Nuclear power is no solution to climate change, explains Ben Dharmendra
The nuclear industry is using the climate crisis to push nuclear power as clean, green, cheap and safe. It is described as being the only viable alternative to coal in its capacity to meet energy demand. The claims have won the support of a number of prominent environmentalists, such as the scientist James Hansen.
But the claims of the nuclear industry are lies. Neither existing nor anticipated nuclear technology is the solution to climate change, nor is it capable of meeting global energy demand. The attempt to establish nuclear power has little to do with climate change—and much more to do with the nuclear industry attempting to maximise profits. As the history of the industry shows, it is prepared to make false claims and risk lives in order to do so.
One of the biggest fallacies spread by the nuclear industry is that nuclear power is a zero emissions power source. Although the actual nuclear fission process that occurs in a reactor core produces no greenhouse gases, every other stage of the nuclear fuel cycle does—mining, milling, fuel fabrication, enrichment, reactor construction, decommissioning and waste management all use massive amounts of energy that comes from burning fossil fuels.
Current estimates of nuclear power’s emissions are based on how much energy is used with mining of high-grade uranium deposits. High-grade uranium ores require the mining and milling of one tonne of ore to extract one kilogram of uranium. But the vast majority of world’s known uranium reserves are low-grade ores. A study done in 2000 found that using low-grade ores, nuclear power releases levels of C02 equivalent to that of a combined cycle gas-fired power station.
If nuclear power were expanded to half the world’s current energy supply, known high-grade uranium ores would last less than a decade.
Since its inception, nuclear power has become infamous for accidents, leaks and breaches of safety guidelines. Equally insidious are the health risks posed by uranium mining and nuclear waste.
Exposure to ionising radiation, which happens at virtually every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle, is a health hazard. A number of studies in countries including Germany, the USA and Britain, have found increased rates of cancer (or “cancer clusters”) around nuclear power stations.
The levels of radiation that are considered “safe” by governments and the nuclear industry are still a significant health risk and have been criticised by health experts. An increase in fatal cancers among nuclear industry workers in Britain has been linked to so-called “low levels” of radiation.
When radiation leaks into water around uranium mines in can enter into river systems and throughout the ecosystem. Tailings dams which are meant to store radioactive material left after extraction are notorious for their leaks, while tailings left to dry out can be blown as dust far and wide into the local environment.
Undeterred, the nuclear industry has used their money and power to wage a ceaseless campaign to deny these health disasters.
The explosion of a nuclear reactor in Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union in 1986 released 400 times more radioactive material into the atmosphere than the bomb at Hiroshima. Hundreds of thousands of people were resettled, but millions still live in the contaminated area. A survey of over 50 scientific studies concluded that at least 500 000 people were killed from the effects of the disaster. Some studies report nearly one million deaths.
The nuclear industry has tried to erase this inconvenient reality. An agreement between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) signed in 1959 gives the IAEA power to veto anything the WHO releases in regards to the health effects of radiation. Unbelievably, the WHO and the IAEA claim that a final total of around 4,000 deaths will result from the Chernobyl disaster. Even more incredible in its arrogance is the IAEA’s claim that a “victim mentality” is a responsible for the ill health suffered after Chernobyl.
Every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle produces radioactive waste—but there is no permanent way to store it. It needs to be isolated for hundreds of thousands of years. Waste continues to build up in temporary storage facilities. Not a single permanent repository exists anywhere in the world.
In Britain an Observer report noted “almost 90 per cent of our hazardous nuclear waste stockpile is so badly stored it could explode or leak with devastating results anytime.” The Australian government has been looking for over a decade for a place to store nuclear waste—they are currently attempting to force a dump on the Aboriginal community at Muckaty in the Northern Territory.
Nuclear energy is hugely expensive and inefficient—in fact, it couldn’t exist without government subsidies. In the US, subsidies to the industry over the decades total over US$150 billion. Government subsidies in Japan have averaged about US$2 billion a year.
No insurance agency will cover a nuclear reactor due the immense costs of a potential accident. In the US, it is legislated that the owner of a reactor will only have to pay US$300 million in the event of a disaster. By comparison, US tax payers will foot up to US$9.5 billion. The economic cost of a disaster is estimated to be in the order of hundreds of billions. Even Dick Cheney admitted that without subsidies, “nobody’s going to invest in nuclear power plants”.
Given the fact that renewable energy technology like wind and solar can meet energy demand, and given the terrifying record of nuclear power, why do governments persist in supporting it? Obama has recently announced a “stimulus” in nuclear power.
The reason is that nuclear energy was born out of the nuclear weapons industry, and they remain intrinsically linked. The technology and expertise required to operate a nuclear energy program provides many of the requirements for the construction of nuclear weapons. Israel, India, Pakistan, South Africa and possibly North Korea have used civil nuclear energy programs to develop their own nuclear weapons.
The crossover is not exceptional but commonplace. The use of civil facilities and materials in nuclear weapons research and or systematic weapons programs are known to have taken place in 22 countries and in the five “declared” nuclear weapons states (the US, UK, Russia, France and China).
If nuclear power were expanded globally, it would mean providing every country with nuclear power technology and, thus, every state with the potential to develop their own nuclear weapons.
Nuclear power also provides the means of developing other weapons such as depleted uranium rounds, which have been linked to birth defects and elevated rates of cancer in Iraq from weapons used in the Gulf War.
The drive to possess nuclear weapons is bound up with imperialism. In the global capitalist system, competition for profit forces states into competition with one another. Each country’s ruling class uses the state in an attempt to capture a greater slice of global profits for themselves. Often this competition results in outright warfare between countries. Nuclear weapons provide a major tool for states to exert their power over others.
We saw what this means in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of WW2. Over a quarter of a million people died so the US could send a warning to the rest of the world. Kataoka Osama, a teenager in Hiroshima, remembers what it was like: “I cannot forget the sight of those who could not move at all, who simply looked up at the sky saying over and over ‘Damn you! Damn you!’”
Once one country has a nuclear capability, others must also develop the technology, or risk being dominated. For example, once India developed nuclear weapons, their archrival Pakistan quickly developed nuclear weapons of their own to in order to be able to remain competitive in military might.
The global arms race needs to be halted—and that means ending the use of nuclear power.
New technology to solve the problems?
The nuclear industry is currently promoting new nuclear technologies that will supposedly solve these problems. But most of these claims are the same ones they have been making for years. For example, a new Generation III reactor, the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor, is currently being promoted as efficient, cheap and inherently safe. But the history of its development shows otherwise. Research into the technology began in Germany in 1967 and was abandoned in 1991—the company cited lack of realistic business prospects. They sold the technology to companies in South Africa and China. The German company reported in 2008 that there were critical faults in the reactor’s design, such as the fact that it operated at dangerously high temperatures for unknown reasons. Their report also stated that the development of irradiated graphite dust during operation presents a significant safety risk in the event of an accident. After costing the South African government at least $980 million, their research has now virtually collapsed.
Generation IV nuclear reactors are what many environmentalists like James Hansen point to as a future solution. But there is a very simple reason why they are not—they don’t exist. The nuclear industry itself claims that these technologies are likely to reach maturity around the year 2030, although even this date has been described as optimistic. By 2030 we need to already be well on the way to a complete transformation of global economies, industries and energy systems to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Even if generation IV reactors work in the way the industry claims (which is highly unlikely given their track record of false claims), the technology will arrive too late to help in fighting climate change.
Nuclear power is a dangerous distraction. Every dollar poured into nuclear could be spent on renewable energy—that’s what we should be fighting for.