Sunday, July 03, 2011

Nuclear power in context

The debate over nuclear power is an asymmetric contest. On one side we have a multi-billion dollar industry backed by the full might of government. This alliance has at its disposal, vast sums of money and an awesome array of resources, including PR agents, lawyers, lobbyists and media pundits.

The opposing team consists of ordinary citizens who wield little more than common sense and thoughtful concern to counter pro-industry propaganda. The glaring difference between these opposing forces is matched by the divergence of issues concerning each side.

While the nuclear industry and their allies in government are motivated by profit, power and prestige, ordinary citizens are concerned about the near and long term health and safety aspects of radioactive pollution.

Nuclear power has never been an economically viable way to produce electricity. The initial purpose of the nuclear reactor was to produce fissile material for atomic bombs. The entire industry was subsidized by government from the beginning and it could not survive without state funding.

Promotion of the nuclear industry is a symptom of techno-utopian hubris, the reckless pursuit of power and profit based on a paradigm in which arbitrary and subjective value judgements, such as notions of "wealth", "progress" and "quality of life", are given precedence over concern for the integrity of nature's life-support systems.

Only by concealing, discounting or denying the true costs of nuclear power can proponents of the industry claim it is clean, safe and economic. The true costs include all costs associated with the nuclear fuel cycle; social, economic, environmental, from mine site to final disposal and all steps in between, such as reprocessing, storage and security.

Three hundred thousand tonnes of spent fuel, radioactive waste that will remain hazardous for a 100,000 years, is temporarily stored alongside reactors at 440 nuclear plants around the world, with still no solution to the problem of disposal, a cost and a liability that industry proponents prefer to ignore.

As the explosions at Fukushima demonstrated, this dangerous nuclear waste can escape and spread into the environment, contaminating air, sea, land and ground water. While the cost of this contamination will be borne by many for centuries to come, the corporations that profited from the plant in the past are protected from liability by government legislation.

The role of responsible government should include protecting citizens from the reckless excesses of industrial giants. But as recently reported in the Guardian, the UK government has secretly colluded with industry behemoths to mislead the public about the dangers associated with nuclear power.

Decades of popular protest and patient warnings about the hazards posed by the nuclear industry have had little effect on policy makers and politicians, who have traditionally been supportive of the industry.

Given that an overwhelming majority of citizens around the world are strongly opposed to nuclear power, staunch support for the industry by elected governments makes a mockery of democracy.

Belatedly, the tide is turning against the nuclear industry. In the wake of Fukushima, the governments of Germany, Switzerland and Japan have all committed to phasing out nuclear power and Italy recently reaffirmed its decision to remain nuclear free.

In the US, a hundred aging reactors are reaching their use-by date and requiring evermore maintenance at increasing cost. The New York Times has reported that cracks and leaks have been found at many US reactors and in some places ground water has been contaminated with radioactive Tritium.

The future expense of decommisioning reactors, more than a billion dollars over ten years, represents a significant cost to plant operators. Many are now seeking 20 year extensions to their operating licenses, a process that requires expensive assessment of facilities.

These aging power plants are ticking, radiological timebombs. Any one of them could become the next Fukushima.

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