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Mainstream, Vol. XLVIII, No 34, August 14, 2010

Nuclear Energy Path is Suicidal

Sunday 22 August 2010, by Sailendra Nath Ghosh

Mainstream, in its January 26, 2008 issue, published an article by this author, titled “Why the Nuclear Energy Path is Suicidal”. Below we are publishing its sequel which is also a response to some Indian nuclearists’ campaign for nuclear plants and also to the recent Indo-US deal for reprocessing American nuclear spent fuel in India at the cost of this country. —Editor

At a time when reductionist science holds sway, knowledge systems become fragmented, and scientific-technological personnel develop “tunnel vision”, finding virtues in their narrow specialties. A graphic example is the vision of the nuclear energy fanatics, among whom Dr Anil Kakodkar, ex-Chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission, is one. In an article in The Times of India of July 10 last, he conjured up the vision of a bright nuclear future for India. For him—and other nuclear energy enthusiasts like him—climate change and the need for reducing carbon emission is a good opportunity for nuclear power technology holders to aggressively move forward. They refuse to see that between life’s extinction by climate change and disintegration of life by the pervasiveness of penetrative radiation all over the biosphere, there is nothing to choose. They tend to forget that the need today is not merely to reduce carbon emission but also to enhance the supply of oxygen, which is depleting faster than the rate at which carbon is rising in the atmosphere. Considering that one major reason for oxygen depletion is the decline of phytoplanktons in the seas, the coastal nuclear power plants, by discharging large quantities of hot water, will be affecting plankton growth, thereby affecting oxygen production.

Piling the Radioactive Wastes

FURTHER, they conveniently bypass the key question of disposing of the radioactive wastes, as if this is no problem at all. On the global level, the nuclearists had planned to dispose of the wastes in the outer space; they had to retreat from the plan because of the dangers involved. They thought of disposing of these in salt mines. Investigations revealed the possibility of contami-nation with ground water; hence the plan was abandoned. The USA, the country with the longest experience in nuclear power production, chose, in 1987, the Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a repository of America’s high-level wastes but had to subsequently retreat because “it is a volcanic mountain made of permeable pumice stone and is transacted by thirtytwo earthquake faults”. France also has not succeeded so far. Each typical 1000 Megawatt nuclear reactor is said to be yielding 33 tonnes of thermally hot, intensely radioactive waste per year. Will Dr Kakodkar say how much radioactive waste has already accumulated in India and what is the department’s plan for their disposal? Without devising safe ways of their disposal, it is criminal to talk of producing more.

Adverse Economics of Nuclear Power

THE economics of nuclear power is extremely adverse. The world Nuclear Industry Status Report 2009, commissioned by the German Federal Ministry of Environment, Nature Conservation and Reactor Safety, says the following in its Executive Summary and Conclusions: “While many industries experience declining costs as they move out of their technology learning curve, the nuclear industry continues to face steadily increasing costs on (both) existing construction and future cost estimates. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) simply doubled an earlier estimate from $ 2000 to $ 4000 overnight cost (excluding financing) per installed kilowatt.” (The earlier estimate of 2003 was $ 2000 per kw.) Further, it says: “Reality has already bypassed projections. The flagship EPR project at Olkiluoto in Finland, managed by the largest nuclear builder in the world, AREVA NP, has turned into a financial fiasco. The project is three years behind schedule and at least 55 per cent over budget, reaching a total cost estimate of Euro 5 billion ($ 7 billion) i.e. close to Euro 3100 ($ 4400) per kilowatt.” EPR project means European Pressurised Water Reactor project.

These show, only those who want to invite financial ruination, can go for nuclear power plants. India’s nuclear establishment does not reveal its estimated or actual cost per kw.

Myth of New Safe Design

ON the question of safety, the nuclear enthusiasts go on harping that after the Chernobyl disaster, the nuclear reactor design and overall nuclear plant design have improved so much that the chance of an accident has become remote. The third generation represented designs available from about 1980 onwards. Now there is “Generation Third plus” which has become available since about 2000 which is distinguished by greater use of ‘passive safety systems’. This is too abstract a statement, hence so vague that the aforesaid status report had to admit that the US safety authority (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) is now reviewing five types of reactors in supply in the world but “which of these should be regarded as Generation III and which are III + is not clear”. This shows the weakness of “the advance in safety” claim. Common sense says that there can never be such an improved design as can safeguard against all human errors and all technical faults. Accidents will happen and any nuclear accident is ghastly.

If the chance of a ghastly nuclear accident had really been so remote, the Russians and the Americans would not have been so insistent on avoiding or minimising their liabilities and on prior enactment of a law to that effect in India before setting up a nuclear reactor on Indian soil. This is an admission that nuclear accident is unlike other industrial accidents.

Nuclear energy proponents argue that Chernobyl was a lesser disaster than Bhopal in terms of instant deaths and directly linkable subsequent deaths. They cite the UN Chernobyl Forum’s Report of 2006, which says that “about 6 lakh people received the greatest exposure to radioactive releases but not more than four thousand could have died from the resulting cancer”. “About 1,16,000 people were evacuated after the accident.” “About five million people live in areas that are considered to have been contaminated with radioactive material from Chernobyl accident.” “Radioactive Iodine caused thyroid cancer in many children.” (This report was in 2006, about twenty years after the accident).

To many, these seem to be gross underestimates of the Chernobyl casualties. All UN-sponsored agencies’ reports are not infallible. Much depends on the bias of the experts chosen for assessments. A recent example is the report of the experts of the WHO advisory group, more than half of whom advised the world body to declare swine flu as a pandemic and thus helped the drug-making companies they had links with, to reap huge profits from untested vaccines and flu drugs.

Even if we brush aside all such reservations and accept the UN Chernobyl Forum’s report as authentic, we cannot overlook that the spread of the radioactive releases was over a far larger area. The effects of the gas disaster were confined to Bhopal city. But as a result of Chernobyl, radioactive clouds spread over most parts of European skies, up to the sub-arctic regions. Radioactive releases affected the immunity systems of millions who could not be counted as the nuclear accident’s casualties because their deaths occurred much later from ostensible causes common to people unexposed to radiation. (Even though the incubation time for cancer, following exposure to radiation, is five to sixty years, these casualties remain excluded.) The impacts of nuclear accidents are felt in diverse spheres. Among these are the contamination of crops, meat and milk by short-lived radioactive Iodine (which can cause thyroid cancer); and contamination of forest food products by high levels of long-lived caesium whose effects are expected to remain high for several decades.

False Claim of “Green Energy”

AFTER the Bhopal experience, no country will possibly allow any MIC-gas based or carbon tetrachloride-intensive industry. But nuclear enthusiasts keep pushing for nuclear power plants on the plea that these are not carbon-emitting, hence “green energy” (that is, eco-friendly) plants. They pretend that carbon emission is the only culprit.

The answer to this has been provided by Helen Caldicott, co-founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility and author of several books on nuclear power. Paraphrasing her essay titled “Nuclear is not the solution”, in the May-June 2010 issue of Resurgence (published from Devon, UK), we can say that nuclear plants routinely emit the “noble gases”—krypton, xenon and argon which are fat-soluble and can get inhaled by any-one living near a nuclear reactor. Hence these are disastrous to particularly the operators. These are absorbed through the lungs, migrating to the fatty tissues of the body. These radioactive elements emit high-energy gamma radiation and can thereby mutate the genes in eggs and sperm and cause genetic diseases. Nuclear reactors also routinely emit tritium, another biologically significant gas which is even more mutagenic than gamma radiation. It passes readily through the skin, lungs and digestive system and is distributed throughout the body. Besides, the nuclear reactors consistently release millions of curies of radioactive isotopes into the air and water every year. These are: Iodine 131 (which can cause thyroid cancer); strontium 90 which lasts for 600 years, concentrating in cow’s and goat’s milk and in human breasts, and can cause breast cancer, bone cancer, and leukaemia; caesium 137 which also lasts for 600 years, concentrates in meat, and on entering the human body, locates in muscles where it can induce muscle cancer called sarcoma; and plutonium 239, which is so toxic that less than one-millionth of a gram, if inhaled, can cause cancer and which has a half-life of 23,600 years. Yet, the nuclear industry regards these radioactive elements to be biologically inconsequential!

Radioactivity Inheres at Every Stage

EMISSION of high-energy gamma rays and radioactive isotopes from operating reactors is perhaps the lesser part. Spread of radioactivity starts from uranium mining and milling and permeates every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle. Since uranium is found in low concentrations in the ores—one tonne of ore may yield only one kg of uranium—99 per cent is left as wastes. These huge wastes spread radioactivity through air and down the rivers, lakes and ground water. Then, in the mill, where the separated uranium is pulverised and mixed with water and chemicals to make a kind of yellow cake, there are, again, large quantities of rejects, called “mill tailings”, which retain 85 per cent of uranium’s radioactivity. Because of these tailings’ somewhat long-lived radioactivity, these get morphed into isotopes of various other elements-cum-radioactive metals which keep on emitting radiations. Of these, thorium, again, disintegrates into radium-226, which breaks further into radon gas. Radon, being a gas, drifts far away and gets inhaled into animals’ lungs to cause lung cancer far and wide. This is the reason why in Jadugoda (Jharkhand) and its neighbouring areas, there is a high incidence of incurable diseases among men and women of all age-groups. Besides, there are high rates of infertility, miscarriages, stillbirths and deformities of various types. This is the price people pay for nuclear energy at the mining and milling stage.

Since India has not built a uranium enrichment plant and relies on heavy water to slow down the generation of neutrons and maintain the control of fission reaction with natural uranium fuel, it is not necessary to dwell on the spread of radioactivity from the enrichment stage (which is far greater), in this article.

The Government of India, just a few days back, signed an agreement on reprocessing of American nuclear spent fuel in this country. Nuclear spent fuel is itself highly hazardous. I have already reported, in the epilogue to another article, that a study by the USA’s Brookhaven National Laboratory found that a severe accident in a spent fuel pool could result in damages, ranging from somewhat under $ 1 billion up to $ 566 billion—and in 2009 dollar value, up to $ 700 billion. Then, there is the grave danger of the terrorists stealing radioactive wastes for destructive purposes. Where was the need of taking up the additional burden of reprocessing foreign spent fuel? Evidently, the Government of India’s purpose is to get more plutonium and make India’s thorium fissionable in the Breeder Reactor.

Breeder is a very, very risky venture. The horrors of accidents in Breeder Reactors cannot even be imagined. The UK, USA and Japan abandoned their Breeder Reactors earlier. France, too, has now closed its breeders. The Government of India seems to have no qualms in plunging this country in disastrous ventures. In the USA, there is now no commercial unit for reprocessing its spent fuel. It is saving the cost and avoiding its accident risk by shoving the burden on to India. And naïve India is accepting it.

World of Hundred Per Cent Renewables by 2050 is Possible

ALL the risk-takings are extremely unwise, when renewable energy can meet all our needs. Germany has decided not to build any nuclear plant and to phase out all the existing nuclear power plants successively by 2022. It has also decided to meet all its energy needs by renewables by 2050. Since 2001, every year it has been surpassing its renewable energy targets. India had started its ventures in renewables much earlier but their pace has been slow. China has now started promoting renewables with vigour. These ventures in Europe and Asia will soon set off a worldwide tidal wave for renewables. A call has been given by the Institute of Science in Society (ISIS), London for a World of Hundred Per Cent Renewables by 2050. Prof Mae-Wan-Ho, the ISIS Director, has given a plausible basis for this call:

(i) Methane from anaerobic digestion of organic wastes (which we, in India, call bio-gas), which can be used for cooking, heating, generating electricity and running vehicles and farm machinery, can meet 50 per cent of the world’s energy consumption.

(ii) Wind turbines on non-forested, non-urban and ice-free land surfaces, assuming that they operate at only 20 per cent of their capacity, can supply 40 times the world’s present electricity production or five times the world’s energy needs.

(iii) Solar power at a modest 10 per cent efficiency can provide all the world’s energy needs with just 0.1 per cent of the world’s land surface.

Even if we lower our expectation from each of these three, we can still meet all our energy needs by renewables by 2035 because India is richly endowed with renewable resources. The accent should be on micro-generation by small wind turbines and on small systems for solar heating and solar power generation. The need is for independent thought and determination, unclouded by the moves of big powers who are guided by exploitative global corporates with their vested interests in oil, coal and nuclear power.

The known oil reserves in the world will be exhausted in this century. Superior grades of coal, too, will be nearing exhaustion. And nuclear power will be a dirty word by 2030 because it is the unsafest, ecodestructive, highest-cost, and pre-emptive of resources which could be fruitfully utilised for getting several times the energy yield. It is ruinous in every respect.

Luckily for the world, the personnel at the work level are coming to realise the danger to their own lives and their progeny’s lives from nuclear reactors. The Nuclear Industry Status Report of 2009 (commissioned by Germany) says that a big challenge to the nuclear industry is finding qualified craft labour, junior engineers and technicians to support construction and operation.

The author is one of the country’s earliest environmentalists and a social philosopher. He can be contacted at sailendranathghosh@yahoo.com and sailendernathg@gmail.com

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