Global warming, nuclear power — DOUBLE TROUBLE
by Peter Mac
As a twelve year old I visited a new engineering exhibition which included a model of a nuclear power station. That model promised a future in which electrical energy would be produced without atmospheric pollution, at a minute cost, and safely.
That promise is long gone. In the 1960s radioactive gas emissions from nuclear plants caused public alarm. In 1973 the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania, USA, suffered an extremely dangerous accident, and in 1982 the nuclear power station at Chernobyl in the Ukraine suffered a catastrophic “meltdown”, surely the worst environmental accident in human history.
Moreover, we now face major changes in the world’s climate and ecosystems. These changes arise from “global warming”, a phenomenon in which certain gases in the atmosphere prevent much of the earth’s reflected solar radiation from escaping back into space. Carbon dioxide CO2 comprises about 50 percent of these gases, and is mostly produced by the combustion of coal or oil in power stations, vehicles and industrial engines.
Global warming will cause rising sea levels, ocean current variations, an overall increase in global temperatures, increasing incidence and severity of forest fires and major storms, prolonged drought and intermittent flooding, increasing serious disease outbreaks, massive biodiversity losses, sea water acidification and deteriorating air quality.
The historical coincidence of global warming and a revived nuclear industry magnifies the hazard. For example, resource depletion in some countries because of global warming will jeopardise their nuclear plants’ maintenance and health and safety programs. Climate change will also reduce water supplies, which are crucial to avert reactor meltdowns.1
Global warming is likely to result in international struggles over water and other resources. Some individuals and national governments will also be tempted to use radioactive waste from nuclear plants to fashion nuclear weapons.2
Acquisition of nuclear power facilitates acquisition of nuclear weapons. It provides technical expertise and fissile materials and companies that are involved in nuclear power generation are also involved in nuclear weapons manufacture.
It could happen here. Robert Menzies, John Howard’s mentor and idol, took the first steps to establish a nuclear power industry and wanted Australia to acquire nuclear weapons3. Howard’s recently-released Zwitkowski report4 concluded that Australia could develop uranium enrichment capabilities, and enriched uranium may be used to manufacture nuclear weapons.
The global warming spin
Energy corporations and their parliamentary representatives have lied or dissembled about global warming for years. In 1989 fifty US automotive, oil, gas, coal and chemical corporations formed a lobby group, the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), which argued that global warming was a fiction. Some coal corporations admitted that global warming was a reality, but claimed it would bring an “eternal summer” and eliminate malnutrition.5 GCC is now disbanded, but some US organisations are still describing global warming as a myth.6
It now appears that the US Government itself has deliberately altered, dismissed or suppressed scientific reports which were likely to raise concern over global warming.7
The predictions of global warming have given a new lease of life to the commercial nuclear power industry, which is enthusiastically promoting the supposed lack of atmospheric emissions, particularly CO2 from nuclear power generation. The “Chernobyl Forum” group argues that the Chernobyl hazard has been greatly exaggerated.8
Howard has only acknowledged the threat from global warming in order to promote the introduction of nuclear power in Australia. The uranium mining industry stands to make a vast fortune out of Australia’s huge share (40 percent) of the world’s uranium.9 However, Howard has never acknowledged that at the current rate of use, the existing reserves of usable grade uranium will only last fifty years.10
Green and cheap?
Nuclear plants emit virtually no C02 during operation, but they frequently release radioactive gases and fluids. Uranium enrichment, advocated in the Zwitkowski report, also produces emissions of chlorofluorocarbons, banned greenhouse gases, which are 10,000 to 20,000 times more damaging than CO2 and which destroy the ozone layer.11
Moreover, building a nuclear power station results in huge CO2 emissions. So does mining uranium ore, milling it, remediating the tailings, converting the ore, enriching the uranium, fabricating the reactor elements, cooling and disposing of the reactor water, storing, cooling and guarding the waste for 60 years, and transporting it to safe and secure storage.12
One scientist has calculated that reducing global temperatures by half a percent through use of nuclear power would require construction of 1200 nuclear power plants and 15 uranium enrichment plants. This would produce a million tons of highly radioactive waste, containing sufficient plutonium for thousands of nuclear weapons, and would cost between one and two trillion US dollars.13
The cost of milling US ore is met by the government, which also provides huge industry subsidies14 and nuclear plant insurance.15 The cost of mining and processing the ore rises over time because the highest-grade ore is mined first, and the energy required for mining increases in inverse proportion to the grade of the remaining ore, until the process becomes uneconomical.16
The cost of storing and guarding nuclear waste during its radioactive life is incalculable. To date, attempts to dispose of waste without hazard or leakage, including the $10 billion Yucca Mountain experiment in California, have failed. Our descendants will have to pay for further experiments or, if they’re not successful, to guard the waste for up to 500,000 years.17
How safe is nuclear power?
Nuclear power generation is extremely dangerous, despite Howard’s reassurances. The 1976 Three Mile Island explosion caused major radioactive emissions, mass evacuation, and an increasing incidence of birth deformities and radiation-related diseases.18
The Soviet Union’s worst environmental accident was the 1986 Chernobyl explosion, which caused a nationwide drop in Soviet morale, and contributed to the eventual defeat of socialism in that country and in the Eastern European states.
Part of the Chernobyl radioactive plume reached the US. European farms limited or ceased production.19 Some 400,000 people were evacuated from the worst-affected portion; 150,000 sq. kilometres of the Ukraine, Russia and Byelorussia were contaminated, of which 52,000 sq. kilometres are ruined20. The protective cover over the crippled Chernobyl reactor is said to be fracturing and the reactor may even erupt again.21
The incidence of thyroid cancer has soared. In Belarus between 1986 and 2001 there were 8358 cases, including 716 in children.22 The number of birth defects and other diseases are increasing. Between 5,000 and 10,000 of the 650,000 workers involved in the clean-up died prematurely.23 The full medical and biological effects will not be known for decades.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) blocked the release of a 1998 World Health Organisation (WHO) report on Chernobyl.24 The WHO is forbidden by a 1959 agreement with the IAEA from investigating the impacts of nuclear technology on public health and even from warning endangered communities.25
Nuclear plants are highly susceptible to terrorist attacks26 the probability of which has increased enormously in Australia because of the Howard Government’s policies. In the US the security of nuclear plants is precarious. An eruption at the Indian Point reactor could effectively incapacitate New York, 35 miles away, and there are thirteen nuclear plants located around Chicago.27
Many US plants are also susceptible to natural disasters, such as earthquakes, tsunamis and rising sea levels28 and their operation requires huge amounts of water, a major deficiency in Australia. Leakages of gas or fluids from nuclear plants is a major hazard, because nuclear reactor fluids are extremely corrosive.
Emissions trading schemes aim to limit annual greenhouse gas emissions within a country or group of countries.29 The limit amount is represented by a certain number of permits, granted to organisations or countries whose industries emit greenhouse gases. Those whose industries exceed the limit can purchase extra permits from those with a better performance, e.g. those which produce or use renewable source energy, or effectively capture carbon from the air, as in forestation.
Emissions trading is sometimes described as a tax. This is incorrect, because extra credits accrued by emission-conforming enterprises are sold to defaulting industries, rather than entering consolidated revenue.
The European Economic Union (EEU) has introduced a trading scheme, in which India and China are participating. Australia has the potential to benefit from such a scheme, but at the moment our level of combustion of coal and oil give us the world’s highest per capita emission rate.30 Moreover, under Howard’s “nuclear vision” we would accept uranium waste from many countries and would probably also process the uranium ore, as in the US. In short, we would increase our emission rate by carrying out all the CO2 activities in the nuclear cycle.
The constraints of time
Construction of facilities for nuclear power or coal geosequestration (burying liquified C02) in Australia would take far longer than is permitted by the climate crisis. Completion of a pilot geosequestration plant (for burying massive amounts of CO2,) could not be completed until 2026,31 while target dates for constructing nuclear plants are notoriously unreliable.32 However, the Stern Report33 concluded that major reductions in emissions should be achieved before 2016.
Some of the world’s energy needs may eventually be met by nuclear fusion rather than fission. Fusion technology promises abundant energy with little radiation hazard, but involves difficulties in achieving continuous operation and dealing with emitted helium. The first experimental fusion plant will probably not be operational for decades.
Renewable and political
Renewable energy options particularly wind and solar power, are clean and green, and provide the best means of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change within the global warming time frame. Reserves of oil will probably reach the critical “peak-oil” point by 2010;34 reserves of natural gas will reach “peak-gas” point between 2030 and 2035.35
Difficulties which have inhibited renewable technologies have been solved or are being rapidly overcome.36 However, the development of renewable energy sources is opposed by the petroleum, coal and uranium mining companies. Their profits are threatened by renewable technologies, which offer the most efficient form of energy generation, because natural energy is not a commodity but is supplied by nature, free of charge.
The US also opposes the development of renewable energy technology and the introduction of emissions trading, because the US economy has benefited for decades from use of the dollar as the international oil trading currency. This convention underpins the value of the dollar and provides the US with highly lucrative commissions on oil transactions.37
This is undoubtedly one of the primary reason why General Motors terminated the leases on their astonishing electric cars and destroyed them in 2005, after Californian anti-pollution legislation was overturned.38 (The electric cars were leased rather than being sold).
Vehicles such as these would greatly reduce overall emissions even if recharged by power from coal-fired power plants, and would eliminate emissions altogether if recharged by power from renewable energy sources. However, they also have the potential to render use of petroleum largely obsolete. The contribution such vehicles offer in the battle against global warming is, therefore, equal in magnitude to the threat they pose to the “petrodollar” and to the future of the oil corporations.
A choice of systems
In the 21st Century, nations and political systems will be judged by their relative contribution to the struggle against global warming. Particular issues will include the rapid and extensive utilisation of renewable energy, support for other areas of research, public health and safe, government control of private firms involved in research, investment and implementation, and the prevention of nuclear proliferation and armed conflicts over resources.
Among the western nations, the EEC nations have performed well. The worst were the United States and Australia, (which has the world’s worst per capita emission rate), whose governments have refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.
In 2005 Hurricane Katrina provided a foretaste of coming climatic crises, and also the level of readiness of affected nations. Again, the US was the worst performer, as demonstrated by the entirely avoidable devastation of New Orleans.
In comparison, Cuba endured Katrina with admirable preparation and few casualties. Moreover, Cuba had successfully managed a major drop in access to petroleum in the early 1990s.39 This is of major importance, because international reserves of oil are beginning to run out, and because vehicle emissions and the global consumption of resources must be cut, to avert climate change. (This means that in order for the developing nations to reach the same standard of living as the developed nations without bankrupting the earth’s resources, that standard will have to be lower than at present.)
China intends to build 35 more nuclear power stations40 but that’s a small part of its future energy requirement. It is planning a series of ecologically-sustainable new cities, and intends to reduce its power consumption by 20 percent by 201O.41
Society’s judgement of each nation’s global warming performance will be influenced by a propaganda struggle. Cuba’s achievements are virtually ignored in mainstream western media. The powerful environmental laws which the USSR introduced to prevent environmental disasters from its rapidly developing industries42 are also ignored. (Western nations also enacted environmental laws, but these were frequently challenged, often successfully, by affected corporations.43
The Howard Government’s proposal to introduce nuclear power is extremely unpopular. The situation provides excellent opportunities for united joint action regarding global warming and nuclear power. However, such action should include support for employees, for example coal miners and timber workers, some of whom will be adversely affected by initiatives to avert global warming, despite new employment opportunities offered by those initiatives.
Nuclear power generation would be too slow and too expensive to implement, and would pose appalling difficulties for future generations in dealing with nuclear waste. It would also create enormous security problems, constitute a potential danger for communities living near reactors, and provide a negligible contribution, if any, to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, before uranium of usable grades begins to be worked out. It is certainly no solution to global warming.
The current US and Australian governments are procrastinating over the development of alternative energy systems. Immediate and draconian measures to reduce emissions, for example, government closure of high-emission power plants and industries, would be economically disastrous, and should not be contemplated now. However, the longer it takes for emissions to be reduced, the greater will be the future impact of climate change, and the greater the likelihood of passing one of the “tipping points” of qualitative change, beyond which horrific natural changes will become irreversible.
The best criteria for dealing with global warming is to support those initiatives which will contribute as rapidly as possible to the health and safety of Planet Earth. In Australian conditions this must mean giving priority to the development of solar energy, wind power and other means of using renewable energy sources.
Acknowledgements: Sincere thanks to Peter Symon for comments. Most of the references below are derived from Dr. Helen Caldicott’s Nuclear Power is Not the Answer to Global Warming or Anything Else (Melbourne University Press, 2006) and from Professor Tim Flannery’s The Weather Maker; The Text Publishing Company, 2005.