all things. As we’ve got older, tribal certainties of the left and right have faded. And just maybe he isn’t completely and totally wrong about nuclear energy.

And maybe getting old, losing bits of yourself and realising that humans are really quite wonderful sometimes as well as horrible at other times, is no bad thing. Seeing eye to eye isn’t always possible but sometimes perhaps we can stand beside each other and listen.

But if I ever get a gun I might just shoot the bloody telly.




Juliette Hughes is a freelance writer.

Main image: (Getty Images)


Topic tags: Juliette Hughes, Nuclear energy, Energy, Risk



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Existing comments

Thanks Ms Hughes, the arguments presented here are quite correct, insofar as they go.

Indeed, nations in the distant north of the world such as the United Kingdom, Russia and Canada should progress their nuclear programs with a view to phasing out fossil fuels as rapidly as possible. Happily, Australia is in a far more advantageous position.

With so much sparsely populated land, Australia can have all the nuclear power as it might want by simply harvesting the output of the great bit thermonuclear reactor up there in the sky at the nice safe distance of 93 million miles.

All we need to do is put out some solar panels, some wind turbines and the power transmission lines to distribute the power around the country.

This is far less expensive than the Member for Dickson's proposition that we might countenance nuclear power.

Rather than accept the proposition that the most expensive possible power generation technology (nuclear) is appropriate for Australia, I suggest you find out more about renewables and transforming Australia's power system? There's a website called "Renew Economy" where articles on this topic are collated, and you can arrange daily or weekly email newsletters from them.

Thank you.

David Arthur | 06 June 2024  

Juiliette I left home age 22 and we never had a Telly. Maybe 3 weeks once during the school holidays. At age 20 we got our first electric talking telephone. Which was hogged by my 4 sisters.
All this business about boiling the planet with coal as a resource is nonsense. The DFC (direct fuel cell) was developed 10 years ago at UQ and converts any grade of coal to energy without the need for combustion and the CO2 emission is 2% (which can be sequestered underground in salt caverns). Hence effectively zero emissions.
The problem has been no governments wanted to embrace the new technology or go to the cost of rebuilding the coal fired generators.
That aside, Japan has 33 operable nuclear reactors. Official figures show that there have been 2313 disaster-related deaths among evacuees from Fukushima prefecture. Disaster-related deaths are in addition to the about 19,500 that were killed by the earthquake or tsunami. But all 4 cores were written off.
That is the trade off.
Australia has enough coal in the Surat Basin alone to power the world for 2000 years. We also have invested heavily in renewable energy and batteries.
Acciona are in a JV with the Qld Govt to build a huge windfarm at Warwick. "In November 2022, ACCIONA announced the new 1,000-MW Herries Range Wind Farm will be built within the MacIntyre Wind Precinct, west of Warwick, bringing the precinct value to $4 billion, and the total amount of renewable energy to two gigawatts."
We should also be building tidal powerplants especially in the Kimberley. I think we should embrace Nuclear and the DFC.

Francis Armstrong | 11 June 2024  

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