Thursday, February 02, 2006

How safe is nuclear power?

Eighteen years ago The Low Carbon Kid wrote Doc Chaos: The Chernobyl Effect, in part inspired by his reactions to the Chernobyl nuclear accident. Now, he revisits the topic and the subject of nuclear waste disposal in the context of the UK Energy Review.

Several official sources have recently tended to downplay the negative aspects of nuclear power. For example an IAEA/WHO report last year trivialised the effects of Chernobyl, and is being quoted by the Nuclear Industry Association, the trade association representing operators of nuclear power stations, whose representative has said only 12 people died as a result of the accident.

The arguments against the astronomical costs of nuclear energy are losing their weight in the face of arguments about the UK's energy supply security and the rise in oil prices. But it is worth examining what the facts are.

Chernobyl -- the world's worst accident

On April 26, 1986, reactor number four at the Chernobyl atomic energy station exploded. The cause was mismanagement. In a subsequent investigation, former chair of the US nuclear regulatory commission, Joseph Hendry, concluded that "they dumped the full inventory of volatile fission products from a large power reactor into the environment. You can't do any worse than that." The Union of Concerned Scientist's senior energy analyst, Kennedy Mayes, concluded that "the core vaporised" - all 190 tonnes of fuel - which emitted 9 billion Curies. Estimates of the exact amount of radioactivity vary. But Vladimir Chernousenko, the chief scientific supervisor of the 'clean-up' team responsible for a 10 kilometre zone around the reactor, holds the opinion that 80% of the reactor's radioactivity escaped -- about 7 billion Curies. By contrast, the IAEA's 1986 report claimed that only 100 million Curies were vented.

The true extent of the damage caused by the explosion would take a much longer article than this to document. But here are a few facts:

During the past decade, approximately 40,000 cleanup workers have died, mostly men in their thirties and forties. A permanent 30 kilometre dead zone is established around the power station where human habitation is forbidden, but 1.2 million people continue to live on lands contaminated by "low-level" radiation -- approximately 1800 villages are affected. Gradual seepage of radiation into the water table is threatening the water supply for millions of people in the coming decades.

Shortly after the explosion, thousands of children and adults in Ukraine and Belarus suffered from acute radiation sickness. Experts from the University of Hiroshima analysed data on newborns and 30,000 stillborn foetuses in Belarus and concluded that birth defects have nearly doubled since 1986. These two countries are the only ones in Europe with negative population growth. A report from the UN Office on Population in 1994 attributed this decline in part to increased infant mortality and adverse health conditions stemming from the Chernobyl disaster. Infant mortality in Ukraine is twice the European average. 50% of all men between the ages of 13 and 29 have fertility problems, the highest rate in the world.

According to radiation health experts at the National Academy of sciences, most cancers resulting from radiation exposure to take 10 to 20 years to develop. The highest incidence of cancer is expected to occur over the next five to 10 years and therefore no accurate assessments of the overall impact of the accident can be made until after this time.

The continuing problem of nuclear waste

The United Kingdom is the guardian of a vast amount of nuclear waste. There are 1340 cubic metres of high-level waste, 217,000 cubic metres of intermediate level waste, and 2.06 million cubic metres of low-level waste. High-level waste kills almost instantly following direct exposure and is dangerous for thousands of years.

Nirex, the government's adviser on nuclear waste, has calculated that 94% of existing waste comes from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. The nuclear industry likens this process to recycling, but in fact instead of reusing waste products to reduce waste, the process creates more waste than originally existed. Large volumes of land on some nuclear sites is believed to have been contaminated by leakages of radioactive liquids but most of it is still to be characterised, which means that the total volume of radioactive waste could be much greater.

Our low-level waste is stored underground at Drigg in Cumbria. Drigg is expected to be full within two years. There are no facilities for the permanent storage of intermediate or high-level waste. Only 8% of all nuclear waste is "securely stored". The rest is held at 37 temporary sites, 24 of which are coastal, and potentially at risk from rising sea levels.

The cost of burying the UK's nuclear waste has been estimated to be as high as £85 billion -- The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is "almost certain" that its initial estimate of £56 billion will be revised upwards following closer inspections of all nuclear sites. Furthermore, the original estimate only took account of the costs of decommissioning civil nuclear sites and did not include weapons facilities or privately owned plants like Sizewell B.

The cost is lightly to be therefore, around £2000 for each citizen of the United Kingdom. And that is before we start to build any new nuclear power plants.

Any new repository would have to be between 300 meters and two kilometres underground and designed to withstand up to one million years of geological change. Recently, nuclear waste was found dumped from Hunterston A nuclear power plant on the beach at North Ayrshire in Scotland. It has been there for about 25 years. British Nuclear Group, the company running the site, formerly BNFL, said that they have lost the records describing what was dumped there. If we cannot keep records accurately for 25 years, what hope do we have for one million years?

The independent Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, appointed by the government in 2003, is due to give is final report in July on methods of managing this radioactive mountain. The published draft of its final report says "if ministers accept our recommendations, the UK's nuclear waste problem will not be solved. Having a strategy is a start. The real challenge follows."


The nuclear lobby appears to be confident that the nuclear waste issue is virtually solved, and that nuclear power is safe. But the problem is not solved, and nuclear power is not safe. Supporters of nuclear power argue that although it has problems, it is the lesser of two evils, of which climate change is the worst. But capital invested in nuclear power is not available for renewable energy. The fuel for renewable energy is free and everlasting. All of its outputs are beneficial. There is no security problem.

The international arena is currently coping with the problem of Iran's nuclear power programme. Developed countries opting for new nuclear power run the risk of inspiring all other countries to follow suit, which will inevitably lead to a more insecure world.

Nuclear power is not carbon free. Dr David Lowry, scientist and nuclear issues coordinator for Labour's environment campaign, Sera, has quoted a study on the CO2 emissions of the nuclear life cycle by Professors Smith and Van Leeuwen at the University of Groningen, Netherlands. This concludes that emissions from the fuel chain are close to those of natural gas and significantly higher than emissions from renewable energy sources and efficiency technologies.

It is also worth mentioning that nuclear power stations use vast amounts of water. During the European 2004 summer heatwave, many reactors, for example in France, were forced to reduce power levels or shut down completely because of reduced river flow.

Current industry estimates are that there is only a 50 year supply of uranium left in the world at present rates of use. It is possible that more could be found, but if we build more nuclear power stations, then the existing fuel will be used faster. Nuclear power is a dead-end technology. It is not sustainable. The many renewable energy technologies, when developed to maturity, will be available forever and contribute to this country's export earnings for a long time to come, as well as providing our energy safely and securely.

No comments: