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Nuclear: a destructive energy source
Nuclear power is a highly dangerous, unsafe, high-cost energy source which poses the threat of nuclear proliferation and a severe risk to human life and the environment. Its potential as a major source of destruction has been clearly and repeatedly demonstrated. While the terrible disasters at Three Mile Island in the US (1979), the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine (1986) and the triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan in 2011 are perhaps the best known, the nuclear industry has been plagued by many more incidents, accidents and near-misses.
The events that led to the Fukushima accident were previously considered impossible, thus demonstrating the severe inadequacy of the current safety regimes applied to nuclear power. Furthermore, the ageing of existing nuclear reactors poses major safety risks, which look set to be exacerbated by climate change, as many nuclear power stations are located on coastal sites and are highly vulnerable to the impacts of sea-level rise. Even the normal everyday operation of nuclear power plants is highly destructive. Nuclear power generation involves the constant release of low-level radiation into the environment via water used for cooling. The mining of uranium to fuel nuclear power also brings about severe environmental and social impacts. Production of around 25 tonnes of uranium fuel requires the extraction of half a million tonnes of waste rock and the production of over 100,000 tonnes of mill tailings which themselves remain radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. Contamination of local water supplies around uranium mines and processing plants has been documented in Brazil, Colorado, Texas, Australia, Namibia and many other sites.
The risks to human health of exposure to radiation, such as during accidents at nuclear power plants or from exposure to radioactive nuclear waste include nausea, weakness, hair loss, skin burns, diminished organ function, cancer and genetic mutations in unborn children that can lead to physical and mental abnormalities. Excessive radiation exposure results in death. It is estimated that the Chernobyl nuclear accident was responsible for at least 4,000 fatalities: 56 direct deaths and approximately 4,000 extra cancer deaths.
Disposal of the thousands of tonnes of radioactive waste produced by nuclear power also presents an enormous problem. High-level waste and spent fuel rods are a toxic and radioactive legacy for humankind without any solution: nuclear waste needs to be stored safely for 1 million years, until radioactivity is reduced to the level of natural uranium. After 60 years of commercial use the so-called ‘solution’ to the problem of nuclear waste – deep geological repositories – does not exist anywhere in the world. According to a new study by the International Panel on Fissile Materials, there also remain major outstanding uncertainties. Spent fuel rods need to be kept in containers of some material not yet devised which is able to handle the heat from radioactive decay, corrosion and the effects of radioactivity, while keeping water out at the same time. Earthquakes or active fault lines, water seepage and other changes in the geological environment pose the threat of leakage of this radioactive material into groundwater, rivers and the environment.
Finally, there are major human security risks of radioactive material generated by nuclear power being used in warfare, and the global proliferation of these materials. Some of the by-products of nuclear power such as plutonium can be used in the production of nuclear weapons; and all of the waste can be used in the production of ‘dirty bombs’ which involve radioactive material and conventional explosives.
A number of countries have already decided to either phase out or avoid nuclear power. Most recently, Germany took the decision post-Fukushima to close all of its nuclear plants by 2022. Japan is currently in a de facto phase-out and it is not unlikely that its almost 50 reactors will never operate again. However, many countries around the world are still clinging to their aging plants, making lifetime extension the only way of maintaining nuclear capacity.
New nuclear power plants encounter severe investment problems, so can only be built with state aid. There are currently only four new reactors under construction in Europe and all of them were supposed to be generating electricity by now. The Olkiluoto scheme in Finland is likely to open seven years late and cost nearly three times the original promised price. The Flamanville reactor in France is likely to open four years late and cost €8bn, more than twice the original price. Two reactors at Mochovce in Slovakia began and then stopped construction in 1987, restarting in 2009 but now running two years late and nearly 40 per cent over even the new price estimate.
Despite the plethora of major risks and problems associated with nuclear power and widespread evidence of its destructive potential, the nuclear industry is now seeking to expand by promoting itself as a ‘low-carbon’, renewable energy source. Such claims are highly inaccurate. Nuclear power currently has a lower carbon footprint than current solar PV technologies, but higher than on-shore wind and hydro. However, if nuclear reactor numbers increased significantly this carbon footprint would rise dramatically as high-grade uranium resources will run out and the nuclear industry will increasingly rely on low-grade uranium. Furthermore, these calculations do not take into account the many energy-intensive activities associated with the nuclear supply chain, for example the storage of tonnes of radioactive waste for hundreds of thousands of years.
The emissions created by nuclear power across its whole supply chain, combined with the time it takes for new nuclear capacity to come online, the significant up-front costs and the history of major delays in nuclear new-build projects, mean that even in the extremely unlikely event that all of the above impacts and risks could be mitigated, nuclear energy could never play a significant part in reducing carbon emissions in the tiny window we have to do so, before critical climate tipping points are reached.