End of the nuclear illusion - Praful Bidwai - Monday, March 19, 2012

Source : http://www.thenews.com.pk/Todays-News-9-98455-End-of-the-nuclear-illusion

A year after the nuclear catastrophe began at the Fukushima Daiichi station in Japan, the world has a historic chance to put an end to one of the biggest frauds ever played on the global public to promote a patently unsafe, accident-prone, expensive and centralised form of energy generation based upon splitting the uranium atom to produce heat, boil water, and spin a turbine. Candidly, that’s what nuclear power generation is all about.

The lofty promise of boundless material progress and universal prosperity based on cheap, safe and abundant energy through “Atoms for Peace”, held out by US President Dwight D Eisenhower in 1953, was mired in deception and meant to temper the prevalent perception of atomic energy as a malign force following the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Eisenhower was a hawk committed to building up the US nuclear arsenal from under 1,500 to over 20,000 warheads and sought to “compensate” for this by dressing up nuclear energy as a positive force. “Atoms for Peace” camouflaged the huge US military build-up in the 1950s.

The nuclear promise was also based on untested, unrealistic assumptions about atomic electricity being safe and “too cheap even to meter”. The projection sat ill at ease with the subsidies, worth scores of billions, which nuclear received. The US navy transferred reactor designs developed for its nuclear-propelled submarines to General Electric and Westinghouse for free. The US also passed a law to limit the nuclear industry’s accident liability to a ludicrously low level.

Fifty-five years on, the world has lost over $1,000 billion in subsidies, cash losses, abandoned projects and other damage from nuclear power. Decontaminating the Fukushima site alone is estimated to cost $623 billion, not counting the medical treatment costs for the thousands of likely cancers.

All of the world’s 400-odd reactors are capable of undergoing a catastrophic accident similar to Fukushima. They will remain a liability until decommissioned (entombed in concrete) at huge public expense, which is one-third to one-half of what it cost to build them. They will also leave behind nuclear waste, which remains hazardous for thousands of years, and which science has no way of storing safely.

All this for a technology which contributes just two percent of the world’s final energy consumption! Nuclear power has turned out worse than a “Faustian bargain” – a deal with the devil. Even the conservative Economist magazine, which long backed nuclear power, calls it “the dream that failed.”

Nuclear power experienced decline on its home ground because it became too risky and “too costly to hook to a meter”. The US hasn’t ordered a single new reactor since 1973, even before the Three Mile Island meltdown (1979). Western Europe hasn’t completed a new reactor since Chernobyl (1986). As a former member of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission put it: “The abiding lesson that Three Mile Island taught Wall Street was that a group of NRC-licensed reactor operators, as good as any others, could turn a $2 billion asset into a $1 billion cleanup job in about 90 minutes.”

Nuclear power is now on the run globally. The number of reactors operating worldwide fell from the historic peak of 444 in 2002 to 429 this past March 1. Their share in global electricity supply has shrunk from 17 to 13 percent. And it’s likely to fall further as some 180-plus 30 years-old or older reactors are retired. Just about 60 new ones are planned.

After Fukushima, nobody is going to build nuclear reactors unless they get a big subsidy or high returns guaranteed by the state – or unless they are China, India or Pakistan. China’s rulers don’t have to bother about democracy, public opinion, or safety standards.

Nor are India’s rulers moved by these considerations. They are desperate to deliver on the reactor contracts promised to the US, France and Russia for lobbying for the US-India nuclear deal in the International Atomic Energy Agency. Manmohan Singh has even stooped to maligning Indian anti-nuclear protesters as foreign-funded, as if they had no minds of their own, and as if the government’s own priority wasn’t to hitch India’s energy economy to imported reactors. Pakistan’s nuclear czars are shamefully complacent about nuclear safety.

Nuclear power is bound up with secrecy, deception and opacity, which clash with democracy. It evokes fear and loathing in many countries, and can only be promoted by force. It will increasingly pit governments against their own public, with terrible consequences for civil liberties. A recent BBC-GlobeScan poll shows that 69 percent of the people surveyed in 23 countries oppose building new reactors, including 90 percent in Germany, 84 percent in Japan, 80 percent in Russia and 83 percent in France. This proportion has sharply risen since 2005. Only 22 percent of people in the 12 countries which operate nuclear plants favour building new ones.

Nuclear reactors are intrinsically hazardous high-pressure high-temperature systems, in which a fission chain-reaction is barely checked from getting out of control. But control mechanisms can fail for many reasons, including a short circuit, faulty valve, operator error, fire, loss of auxiliary power, or an earthquake or tsunami.

No technology is 100 percent safe. High-risk technologies demand a meticulous, self-critical and highly alert safety culture which assumes that accidents will happen despite precautions. The world has witnessed five core meltdowns in 15,000 reactor-years (number of reactors multiplied by duration of operations). At this rate, we can expect one core meltdown every eight years in the world’s 400-odd reactors. This is simply unacceptable.

Yet, the nuclear industry behaves as if this couldn’t happen. It has had a collusive relationship with regulators, which has been highlighted in numerous articles on Japan, including one by Yoichi Funabashi, chair of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation: “We Japanese have long prided ourselves on being a society that provides safety and security...[But this] has been matched by our aversion to facing the potential threat of nuclear emergencies...”

He adds: “Any drills for a nuclear emergency were meticulously designed to avoid giving any impression that an accident could possibly progress to the severity of a meltdown.... After all, why stir up unnecessary anxiety when such contingencies simply are unthinkable? But avoidance ultimately translated into unpreparedness.”

Nuclear power is bound up with radiation, which is harmful in all doses, at each step of the nuclear fuel cycle. Nuclear plants routinely expose surrounding populations to harmful radioactive and chemical emissions.

Nuclear power is expensive not just in relation to coal or gas, but increasingly, to renewable sources. New-generation reactor costs have more than doubled. For instance, the European Pressurised Reactor of the crisis-ridden French firm Areva, and earmarked for Jaitapur in India, is now quoting for $6,500-plus per kilowatt, compared to under $2,000 for wind turbines.

Nuclear power cannot be a solution to the climate crisis. Its potential carbon reduction contribution is far too small, it is too slow to deploy, and too expensive. By contrast, renewables have already emerged as a safe, flexible, quickly deployable solution, with a typically lower carbon footprint than nuclear power.

The world needs a new climate-friendly, safe, decentralised energy system with smart grids and high efficiency. Nuclear power can have no place in it and must be abolished.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi. Email: prafulbidwai1@yahoo. co.in

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