Nuclear power sags in safety, relevance, misleads as climate help, experts, campaigners and politicians say

IAEA International safety experts viewing the damage of Unit 3 of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant after the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011 resulted in one of the world’s worst nuclear and radiation disasters in history. (Photo: G. Webb/IAEA, iaea.org)

ST. PETERSBURG – Nuclear power plants are vulnerable to today’s multiplying threats that include terrorism, electromagnetic pulse, and solar weather, American experts warn. Meanwhile, environmental NGOs are urging droping nuclear power as a proposed but untenable remedy for climate change, and Naoto Kan, Japan’s premier during Fukushima, voices confidence in his country’s nuclear-free future.

“It’s going to kill us,” an article by the Washington Examiner quoted David Stuckenberg, chairman of the American Leadership and Policy Foundation (ALPF), as saying.

America’s nuclear power plants and the transformers they feed electricity to are not protected from the growing threats such as terrorism, electromagnetic pulse (EMP), and even solar weather, said the article citing a recent ALPF report that was provided to the Washington Examiner.

The report, entitled “Electromagnetic Pulse and Space Weather and the Strategic Threat to America’s Nuclear Power Stations,” studies the potential EMP and solar weather impact on U.S. nuclear power plants, the Washington Examiner story said, adding that “unless the industry and Washington move swiftly to install some protection, the chances are growing quickly that the nation could see a long blackout that could lead to riots and deaths.”

The report, according to the Washington Examiner, found that the industry and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission have done little to address the threats, “despite a 2012 solar flare near-miss that could have dismantled some plants and growing fears of terrorism, such as a small atmospheric nuclear explosion over the U.S. that could scuttle the nuke plants and fry the transformers.”

The ALPF, a public policy think tank, also said in its report that the industry has done little in reaction to the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, the story said, citing as an example a failure to come up with adequate plans to handle generator losses to prevent a repetition of what happened at Fukushima.

On March 11, 2011, a devastating earthquake and tsunami wave destroyed Fukushima Daiichi’s main electricity supply and the underground backup generators that were needed to provide cooling to the station’s six reactors as well as cool water supply to the onsite spent nuclear fuel storage pools, resulting in partial meltdowns and massive radiation releases.

fukushima-workers Decontamination workers returning from the Fukushima plant, March 2013. Credit: Nils Bøhmer

The ALPF’s Stuckenberg, an Air Force pilot, suggested that if the issue of EMP, terrorism and solar weather continues to be ignored, enough food and fuel needs to be stored to help people get through a prolonged blackout, the Washington Examiner said.

The story also said the Union of Concerned Scientists has backed the report’s conclusions that, like Fukushima, U.S. facilities that host multiple nuclear plants are at high risk.

“Prior to Fukushima, the consensus worldwide was that a nuclear accident would be confined to a single reactor,” a top nuclear scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists was quoted by the Washington Examiner as saying. “But the report quite properly points out that the threat could challenge multiple nuclear plants. If so, our pre-planned mitigation resources might be as ineffective as the single-reactor resources had been at Fukushima.”

In its country profile for the U.S., the website of the World Nuclear Association (WNA) says the U.S. – the world’s largest nuclear power producer, accounting for 30% of global nuclear generation – currently has 99 operational units with a combined electric power capacity of 98.7 gigawatts, as well as five more units under construction.

PaloVerdeNuclearGeneratingStation The Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant in the US. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Nuclear is no solution for climate change

Meanwhile, environmental organizations are mounting a united effort to counter the claim, now touted increasingly by nuclear proponents, that nuclear power plants could save the world from the climate change crisis, as an alternative to the traditional energy infrastructure, which is blamed for much of the greenhouse gas emissions produced on the planet.

Launched in the run-up to COP21 – the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, scheduled to take place this December in Paris – an international campaign dubbed Don’t Nuke the Climate warns that “the nuclear power industry will attempt to use this forum to gather formal support for their obsolete, failed technology as a climate solution” and urges to take action immediately.

The Don’t Nuke the Climate campaign is a joint initiative of several well-known organizations, including WISE (World Information Service on Energy), Germany’s BI Lüchow-Dannenberg, Russia’s Ecodefense, Austria’s Global 2000, the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), France’s Sortir du nucléaire, and Women in Europe for a Common Future (WECF).

A signature-collecting website has been set up by the campaign to support a petition “to leave the unsustainable path of nuclear energy now”; this petition is to be taken to Paris in December. There, an anti-nuclear march is scheduled for December 12, following the close of climate talks. And on September 26, the campaign plans to deliver its “nuclear is not a climate change solution” message to the French giant EDF, the world’s largest power producer and nuclear power plant operator, which, the campaign says, is among COP21’s major sponsors and is “shamelessly using the context of these negotiations to promote its nuclear electricity as climate-friendly and carbon-free.”

Aside from nuclear power’s well-familiar and obvious risks, nuclear power plants, while themselves not emitting greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, provide a palpable contribution to climate change, the campaign’s website says, linking to a scientific paper that screened 103 lifecycle studies of greenhouse gas-equivalent emissions for nuclear power plants.

Energy is required to power every step of the nuclear fuel chain, from the very energy-intensive mining and enrichment of uranium to the construction of the power plants, then the actual operation of the power plants, which must have external power supply for cooling and other needs, to the decommissioning of power plants and reclamation of uranium mine sites to managing the fuel cycle’s backend operations, which involve storage and sometimes reprocessing of spent fuel and treatment and storage of radioactive waste.

Rössing-Mine The Rössing uranium strip mine in Namibia. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Having analyzed data from a selected number of nuclear lifecycle studies, the paper found in 2008 that the mean value of emissions over the course of the lifetime of a nuclear reactor was 66 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour – much below the range of between 443 and 1050 grams for coal, oil, diesel, and natural gas plants, but higher still than between 9 and 41 grams estimated for renewable energy sources, with wind, biogas, and hydropower giving the lowest carbon dioxide equivalent values.

This alone being a powerful argument for why nuclear is a poor remedy for global warming, the Don’t Nuke the Climate campaign offers a brief outline of more reasons to stay away from nuclear.

Too few around, too costly and too late to build more – and too dangerous in any case

For one thing, too many reactors would be needed to try to offset climate change, while the carbon reductions achieved would still not be enough, the Don’t Nuke the Climate campaign’s factsheet, prepared by NIRS, says. Major studies show that between 1,500 and 2,000 large new reactors would have to be added to the roughly 400 currently operating worldwide for nuclear power to make any meaningful dent in greenhouse gas emissions, it says. If all of these reactors were to replace coal plants, carbon emissions would drop by about 20% worldwide, and if they were used entirely as new capacity instead of renewable sources and energy efficiency, carbon emissions would actually increase.

By comparison, in its negotiation mandate for the COP21 climate talks adopted in September, the European Union has committed to cutting CO2 emissions by at least 50% by 2050 compared to 1990 levels, stating the need to further reduce emissions to near or below zero by 2100 in order to retain temperature rise below the 2°C increase as recommended by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The 2°C increase is the threshold considered by the IPCC to be the point of no return for global warming and its dramatic consequences.

This also means that climate change cannot wait, and building fifteen hundred more reactors – the conservative estimate – would mean opening a new reactor about once every two weeks, beginning today, for the next 60 years, the campaign’s factsheet says. At the current construction rates of between six and 10 (and sometimes, more) years, the NIRS factsheet adds, this is both too late and simply unrealistic.

And even if it were at all feasible, it would cost trillions of dollars, judging from the approximate price range of between $7 billion and $15 billion for a modern reactor, the factsheet also says, adding that diverting such enormous funds into nuclear would make it impossible to also implement more effective means of addressing global warming, among which energy efficiency is some seven times more cost-efficient per dollar spent than nuclear power.

Now, picturing this supposedly cooler and safer planet, studded with hundreds of new reactors, one would also have to imagine the sheer amounts of waste that would be produced – and would need management for hundreds of years to come. As the NIRS information sheet says, this would require building every three or four years a new geological repository the size of Yucca Mountain – a U.S. project in Nevada proposed for accommodating 70,000 metric tons of nuclear waste. After two decades of extensive study and billions of dollars spent, it was finally dropped for failing to quell safety concerns.

ingressimage_449px-Tour_group_entering_North_Portal_of_Yucca_Mountain.jpg Entrance to the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository. Credit: Wikipedia

Geological disposal projects elsewhere are yet to give experts sufficient confidence in terms of safety, and reprocessing has well-reported drawbacks of its own – in addition to hardly relieving the carbon emissions burden. In short, in the six decades of its existence, nuclear power has still not come up with a solution for spent nuclear fuel, and, in the view of many experts, is unlikely to do so soon.

To make this an even more questionable trade-in, increasing the share of nuclear will compound the obvious concerns: safety. As the NIRS information points out, newer and purportedly safer reactor designs have so far existed on paper only; when and if they are realized is a matter of very costly investments and years of testing. Meanwhile, an additional 1,500 units of nuclear fleet means an increased threat of proliferation of bomb-making materials and of these materials ending up in the hands of terrorists, the factsheet says, as well as an increased risk of accidents: based on the industry’s record as it stands, a calculated rate of a Fukushima-scale accident every five years is a truly scary probability.

Finally, as Fukushima shows, a disaster need not stem from a design flaw or be the intentional outcome of an act of terror: more nuclear power plants translate into more vulnerability to extreme weather events brought on by climate change, making nuclear an unsuitable option for warming climates, the campaign’s factsheet warns. Heat waves may disrupt a reliable water supply nuclear power plants need for cooling, rising sea levels are a troubling prospect for coastal power plants and their infrastructure, and any one of an array of natural disasters such as a wildfire or a snowstorm, a tornado, or, indeed, tsunami, may result in loss of power and, by extension, loss of cooling – with all the imaginable consequences of that.

A fork in the road: Will Japan make the wrong choice?

That nuclear power plants come with terrible threats of their own can be well attested by the estimated 160,000 residents still displaced from the area affected by Fukushima – or someone like Japan’s former prime minister Naoto Kan, who was in office as the country grappled with the disaster and who shared his experiences and hopes in a lecture to foreign residents of Tokyo in mid-September.

As a lesson of Fukushima, Japan needs to follow a nuclear-free path, Kan said, according to a report by The Japan Times.

“I’m absolutely sure that there will no longer be nuclear power by the end of this century. This is because it doesn’t make sense economically, and enough energy can be provided without it,” the paper quoted the former prime minister as saying, adding that Kan listed his predecessors Junichiro Koizumi and Morihiro Hosokawa as being on board wishing to end Japan’s dependence on nuclear.

Meanwhile, the first reactor to be re-launched in Japan since the decision was made in the wake of Fukushima to mothball all 48 operational reactors was put back online in August. Prior to Fukushima, Japan relied on nuclear for 30% of its total power supply, and the need to increase imports of energy sources has driven electricity costs up by 20%, said a PBS story reporting on the re-launch.

sendai.jpg- The Sendai Nuclear Power Plant. (Photo: Wikipedia)

The restart, at the Sendai Nuclear Power Plant, followed a lengthy period of safety assessments and a heated public debate, with industry pressuring the government to restart reactors, on the one hand, and massive public protests against such a step, on the other. Now, operators of 25 reactors at 15 plants have applied for permission to restart, Reuters reported in early August, with only five at three plants cleared to resume operation.

But Japan has survived the past few summers without nuclear power, Kan reminded his audience, according to the Japan Times, adding that although the current government is still promoting nuclear power, Japan has seen an increase of renewable energy in these four years, especially from solar panels.

Kan said that considering the cost of decommissioning and managing the waste, nuclear power, though it was believed to be a cheap source of energy, is actually expensive, the story said.

Japan’s ex-minister also shared his experience of visiting the Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant in Finland, where a geological nuclear waste repository is being built and where Kan was told it would take 100,000 years for the radiation in the nuclear waste to decrease to the level of naturally found uranium, the Japan Times story said.

Kan said that using nuclear power means increasing the amount of dangerous waste that will trouble future generations, according to the paper.

Additional reporting was contributed to this overview by Maria Kaminskaya

Igor Yadroshnikov

Maria Kaminskaya