Mekong Utility Watch

Half-lives and half-truths

Bangkok Post
November 29, 1998

ENERGY: With increasingly successful alternatives, has the promise of nuclear power run out of steam?

The search for an inexhaustible source of energy that does not pollute the environment, does not harm people, and can be harnessed to serve the public at the cheapest price has been pursued since the dawn of the industrial revolution.

Today, the world uses five major types of fuel for producing electricity: water, coal, oil, gas and nuclear fission. Other types use wind energy and solar energy. Of the five, nuclear reactors are the most recent, the least understood and the most controversial.

The following are some of the claims of pro-nuclear advocates (in bold) and counter-claims by environmentalists and anti-nuclear groups.

1. Nuclear energy is good for the environment as it does not con tribute to the green house
effect or to global warming.

Probe International and Greenpeace say this is not true.

* First or all, the design of a nuclear power plant forces it to depend on other power plants that use oil or coal.

Nuclear reactors must run continuously, they can’t be switched on and off easily. Thus, when electrical demand fluctuates, they must depend on electricity supplied by plants using coal or oil.

* Second, in the last 15 years, Japan has more than doubled its number of nuclear power plants but carbon dioxide emissions have not dropped. Instead, they have increased proportionately.

* Third, if nuclear power plants are as good as these salesmen claim, why has Canada reduced its use of its nuclear power plants during the last decade?

* In Britain, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions have been cut in half over the last decade – but not by using more nuclear power. Power producers switched from nuclear power and coal to natural gas.

Probe International offers one solution to harmful emissions: shut down nuclear power plants and invest in state-of-the-art combined cycle plants which burn natural gas very efficiently, reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 60 percent, and produce no sulphur dioxide, nitrous dioxide or other smog-causing emissions.

Unlike nuclear power plants, combined cycle plants can easily adjust to fluctuating demands, can be installed in less than a year, for a fraction of the cost of a nuclear power plant, and without the costs and risks associated with the nuclear fuel cycle.

Combined cycle plants also happen to be economically viable, thus the private sector is willing to invest capital, without need of huge subsidies, government guarantees, or other forms of risk protection commanded by the nuclear and the coal industries.

2. Nuclear reactors are highly popular in Japan, Europe, and especially in France.

* Mrs Satomi Oba, director of Plutonium Action Hiroshima, said not all Japanese like nuclear plants. Local communities are protesting against the building of new power plants in 30 different proposed sites. The residents of Maki town, Niigata prefecture, rejected the building of a nuclear power plant in a 1996 referendum.

* In October this year, Mr Dominique Voynet, French Green Minister for the Environment, called for a phase-out of nuclear energy in France. The superphoenix fast breeder reactor was permanently shut down in January this year. Currently, France has 59 reactors, producing some 78 percent of all electricity. No reactor has been ordered since 1991.

* Germany and Sweden will phase out nuclear power. Switzerland, which has not completed a nuclear power plant since 1980, cancelled 22-year-old plans in 1988 to build the country’s sixth reactor at Kaiserugst.

3. The nuclear industry offers clean and safe technology.

* According to Plutonium Action Hiroshima, 50 nuclear plants in Japan do not know where to store their toxic nuclear waste.

* According to Probe International, Canadians do not know where to store 1.3 million tonnes of highly radioactive waste. As long as nuclear power plants operate, the amount of deadly radioactive waste accumulates and pressure increases to find a place that can isolate the nuclear waste from the environment for up to a quarter of a million years.

In 1988, a federal government committee recommended a moratorium on the construction of nuclear power plants in Canada until the people of Canada have agreed on an acceptable solution for the disposal of radioactive waste. No such solution has yet been found.

After eight years of study and public consultations, a federal government committee concluded this March that Atomic Energy of Canada Limited’s proposal to bury nuclear waste deep in the bedrock of northern Canada is not safe. The committee concluded that AECL had failed to adequately demonstrate the safety of its plan to Canadians. The cost of AECL’s untested scheme could be up to 13.3 billion Canadian dollars.

* High-level radioactive waste shipments from a French reprocessing plant started in 1995 amidst international outrage and protest. It was followed by an even larger scale shipment from France to Japan.

* Elsewhere, most nuclear power operators have a hard time managing radioactive waste in Taiwan and South Korea. The negative effects of nuclear power plants in Taiwan gradually surfaced.

According to Mr K.L. Chang of the Department of Physics, Taiwan University, hot waste water discharged into the ocean whitened and killed coast coral at the mouths of discharging pipes. Fish were also found deformed. Humans have also been affected with serious health problems.

4. Nuclear power is the cheapest way to generate electricity.

* According to Plutonium-Free Future in Berkeley, California, official calculations of the cost of nuclear energy include only the direct costs of building and operating reactors, plus mining, processing and transporting fuel.

They do not take into account indirect costs to society from environmental and health damage, or the costs of accidents, clean-ups, nuclear waste storage and decommissioning.

* According to Probe International in Canada, the cost of CANDU reactors has more than doubled in real terms over the last 25 years.

The capital costs of a nuclear power plant are higher than most conventional power plants. CANDU proponents have never estimated those costs accurately, which poses a serious financial risk to CANDU buyers.

For example, the cost of Ontario Hydro’s Darlington Nuclear Station was estimated at $3.95 billion in 1978.

By 1993, the cost was over $14 billion – an increase of over 250 percent. AECL says the first estimate was in 1975 when the design of the plant was at a conceptual stage. The cost escalation was typical of many large projects in Canada during this period, it says.

During the construction period, there was a significant increase in the stringency of regulatory and safety requirements.

5. The world will run out of fossil fuel (coal, oil and gas) soon. If we will not use nuclear
power, we will go back to primitive times when there was no electricity.

Asia No Nuke Forum offers solutions and alternatives to this.

* Reform the policy and structure of power utilities away from unlimited-growth and profit-through-high-sales models of operation.

* Develop energy visions concerned with health, ecological sustainability and social well-being designed to meet people’s actual, specific needs.

* Use renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and biogas and learn from indigenous approaches to sustainable living.

* Governments should encourage conservation in all energy sectors, especially big investors. Ms Watcharee Paolungthong of the Alternative Energy Project for Sustainability suggests that the government should seriously promote the sustainable use of energy such as in the design of houses and buildings. Some European buildings and houses have been designed to use less air conditioning and lights. The government should not only try to secure supply, but must also manage demand.

The government should also provide a greater budget for the research and development of alternative energy.

* Governments should conduct annual competitions among inventors, technicians, and designers to encourage and reward ideas that lead to machinery, gadgets, processes, and materials that diminish environmental pollution and conserve energy.

* The Thai government could give tax exemptions to companies, communities, and families that rely on solar power, wind power, biogas power and use less energy.

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