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Climate change, safety, nuke power politics

By Lea Guerrero
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 05:52:00 03/15/2009

Filed Under: Climate Change, Energy, Alternative energy

SOMETHING terribly wrong is going on for nuclear power to be considered ?clean energy.? Nuclear power is not the solution to climate change and it creates more problems than it purports to solve.

Believers in nuclear power, like Representative Mark Cojuangco, think that climate change is their best argument. Nuclear power, they say, is the only alternative to the dirty coal fuel. But notice how, when they talk about nuclear power, they omit or belittle renewable energy. To admit that renewable energy works (it does) renders nuclear power irrelevant.

The strongest case against nuclear power is safety, a serious concern downplayed by its proponents. They have to. Although the nuclear industry claims that new designs have made a disaster a remote possibility, the reality is that the threat remains.

Compared with other power sources, only nuclear energy can turn entire regions into radioactive wastelands, and cause cancer and mutation that can be passed on to tens of generations.

Clearly, the risks from nuclear energy are real. If disasters are possible, the risk of one happening soon is just as great as it happening later. So, the debate is not whether a nuclear accident can happen (it can), but whether we are ready to face the consequences when it does.

Irresponsible

This concern is deliberately buried in the efforts to revive the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP). While the Cojuangco bill seeking to activate the BNPP has been stalled, attempts to push the measure persist. The congressional numbers game (now at 194) is being used to advance what would be perhaps the most irresponsible legislation ever proposed in the House of Representatives.

What can be worse than reviving a mothballed nuclear plant, inherently unsafe, further judged unsafe by every single study conducted on its premises?

Safe nuclear reactors are a myth. The whole life cycle of a nuclear plant is fraught with danger. Mining, processing, transporting and using radioactive fuel are risky. During operations, radioactive material is discharged into the atmosphere and bodies of water.

Worse, its waste product, plutonium, is more deadly than the fuel. Its deadliness lasts more than 240,000 years, requiring storage with garrison-like security. Plutonium has two particular characteristics: it is of high strategic value for weapons and it is highly radiotoxic. A few kilos are enough for a nuclear weapon and a few micrograms can cause fatal cancer.

A major accident in a light water reactor can cause radioactive releases several times those at Chernobyl and about 1,000 times that caused by a fission weapon. Evacuation can be needed for areas as large as 100,000 square meters (as big as Luzon) and cancer deaths can exceed one million.

The death toll at Chernobyl is not 60. A Belarus study estimates at least 270,000 cancer cases and 93,000 fatalities from cancer in the years that followed the meltdown.

The safety records of the BNPP?s sister plants are shady. A cooling system leak shut down the plant in Slovenia in 2008. No deaths were reported but the incident could have triggered a catastrophe. Nuclear power is thus electricity generation living on the edge.

Costly cleanup

Even without accidents, most radioactive contamination comes from the decommissioning of reactors and leaks from in-storage sites. The Hanford nuclear complex in Washington, USA, is now the site of the biggest environmental cleanup.

The cleanup started in the late 1990s and continues today, costing taxpayers $2 billion a year. Here, the problem of nuclear waste rears its ugly head: scientists cannot stabilize the 55 million gallons of radioactive waste which have leaked into the soil and water. There is no known scientific solution to nuclear waste. The only thing that can be done with the waste is to store it and pray it doesn?t leak in your lifetime.

With such inherent problems, nuclear power is clearly not the energy of choice. Rather, it is the energy of ?no choice,? only considered if there is no alternative source of power. After all, who would choose nuclear power ? grotesquely expensive and hideously unsafe, whose fuel requires vast amounts of electricity to enrich, whose decommissioning and waste storage each cost more than the plant itself, and whose waste is infinitely more deadly than its fuel ? when there are better sources of electricity?

This is the stark reality of nuclear energy that the industry downplays, and which Cojuangco is trying so desperately to sweep under the rug. But at whose expense?

What makes nuclear power so abhorrent to taxpayers is what makes it so attractive to dubious politicians and monopolistic business interests.

This is also why nuclear power can only prevail when these same politicians and business interests devalue renewables. What makes renewable energy undesirable to certain politicians and monopolies is what makes it so beneficial to taxpayers. Renewable energy systems take shorter periods to build, cost less and the fuel (wind and sun) is the sort that can?t be cornered by industry or subjected to anomalous supply contracts.

Deceptive

Nuclear power has been harnessed by other countries, but just because they expose their nations to risks doesn?t mean that we should, too.

The nuclear industry has been trying vainly to shed the disgraceful association between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons programs, building the myth of safe, clean and cheap nuclear power.

Measured against the criteria of reliable, affordable, economically viable, socially acceptable and environmentally sound energy, nuclear power failed on all counts.

(Lea Guerrero is a campaigner of Greenpeace Southeast Asia.)



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