Bellona Position Paper: Nuclear energy not an alternative for fight on climate change

frontpageingressimage_newnuke.jpg Photo: aecl.ca

It was agreed through consensus that international legal instruments such as the Kyoto Protocol and other multi- or unilateral measures were needed to legislate reductions in pollution caused by fossil fuels, which have been scientifically linked to global warming. The majority of rich industrialized nations were suddenly on board with promises of drastic slashes in pollution levels. With time, even the Untied States began to make Kyoto-like concessions of its own.

While numerous methods of alternative energy production are being considered on an international level – like industrial retrofitting to capture and sequester harmful carbon, producing hybrid cars, developing hydrogen fuel cells for transport, and re-visiting solar, wind, and biomass energies – a preponderance of wealthy nations have also advanced ambitious plans to expand nuclear energy.

On Thursday, the government of the United Kingdom delivered the findings of its nuclear consultation to a largely receptive parliament, backing wide scale construction of new nuclear power plants in that country to both meet forecasted energy demands and cut its CO2 emissions as part of the fight against global climate change. Other EU nations, which stand to profit by building reactors for Britain, have been watching the reaction to the decision closely, and many EU countries, diplomats say, plan to follow the nuclear example.

Bellona is fundamentally opposed to advancing the cause of nuclear energy as a method for reducing greenhouse gasses, and urges nations to invest in ultimately cheaper and more durable forms of clean energy. When long term damage to the environment from the nuclear fuel cycle, the heightened risk of nuclear proliferation in aggressive regimes, and the simple fact that there is no safe way to store nuclear waste are taken into account, the short term benefits of a reliance on nuclear power are diminished by the even graver pollution and security concerns it produces.

Three arguments against nuclear to mitigate climate change
There are four compelling arguments in Bellona’s point of view that militate against building further nuclear power plants in the interest of reducing global climate change – which is the banner nuclear industries worldwide fly in order to advance the nuclear cause.

These arguments, as recently put by Brice Smith, author of Insurmountable Risks: The Dangers of Using Nuclear Power to Combat Climate Change (2006), and a senior consultant with the London-based Institute for Energy and Envrionmental Research, are as follows:

1) The inevitable link between the nuclear fuel cycle and nuclear weapons proliferation; 2) The issue of reactor accidents, which are unique in the energy system as they are low probability, but extremely catastrophic; 3) the disposal of nuclear waste, which is problematic because societies don’t yet understand what it means to have a waste product whose peak risks occur dozens to hundreds of thousands of years in the future.

“When you put all of those things together,” said Smith in an interview in the Bulletin of Atomic Science, “it makes a very risky technology overall.”

The fourth reason nuclear power offers a feeble protection against climate change is that there are numerous non-carbon producing energy sources currently available or within a decade of being within industrial scale use to make the much longer process and more costly process of ramping up the world’s stagnant nuclear power plan production facilities to build enough nuclear power plants to really make a cut in the amount of greenhouse gasses produced by current industry.

Nuclear cannot be produced fast enough to have an effect
Another of the problems with nuclear power in terms of its role in combating climate change is the speed with which these reductions in carbon emissions need to be made. The reductions made sooner have a proportionally bigger impact on stabilising the climate. Nuclear power plants take a very long time to build because of their complexity and the parts required.

It’s been 25 years since the United States has had an order for a nuclear power plant, and a similar amount of time in England, and more than a decade since the last plant came online in most nuclear countries in the world. So much of the manufacturing infrastructure no longer exists, or not at the level that is necessary. How rapidly – or more accurately – slowly nuclear power could ramp up limits its ability to contribute to the fight against global climate change, notes Smith.

Even British scientists and environmentalists pointed out in the wake of the UK’s decision to back nuclear power expansion that the projected expansion that a host of new generation plants expected to be built by 2035 would only put a 4 percent dent in the UK’s emissions output.

Immediate solutions that take nuclear out of the equation
Some immediate solutions to the predicted worldwide energy crunch and the desire of states to have energy independence that are overlooked are industrial scale wind farms – which would be especially effective in Britain – solar power at several different scales, pumped hydro and natural gas for stabilisation, and sustainable biopmass. Drastic changes in the transport industry, from the use of hybrid cars and hydrogen fuel cells are also easily effected and the technology is ready to go.

Other transitional solutions that will ease the burden of CO2– the chief offender among green house gasses – include carbon capture and storage (CCS), which was widely touted at the Bali Climate Change Summit in December. CCS technology allowed currently operating coal fired power plants to filter out and contain CO2 for storage and underground repositories that already exist, like tapped out oil wells. The technology is initially expensive, but the long term benefits it gives for allowing other cheaper renewable methods to be implemented while CCS is in use mean that pollution is reduced in the interim before the shift to renewables, rather than continued – as it will be in the UK as London struggles to build its expensive new nuclear plants.

Already, the European Union, which is keen to see carbon emissions reductions extend to developing nations, is planning to build a pilot CCS plant in China and likely India. It would make sense to watch how much more quickly CCS technology reduces CO2 out put in these two countries – which also have nuclear power – than nuclear power alone does.

These technologies largely get overlooked in the nuclear debate, however, because fundamental thinking on dealing with the energy crunch focuses, as Smith notes, on the supply side.

“The idea that we will somehow build our way out of the problem by building (energy) supply rather than building ways to reduce demand, isn’t helping,” says Smith.

Demand and efficiency measures involve more decentralised structures that require changes in the way houses are built, heated, cooled and lit. That requires a different, and more variegated, focus than simply building another large centralised facility. Yet within the energy systems are many overlaps and those are areas where efficiency can be developed.

And example noted by Smith, for instance, is home heating. Using electric earth-source heat pumps, or direct thermal solar thermal would displace the commonly used natural gas, which could then be used for generating electricity or for transportation. The point is that when the energy system as a whole is compartmentalised into strictly electricity generation, heat, transport and so on, governments and utilities are limited in seeing the efficacy of interdisciplinary efficiency measures.

Corporate interests override ecological and security concerns
So why do so many nations still want to go nuclear? The main argument is that the technology generates large amounts of electricity while producing no harmful greenhouse gasses. True as this may be, it is an argument that is forwarded by wealthy nations that already have nuclear power industries and wish to sell it abroad. Countries like the United States, Russia and France all have numerous overseas customers and the perspective for more within developing nations. Wealthy nations in the Middle East frankly state that they want to pursue nuclear power to produce clean energy at home, and export their crude reserves to an oil-addicted West.

Nuclear power a wolf in sheep’s clothing
Nuclear energy is a deceptively inviting alternative – nuclear power plants are expensive to build, but cheap to run, where the opposite is true for traditional coal fired plants. Nuclear power plant builders in merchant states are either branches of the government, like Russia’s Atomstroiproekt or France’s Areva, or have close government ties, like America’s Westinghouse, General Electric and Bechtel.

It is in the interest of corporate and governmental elites to promote nuclear power for a short-term financial bonanza in as many markets as possible, while ignoring the widely acknowledged problems of nuclear proliferation and the unresolved issue of storing waste, and which no country has effectively addressed.

Nowhere to store the waste: Geologic repositories?

Most nuclear power plants keep their waste onsite in temporary storage for eventual shipment to other temporary storage.

America’s Yucca Mountain project was initially feted as the final solution in geologic storage of radwaste. But engineering flaws, cost overruns and documented leak possibilities have stalled the project so severely that, even if the facility does open, it is already booked to capacity and another Yucca will have to be dug immediately.

Mainly, the problems that plague Yucca and similar facilities are a basic lack of understanding of how nuclear waste migrates through geology. At present, the failing Yucca project has relied heavily on human engineering systems rather than an understanding of the natural geology on which the storage system depends.

But even if this natural system were fully understood, and engineers set out to bore a geologic repository, the understanding of how that engineered damage zone will change the way things migrate remains a mystery because the biggest uncertain factor in such a project is time.

Notes Smith, The US Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) projections for Yucca predict peak radiation does will occur hundreds of thousands of year in the future. But forecasting what human population distributions will be, what human behaviours and exposure pathways will be like, and predicting how radionuclides will actually move over a timescale that is truly evolutionary, has introduced significant uncertainties in the DOE’s calculations. From a strictly technical point of view, then, it is extremely difficult to have confidence in the DOE’s assessments given these other totally unpredictable variables.

Nowhere to store waste: Reprocessing?
In countries that reprocess nuclear fuel, like Russia, France, the United Kingdom and Japan, the environmental stakes are even higher. Russia’s single operable reprocessing facility, the Mayak Chemical combine, runs at less than half of its 400 ton per year engineered capacity, leading to backlogs of spent nuclear fuel sitting at plants and naval shipyards awaiting transport. Yet, reprocessing at Mayak has turned its neighborhood into the most radioactively contaminated region in the world, as the plant for decades dumped waste into the local river system.

In April 2005, Britain’s Thorp reprocessing plant experienced a leak of some 20 tons of plutonium and uranium dissolved in nitric acid. Though the leak was contained, it had progressed for eight months before detection.

Even waste attractive for theft
Whether reprocessed or stored onsite for later shipment to another storage site, radioactive waste – as well as fresh fuel – presents immediate proliferation hazards while awaiting whatever disposition is available. High profile thefts of uranium from Russia’s nuclear icebreaker fleet as well as from the militarily fortified naval yards of Russia’s Northern Fleet have been documented, proving that even in conditions of high vigilance, thieves can find a way.

Unchecked proliferation for a quick buck

The nuclear relationship between Russia and Iran is a prescient example of corporate or governmental greed running roughshod over nonproliferation concerns. By building a $1 billion reactor in Iran’s port of Bushehr, Russia opened a Pandora’s Box of nuclear technology for Iran, which has developed uranium enrichment to a level that puts it, by IAEA estimates, within two to 10 years of building a nuclear weapon. For its part, France is underwriting the construction of a nuclear power plant in Libya, and actively encourages nuclear development in the Middle East.

The relationship between the basic infrastructure of the fuel cycle and the eventual development of nuclear weapons technology is a well-worn path. Quite simply, any nuclear fuel cycle facility such as a uranium enrichment facility or a reprocessing facility can be used, if built in sufficient sizes, to produce nuclear weapons. Were the worldwide nuclear fuel cycle to expand to the dimensions needed to even begin cutting CO2 emissions and meet energy needs, the development of nuclear weapons – the world’s single geopolitical doomsday devices – would be possible virtually everywhere.

The corporate interests of spreading nuclear technology thereby put the most feared technologies in direct proximity to many nations who have established ties to terrorist organisations. Cheap energy then becomes inestimable loss of life and reconstruction costs when viewed in light of the ever more likely possibility of a nuclear terrorist attack, or even the heightened chances of a full blown nuclear war. With the global concerns about nuclear proliferation in places such as North Korea and Iran, development of nuclear power globally is untenable given the existence of perfectly acceptable, renewable and non-weapons usable energy technologies.

And while certain very specific disarmament agreements – like the Cooperative Threat Reduction act between Russia and the United States – have stemmed this spiral between the two Cold War foes, larger-scale treaties, like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are under constant challenge.

Written with the aim of pressing its nuclear-armed signatories toward disarmament, while holding its non-nuclear armed nuclear energy producing nations to the agreement not to build nuclear weapons, the NPT has been particularly ineffective.

It is not the treaty is not to blame, but rather the existing nuclear weapons states’ insistence to continue indefinitely maintaining their nuclear weapons. The deadlock in the NPT that constantly comes up in its review and preparatory conferences is the tension between nuclear weapons states that want to hold on to their weapons and non-nuclear weapons states that say they have the right to have access to these fuel cycle technologies for civilian use. Meanwhile, the nuclear weapons states that are apart of the NPT are not living up to their obligations to disarm, so it is morally impossible to dictate that non-nuclear states cannot have access to the same technologies as their armed counterparts.

Accidents WILL happen
Yet, even this evidence that the march of nuclear power presents unmanageable environmental hazards and increases the threat of nuclear proliferation, 50 accidents at a solar power production facility could never equal the consequences of one Chernobyl. More than 20 years later, birth defects caused as a direct result of the 1986 Chernobyl explosion have been recorded as far away as Sweden. And the site continues to leak radioactivity. Only recently have strategies been financed to build a more permanent solution for trapping radioactivity than the now-crumbling cement “sarcophagus” that was poured onto the smoldering shell Chernobyl’s No. 4 reactor.

In 1979, the meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in the US state of Pennsylvania nearly resulted in a Chernobyl level accident, but was contained before an explosion occurred. Yet, releases of radiation affected some 2 million people. An earthquake in Japan in July 2007 resulted in radiation waste leaks and spills at the world’s largest nuclear power that are still being tallied by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

This said, it must be admitted that events such as these are rare in comparison to other industries, but that makes how to approach the liquidation an even more complex process. In the words of the scientific community, the problem of reactor accidents is a “zero to infinity” problem, meaning the likelihood of an accident is very low, but the consequences are catastrophic.

Reactor safety is based, notes Smith, on three things: design defects as a model is only as good as the ability of engineers to anticipate failure modes; maintenance of aging parts that may not behave as expected; and the human error factor. The seriousness of the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island accidents was exacerbated by the decisions made by their operators, who, if they had taken different decisions, would have mitigated the results of those events.

Risks from nuclear power, further, do not fit well into classical quantitative risk assessment models, making insuring against the results of a disaster hard to calculate. When governments agree to underwrite disasters – like Great Britain did on Thursday – it makes nuclear investment more attractive, but also potentially catastrophic in financial and well as human terms should and accident occur, as the burden falls to the taxpayer to pay for industry’s disaster.

Money ill spent on nuclear energy better spent on alternatives

It is clear that nuclear merchants have the money and the technical know-how to divert the incredible resources they are wiling to spend on nuclear power development into developing clean alternative energy that leaves no environmental footprint at all. Event the White House – whose electrical current is supplied by solar power – recognises this, even if the administration that inhabits it does not.

Bellona therefore urges the merchants of nuclear power, and the governments and corporate interests that back them, to reconsider their planned investments in the nuclear renaissance, and spend that money on developing truly clean, renewable energy sources that have neither to be paid for by the health of future generations nor the security of the worlds citizens.

Given that it will be possible to address climate change without relying on nuclear power, trading a large hard-to-predict, potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change for other large, hard-to-predict potentially catastrophic consequences of a large-scale expansion of nuclear power, Bellona does not see the sense in pursuing the nuclear grail.

Charles Digges