False Solutions, part one: Nuclear Power

By Isabella Nilsen, politics student

With the ever more acute threat of climate change, it is tempting to call for technological ‘quick fixes’ which can allow us to continue living just as we are today. Of course tackling climate change will need technological solutions; however we must distinguish which ones are merely false ones, and that causing a greater damage to our environment.

Nuclear power is a false solution – it  carries the threat of accidents with consequences difficult to foresee, and there is also not yet a clear plan for where to store the radioactive nuclear waste. Furthermore, the mining of the nuclear fuel causes both disease among the miners, and damage to the environment.  With renewable alternatives available, which often are cheaper to install and might provide more jobs, investors should choose the real solutions and not invest into nuclear power.

Nuclear waste

In the process of generating electricity from nuclear power, radioactive decay is also created, which needs to be stored safely for a very long time. For example one bi-product, Technetium-99, has a half-life of over 200,000 years[1]. In comparison, our species, the Homo Sapiens, evolved  around 200,000 years ago[2]. Thereby, nuclear energy causes not only risks for species living today – but also for those to come to existence.  The storage of the radioactive waste is therefore one of the greatest difficulties associated with nuclear power. It has also led to controversy since understandably, few people want the dangerous waste to be stored close to their houses. This has led the UK’s Radioactive Waste Management having trouble to find a safe space where they can dispose the waste[3], and at the moment most of it is stored at ground level, in vaults at Sellafield in Cumbria[4].

Accidents

 One of the main discussions about nuclear power is on its safety. As history has proven, nuclear power is not completely safe (and could never be), as there have been several accidents throughout the 20th and 21st century. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recognise a total of seven incidents, which includes six serious incidents since the 1950s, whereas the Guardian identified 26 more accidents since the first nuclear power plant was built, after studying reports on the issue[5]. The discrepancy in number is due to the fact that the IAEA themselves do not keep a complete historical database[6] (perhaps because they want to keep the illusion that nuclear power is safe).

Chernobyl_Disaster.jpg

Picture from the Chernobyl accident [c] Wikipedia[7]

The most damaging nuclear power accident occurred 30 years ago in Chernobyl, Ukraine, part of the former Soviet Union. It is difficult to estimate exactly how many people died following the accident, since the radioactive materials travelled far away from the site (leading to many cases of cancer in other areas of the world not being linked to the accident) and because it was only after the break-up of the Soviet Union that the impact was measured accurately on the surrounding population[8]. WHO has estimated a death toll of 4000 people, however this includes only the ‘higher-exposed Chernobyl populations’, i.e. the emergency workers working on the site from 1986 to 1987 and the people living in the most contaminated surrounding areas[9]. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) however, estimates a death toll of 27,000. Their estimation includes people living in other areas which were also affected by the release of radioactive material dispersed by wind currents[10].

The Mining

Ranger_Uranium_Mine.jpg

Closed uranium  mine in Malawi [c] Venture Africa

One issue that many do not consider when it comes to nuclear power is the mining of the fuel. Uranium mining can have disastrous effects both for the human beings involved in the mining, and for the surrounding environment. Uranium is both chemically toxic and radioactive, and the mining of it has been linked to increased risks for developing different forms of cancer including leukaemia[11]and lung cancer[12] among the workers, due to the increased exposure of radon, a radioactive gas which uranium decays into. There are also worries that there are radioactive particles leaking from the mines affecting biodiversity in the surrounding areas[13].

Furthermore, one of the most controversial mining method is in situ leaching, which involves the process of drilling groundwater wells or bores into the uranium deposit, and then injecting corrosive chemicals to dissolve the uranium within the ore to then pump back the uranium-laden solution[14]. The problem is that the chemicals mobilise more metals than just uranium. This include lead and cadmium which then can leak into the groundwater and cause irreversible damages to the ground water quality[15].One of the worst affected sites is Stráž pod Ralskem in Czech Republic where, following 32 years of in situ leaching, 370 cubic meters of ground water has been contaminated[16].

The cost

In 2015 The Minister of State for Energy, Andrea Leadsom, claimed that[i]t is vital that industries over time stand on their own two feet’[17] defending cuts in subsidies for renewable energy when subsidies for nuclear power are continuing. It is ironic, because many have argued that nuclear power would not survive without subsidies, especially not if energy companies themselves had to pay for the waste management (instead of it being paid with public money)[18]. In addition, the construction of new nuclear power plants often cost more than expected while often also running over time – an example being the construction of Olkiluoto 3 in Finland which so far is three times over budget, and nine years behind schedule[19]. Mraz et al calculated the cost savings for building new renewable energy compared to the creation of Hinkley Point C, and found that it would be 50 per cent cheaper to support the creation of small-scale hydro-plants, nine per cent cheaper to invest into biomass co-firing and two per cent cheaper to support onshore wind, while still generating as much new energy[20].

When it comes to job creation, it has been estimated by the Union of Concerned Scientists  that the construction of renewable energy in the United States generates more jobs than the construction of nuclear power[21]. Sadly, the UK Energy Research Centre did not include nuclear power when they compared the number of jobs created through the generation of electricity from different energy sources. However, they found that electricity generated from wind and solar create more jobs per GWh generated than electricity generated from fossil fuels, and that energy efficiency would also create more jobs per GWh saved[22]. Furthermore, the construction of wind turbines, solar panels, hydro-plants, etc., would be spread across the country and thereby creating jobs in many places, unlike the nuclear power plant which creates jobs centred in one place, with the implication that more communities can gain from the construction of renewable energy than from nuclear.

Conclusion

Nuclear power is a false solution, and investing into it is nor ethical nor sustainable. Therefore, instead of wasting money on building new nuclear power plants – which often turn out to be more expensive, and take longer time to construct than predicted-  governments and private investors should invest into the creation of renewable energy to create a safer and more sustainable future for all.

 

References:

[1]http://www.rsc.org/periodic-table/element/43/technetium

[2]http://www.britannica.com/topic/Homo-sapiens

[3]http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/aug/17/uk-radioactive-waste-disposal-site-search-continues-opposition

[4]http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/nov/01/nuclear-waste-underground-storage

[5]http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2011/mar/14/nuclear-power-plant-accidents-list-rank

[6] http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2011/mar/14/nuclear-power-plant-accidents-list-rank

[7]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_disaster

[8]http://science.time.com/2011/04/22/how-many-did-chernobyl-kill-more-than-4000/

[9]http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2005/pr38/en/

[10]http://allthingsnuclear.org/lgronlund/how-many-cancers-did-chernobyl-really-cause-updated?

[11]http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1480508/

[12]http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4164879/

[13]http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4164879/

[14]http://www.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear/issues/oz/u/isl/articles

[15]http://www.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear/issues/oz/u/isl/articles

[16]http://gse.vsb.cz/2010/LVI-2010-3-01-06.pdf

[17]http://www.theguardian.com/environment/damian-carrington-blog/2015/oct/22/hinkley-point-uk-energy-policy-is-now-hunkering-in-a-nuclear-bunker

[18]http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2986749/after_60_years_of_nuclear_power_the_industry_survives_only_on_stupendous_subsidies.html

[19]http://www.carbonbrief.org/new-nuclear-finlands-cautionary-tale-for-the-uk

[20]http://www.wua-wien.at/images/stories/publikationen/renewable-energy-versus-nuclear-power.pdf, p. 24

[21]http://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/legacy/assets/documents/clean_energy/Clean-Power-Green-Jobs-25-RES.pdf

[22]http://www.ukerc.ac.uk/news/green-jobs-debate-should-look-beyond-short-term-benefits-says-ukerc-report.html

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