A TALE OF TWO BOOKS
Nuclear Power is Not the Answer Helen Caldicott The New Press, UK, 2006, £13.99
Hydra’s teeth, wherever planted, gave rise to fearsome warriors who had to be destroyed one by one before Jason of Argonaut fame could continue in his pursuit of the golden fleece. Nuclear power, now in the process of being resurrected from its post-Chernobyl state of near-death, is threatening us with a new wave of proliferation, on a par perhaps with that which occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, when subsidies were poured into the new technology as if there were no tomorrow, and when the arms race was at its height. In 2007, the aim seems honourable: nothing less than combating global warming. Great that we should have a ready solution in the form of a power source that does not emit greenhouse gases! At least, that is the line of George W. Bush and his cronies, and, to a
degree, of the pro-nuclear advocates in the British and other governments.
Yet nuclear power has never been the solution to anything, and years ago its critics from a wide range of disciplines within the scientific community came up with a plethora of scientific facts against its use – knocking the myths of nuclear safety, of its cheapness and environmental cleanness. Today, we are having to revive those argu-
ments so as to prevent an inordinate and dangerous loss of opportunities to tackle climate change, from investment in efficiency to lifestyle changes, and not least through the use of renewable energies.
Helen Caldicott, in telling us that nuclear power is not the answer, has therefore revisited arguments that have never died. And it is timely that she should. We now have the spectre of past critics of nuclear power, such as Peter Melchett, once of Greenpeace, believing that we won’t be able to tackle global warming from greenhouse-gas emissions unless we establish a vast worldwide nuclear construction programme, irrespective of cost. Their argument is that the dangers from global warming far surpass those from the occasional nuclear power accident. They may well be right that climate change and global warming are critical issues facing humankind, but, as Caldicott makes all too clear in her account of the problems and dangers associated with nuclear power, and not least proliferation, we would be making a fatal mistake to think of nuclear power as some sort of God-given solution. Rather, as Alvin Weinberg remarked in the 1970s, when he was director of the Oak Ridge nuclear facility, our pursuit to energise society through nuclear power, in particular through running thousands of fast breeder reactors, was no less than a Faustian bargain – a pact, if you like, with the Devil. Weinberg realised that without breeder reactors the phenomenon of nuclear power would be relatively short-lived.
And that brings us to the question of nuclear fuel. Ever since the 1970s we have known that good-quality uranium ores – those economically recoverable – were limited; not even the UK’s Atomic Energy Authority denied it. On the contrary, at the time of the Sizewell Public Inquiry we had scientists from the Authority, in accordance with Weinberg, telling us that limitations in economically recoverable uranium would mean that we had little option but to resort to the fast breeder reactor if we wanted a worldwide
nuclear power programme.
But just imagine a world with fast breeder reactors. France’s Superphénix 1,200MW fast reactor was fuelled, at any one moment, with five tonnes of plutonium, quite aside from the 5,000 tonnes of liquid sodium required to take heat out of the core. Ignoring the fact that Superphénix never operated satisfactorily, five tonnes of plutonium represents an awful lot of fissile material in just one reactor – the equivalent of several thousand plutonium bombs. Multiply that by all the 5,000 or so reactors that would be needed worldwide to make a dent in electricity production from what is currently fossil-fuel-generated, and we are talking of a fearful quantity of readily usable fissile material passing through the global system and, moreover, needing to be reprocessed so as to fuel new plants coming on line. Studies carried out in France in the 1980s showed that on account of plutonium losses in the system, especially during the reprocessing of spent breeder reactor fuel, the doubling time by which a fast breeder reactor could generate enough plutonium to power another reactor was seventy years or more.
Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and the late Philip Smith have given us some of the most thorough and cogent reasons why nuclear power will fail miserably to deliver the goods without making much of a dent in greenhouse-gas emissions. The nuclear industry has always been extremely economical with the truth, in spreading the myth that nuclear power is virtually free from greenhouse-gas emissions. In order to get a proper inventory of such emissions we must visit every aspect of the nuclear fuel cycle: mining the uranium ore; processing it; preparing it for fissile-fuel enrichment; machining it to fit in the fuel rods; constructing the reactor building out of concrete and steel and other metal components; operating the system, for which electricity is required from an outside source; guarding the spent fuel in cooling ponds to allow radioactive decay of short-lived fission products; reprocessing the fuel to extract plutonium and unused uranium-235 (the fissile isotope of uranium); somehow dealing with the radioactive wastes such as to prevent them contaminating the environment; and finally the need to decommission the reactor building and everything associated with it (including highly radioactive components).
All of those processes involve fossil-fuel energy and therefore result in greenhouse-gas emissions. How great those emissions are depends on the quality of the ore and furthermore on the extent to which precautions are taken to prevent environmental contamination with radioactive material, whether the result of routine discharges or of accidents.
As Caldicott points out, one nuclear reactor with a generating capacity of some 1,000MW (1GW) requires that 160 tonnes of natural uranium be mined each year from the Earth’s crust. If the uranium is embedded in granite then as much as 80 million tonnes of granite will have to be mined, all of it using fossil-fuel power. Then comes the milling, then the conversion of the uranium to gaseous form by combining the metal with fluoric acid, and so it goes on. But she is talking here of current practice; of the use of current ores.
In fact, the relationship between quantity and quality in uranium availability is an inverse one, with the best ores being limited to a few million tonnes. Meanwhile, the Earth’s crust and oceans contain millions upon
millions of tonnes of uranium. The average in the crust is 0.0004% and in sea-
water it is 2,000 times more dilute. Below 50 parts per million the energy extracted is no better than that obtained from mining coal, assuming that the uranium is used in a once-through fuel cycle and is not reprocessed but is dumped in some long-term repository. For instance, the Tennessee shales in the United States have uranium
concentrations of between 100 and 10 parts per million and, taken as a whole, little effective energy, as measured by the amount of electricity gained per unit mass of mined ore.
“Even utilising the richest ores available,” says Caldicott, “a nuclear power plant must operate at ten full-load operating years before it has paid off its energy debts.” And once the good ores have gone, she remarks, the costs of energy production will exceed the gains, quite aside from the releases of greenhouse gases that come with the use of fossil-fuel-driven equipment.
Caldicott reveals the deceit and hypo-
crisy that have been associated with nuclear power from its beginnings in the 1940s to the present day. The industry, supported by governments and indeed by the United Nations, in the form of the International Atomic Energy Agency, continues to feed us half-truths about the dangers to human health and the environment from radioactive isotopes and radiation. They have downplayed the health consequences of Chernobyl by a factor of ten or more, whereas, as has been made palpably clear from the killing of Alexander Litvinenko, just a few nanograms (thousand-millionths of a gram) of the alpha emitter polonium-210 are enough, once inside the body, to destroy every organ and bring about a lingering and horrible death. Plutonium is also an alpha emitter, quite aside from its explosive properties. The world now has several thousand tonnes of plutonium, and the dispersal of no more than a tiny fraction of such an inventory, whether through nuclear accidents (such as at Chernobyl), or at reprocessing plants like British Nuclear Fuels’ plant at Sellafield in Cumbria, or indeed through routine discharges, will be enough to cause permanent risks to health.
But it is not just plutonium with which we should be concerned. As Caldicott tells us, we need to be fully aware of the dangers from fission products such as caesium-137, radio-iodine and a host of other virulently radioactive elements. Tritium, discharged routinely from all reactor types that use water as coolant and moderator, and particularly from CANDU reactors, is particularly dangerous because, as a
radioactive hydrogen isotope, it is likely to get into virtually every component of the living cell, including the DNA lying at the heart of the genome.
Caldicott’s book is a timely reminder that we must be on our guard against the hard-sell tactics of the nuclear industry forcing us to believe that we are doomed unless we opt for a new generation of nuclear power stations.