Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Let's not Go Nuclear - The High and Hidden Costs of Nuclear Power

 

Post - Fukushima Anti Nuclear Protest - India 2011

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-NC

It must be time to dig out that old 1980's t- shirt again -the one that says “The Earth is Flat, Pigs might Fly and Nuclear Power is Safe.” Never one to waste a good crisis -the nuclear power industry is coming out in force to promote itself as the answer to climate change, the answer to looming gas shortages and soaring energy prices in Europe, in response to a UK summer that didn’t bring enough wind or sunshine and to the "unprecedented" floods in Australia.

In a perfect world, the new generation of small modular nuclear reactors might well be safer than previous ones, but we don’t live in a perfect world as will become abundantly clear. In a very unequal discussion on television this week, a poll was quoted claiming that it showed that 70% of young people in Australia would support the use of nuclear power against climate change. I would want to see who was polled, what information they had and how the questions were framed. I imagine that it would have said something like this. "If you could be certain that nuclear energy was safe, would you consider it as an alternative to coal and gas in order to prevent global warming?" 

Throughout the discussion I couldn't help thinking of Bertrand Russell's wise words:

 

 

Although I make no claim to be an expert, I take my advice from members of the Union of Concerned Scientists and others as indicated within the post. Here's what I would have, should have said if I had had the opportunity to reply.


The Case against Nuclear Power

1.       MILITARY THREAT

Only a month after the EU declared that nuclear energy would be regarded as Green because it doesn’t emit greenhouse gases (2/2/2022), we get an object lesson as to why this is a really bad idea. With Russia activating the nuclear waste at Chernobyl and attacking Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzia, in southern Ukraine, the demise of which would equal 6 Hiroshima bombs, we can see that nuclear power plants are not only a threat to national security, but a global threat, particularly if the west retaliates. Even without warfare Chernobyl continues to pose risks, despite denials by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Nuclear facilities of any kind would also be an attractive target for hackers and ransomware attacks -a concern for any large infrastructure project, yet with more far -reaching consequences

2.       NUCLEAR PROLIFERATION

The step from Nuclear Power generation to creating atomic military hardware is also short and there is little to distinguish between plants which is why Iran creating enrichment plants is of great concern. The more nuclear material and technology proliferates, the greater the chance of it falling into the wrong hands such as rogue or failing states, criminals or terrorists, thus increasing the risk to the rest of the world. As at October 2021, 9 countries had military nuclear arsenals which are enough to bomb us back to the stone age and 30 countries had 441 nuclear power plants between them, with by far the largest majority being in the USA. While the nuclear non – proliferation treaty seeks to limit the expansion of military nuclear capability, that for nuclear power is still expanding, with Finland being the latest the latest to add another, but with China adding the largest number.

 

                 3. ACCIDENT, SABOTAGE, POOR MAINTENANCE AND BAD ACTORS

Nuclear installations don’t even have to be a military threat to be an enormous health and safety risk. Aside from off -the -scale examples such as Chernobyl and Fukushima, there have been around 230 nuclear accidents around the world since the 1950s. Here are some others you may not have heard of.. Read more here or here. The Wikipaedia by country entry is also interesting because it shows some of the costs involved, some of the coverups and the frequent lack of maintenance. The Davis - Bess plant in Oak Harbour, Ohio for example, had several critical incidents prior to coming to public notice in 2002 because they were fined $28 million for negligence. This did not however, prevent continued breeches in future. As the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) remarked,  despite technological innovation, the risk of human error could not be eliminated from the operation of nuclear power plants. France should know. It has has quite a few serious incidents, as have other heavy users of nuclear energy such as the USA and Japan. The Fukushima#1 plant had an earlier reactor failure in 1978, but the public was not informed for 29 years. If this is what happens in technologically advanced countries what happens when poorer, less unstable countries without technical expertise, regulatory control and adequate monitoring decide to go nuclear? 

 4.       ECONOMIC COST – 

“Cheap Dreams, expensive reality, “ is how the Union of Concerned Scientists put it in 2014 -5.

Many members of the nuclear industry claim nuclear energy generation is a low -cost option. It isn’t. In 2019 the cost of building a nuclear power plant was estimated to be between $6 and $ 9 billion for a 1,100 Megawatt plant, assuming a suitable location can be found, along with abundant water for cooling. It also takes about ten years to build.

As well as the the initial capital costs of construction, it costs around $40m a year for the uranium to keep a small reactor going. Then there are costs for ongoing maintenance, processing, monitoring and storage of radioactive material. It costs the US government some $30 billion a year to store its existing nuclear waste, $18 billion of it from civilian power generation. Without all the subsidies, tax breaks and bailouts the US nuclear industry would not exist.It has certainly never been profitable nor has the energy from it been cheap. While the costs from nuclear power generation continue to rise, those for renewables have continued to fall, now making them not only cheaper, but safer.

In the event of an accident, the costs become very much higher. It’s been estimated that the costs for Chernobyl have exceeded $700 billion in the last 30 years, not counting the human toll and the losses due to contaminated land, abandoned homes and the like. 

The price tag for Fukushima has so far been estimated to be around $US 200 billion and is still ongoing with estimates continuing to rise. Approximately $60 billion of this is earmarked for very modest compensation for the 159,128 residents who lost their homes and all their possessions. Nor do these costs include the loss of whole cities, businesses and agricultural land. 

5.       SOCIAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL COSTS OF CHERNOBYL and FUKUSHIMA

One of the more vocal advocates for nuclear energy during the panel discussion, was quick to point out the very few immediate deaths from either of these events  -now around 50 for Chernobyl, 1 for Fukushima, compared to the long term health impacts of mining and burning fossil fuels. However, they neglected to mention the long -term effects of radiation exposure.

 A recent BBC report says that the death toll from Chernobyl is most likely far higher than previously indicated, far more than the original 31 casualties. For example, in 2018 Ukraine alone had 36,525 widows whose husbands were among the estimated 830,000  'liquidators' involved in the cleanup. Ukraine’s share of volunteers was 318,988. Others came from Belarus and Russia. Disability rates in the Ukraine have also increased from 40,106 in 1995 to 107,115 in 2018, as have the number of cancers. 

With respect to Fukushima, Japan has only reported 500 + cases of people dying post Fukushima and that was reportedly from mental distress as a result being relocated and losing their homes. One wonders what the death toll might now have been had 18,000 people not perished in the tsunami.

Deposition often occurs far from the immediate area thanks to high level air currents and tide patterns. Had the wind changed, Tokyo's 14 million residents would also have had to be evacuated. At Fukushima the radioactive exclusion zone now covers and area of 800 sq. miles and contamination continues to wash down with every rain. 

Following the disaster, the ‘allowable’ radiation level in Japan was raised to 20 times the normal limit allowed in the USA, so that large areas of contaminated land down the east coast of Japan would remain usable.  Radioactive caesium has been detected in a wide rage of foodstuffs throughout Japan from inland fish to tea leaves up to 200 miles from Fukushima. Caesium bioaccumulates in the human body and mostly accumulates in the endocrine and circulatory systems. The accident site is running out of space to store contaminated soil, filters and radioactive water which the power company plans to, or has already begun to release into the Pacific. Pools and storage tanks to keep radio active material from exploding are not only full but still extremely vulnerable to further earthquakes. When releases of nuclear material occur, they do not restrict themselves to national borders either. South Korea is concerned about the fish from the ocean around Fukishima. Many European countries were in the path of fallout from Chernobyl as may be seen in the video below. 

 


 

6.       OTHER HEALTH HAZARDS

There is also the risk of  leaks of radioactive materials from mining and transport. See for example the several leaks from the Ranger Uranium Mine into Kakadu National Park, a World Heritage Area, or the two at Wyoming’s Uranium mine.

Occupational  and Environmental Exposures

Living and working in or around Nuclear Power plants may not be all that healthy either. Though documentation is sparse, some 60 studies from Germany, the UK, France and Italy have shown that the incidence of childhood leukaemias is higher among those who live in the vicinity of them. 

We are told that the background radiation in a nuclear power plant is not worse than that from a chest x -ray, yet no one has a chest x -ray every day, day in day out for years and whatever happened to the precautionary principle? Non-cancerous diseases of the heart, and lungs were higher than the general population among power station workers in Korea, while cross country and longitudinal studies of power station workers exposed to low dose but long term radiation levels had higher mortality and morbidity from various leukaemias and other types of cancer. And yes, in response to one of the respondents in the above - mentioned discussion, these have been peer - reviewed and appear in the American Journal of Medicine.

7.      A SHORT TERM FIX WITH LONG TERM CONSEQUENCES

Although nuclear energy has existed in the USA since the 1950s, it has still not created a permanent, safe repository for the radioactive waste, most of which simply sits around in rusting tanks, some of which have already leaked into the surroundings and the water table. Click here to find out why this problem has not been resolved. Encasing in glass is one option. Another is to use concrete 'coffins' and bury them deep underground as Finland plans to do. Would they be impervious to Fukushima  -style earthquakes? Are they as permanent as we'd like to think? On the Wiki page about nuclear incidents (above) there's mention of a worker photographing underground storage near St. Petersberg with crumbling walls and cracked concrete, which isn't exactly confidence inspiring. Could Finland perhaps use those very deep excavations to extract geothermal energy instead? A pilot project is apparently in progress.


 

If nuclear power stations and mines in advanced economies can't even manage to keep present generations safe, what are the chances of doing so for the 10,000 years or so needed to render their nuclear waste harmless? We are like energy junkies looking for our next fix, regardless of the consequences.

It has been estimated that on present trends, Germany will have a 14% energy shortfall if it closes all of its coal mines and nuclear power stations on schedule. While it is imperative that coalmines do close to prevent further warming, surely some of that research money currently being spent on storage options could be spent to find less risky solutions. Why not move industries with high energy demand to countries such as Australia which have ample sunshine, wind and space? This could replace jobs which might be lost from the mining industry, though that figure has been grossly exaggerated. I saw one report which put the figure for potential employment in the nuclear industry at around 450,000 and that for renewable energy at around 346,000. That's not such a big difference, especially if the jobs created are mainly in the construction phase, given that most modern nuclear plants are highly automated. Perhaps it will be like the gas plant in the Northern Territory. It gained approval by promising 80,000 jobs. Once construction finished in 2018, 10,000 workers left the Northern Territory suddenly and permanently and the economy in such a deep hole that the state had to sell the Port of Darwin to China in order to get itself out of  the ensuing financial crisis. [A further irony is that this gas is exported cheaply and Australians have to import and pay more for their own use].

                        ALTERNATIVES TO NUCLEAR ENERGY 

On the other hand, in the interests of maintaining peace and stability, there is also merit in relocating energy hungry industries to poor countries or even the oil producing states who will then have the means to support themselves without needing pump CO2 into the atmosphere or needing the vast quantities of cooling water required by nuclear reactors. Batteries to capture energy on the better than expected days, more geothermal energy, efficiencies in power generation are just the beginning. At worst, we could allow power -guzzling industries to operate only on days when there is abundant energy. Other possibilities include – more work from home, staggered working hours, a four day week, or a shorter working day when supplies are short. These are just some of many possible avenues which should be explored, sooner rather than later. 

Perhaps it's also time to question the value of work on a dying planet. I look forward to a lively discussion about that in the not too distant future. 


 


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