The nuclear power industry (NPI) has received much flak from environmentalists and the general public as enemies of the planet. Non-proliferation experts, though not so strongly, have also voiced concerns over nuclear power as the gateway to nuclear weapons. Although the NPI has some fairly good lobbyists, they have done a less than impressive job in addressing the public. As a result, nuclear power has always been viewed with suspicion and wariness around the world, still subject to huge debates, hair pulling, and wrangling. Given power consumption levels today and the fact that the demand will skyrocket in the next thirty years as China and India power their way to First World status means only that the crusade against the atom has been lost and nuclear power is here to stay. It is, perhaps, worthwhile to pause and reflect upon the record of the NPI globally at this juncture than bemoan the event and prophecy doom and gloom for future generations.
The three immediate issues that emerge upon the mention of nuclear power are Chernobyl, proliferation, and carbon emissions and other environmental concerns. Critics of the NPI would have it that the third is not much of a benefit and the cost is the generations of tonnes of nuclear waste some of which may remain hazardous for up to 24,000 years. The first, they say, is clearly a sign of the End Times. I remember reading somewhere that a good lie is one that has as much truth mixed in as possible to make it appear credible. Former chairman of Atomic Energy Canada Limited (AECL), Reid Morden, was perhaps more diplomatic when he explained the seven stages of the anti-nuclear lobby (June 1997 speech to the AECL): 1) Pretend that you have relevant scientific expertise, when you don’t, 2) When challenged on one misleading argument, simply move on to the next – always be a moving target, 3) Ignore the costs and risks of any energy alternative, 4) Talk about the consequences of a nuclear tragedy – never talk about risk or probability, 6) Always, always repeat. There is nothing like repetitions of a lie to make people think it’s the truth, and 7) Pretend you are interested in energy or the environment, when your real agenda is simply anti-nuclear, full stop. The second issue is a little more complex.
The Acheson-Lilienthal report was perhaps the wisest and insightful memo received by an American president on nuclear issues. It stated that “there is no prospect of security against atomic warfare in a system of international agreements to outlaw such weapons controlled only by a system which relies on inspections and similar police-like methods. The reasons supporting this conclusion are not merely technical, but primarily the inseparable political, social, and organisational problems involved in enforcing agreements between nations each free to develop nuclear energy but only pledged not to use bombs.” Nuclear safeguards, such as they are, eventually only create legal barriers and slow the progress of a state determined to have weapons capability. Given the the large number of countries in the world, these controls may seem to have a high success rate. However, when compared with the number of countries that wished to acquire weapons, the challenge by India, Israel, Pakistan, N. Korea, and South Africa and the threat of violation from Iran, the controls are found wanting, reinforcing the report’s conclusion.
The second question to consider regarding proliferation is the type of reactor – not all reactors are capable of producing fissile material for nuclear weapons. The CANDU and the RBMK (similar design) are perhaps the most proliferation-friendly of the lot. CANDU’s use of natural uranium, online refuelling, and use of heavy water, and the RBMK’s use of light water, online refuelling, and graphite makes them ideal for a clandestine nuclear weapons programme. The RBMKs have never been exported, and CANDUs have never been exported without strict safeguards. Even then, there is much debate on how good a CANDU really in manufacturing weapons-grade plutonium – AECL scientists have consistently pointed out that the plutonium produced by a CANDU is between 60 and 70% pure, while a weapon requires at least 93%. In addition, the diversion of plutonium from a CANDU would produce local hot spots within the reactor core, resulting in less than optimal reactor performance. Although not strictly impossible to obtain plutonium from CANDUs, it remains prohibitively expensive, difficult, and risky. The latest generation of reactors are more proliferation-proof, which when combined with safeguards makes it virtually impossible to use for a weapons programme.
Chernobyl occupies the top honours in the story of nuclear tragedies. In 1986, a Soviet RBMK reactor went critical, killing two workers and 29 firefighters and emergency workers who were exposed to the radiation. Of the 600 workers at the plant, 134 were treated for acute radiation sickness. By 2000, a further 1,800 people in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus were diagnosed with complications arising from the tragedy. While these facts are commonly known, what is less well known is the evacuation of 250,000 people from the nearby town of Pripyat by Soviet authorities. Also, in the aftermath of Chernobyl, the Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB) conducted extensive studies into reactor safety and concluded that the RBMK had some serious design flaws and the operational procedures at the plant were extremely lax. Although it was impossible to say that the chance of accidents was zero, the AECB decided that it was very remote. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) uses the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) to measure the gravity of nuclear accidents much like the Richter scale measure earthquakes. The scales rates incidents from 0 to 7, zero being a minimal breach of operating protocol and Chernobyl ranking at 7. From June 1995 to June 1996, seventy-three incidents were reported. Out of these, 35 were ranked zero or below scale (no safety significance), 27 were at Level 1 (anomaly beyond the authorised operating regime), 8 at Level 2 (significant spread of contamination inside the facility and/or overexposure of a worker), and only three at Level 3 (very small release of radioactivity to environment, severe spread of contamination within facility and/or acute health effects to a worker). Note that radiation leaks and acute health effects appear only at Level 3, meaning the rest of the “accidents” were largely benign. In the entire history of nuclear power, only eight serious accidents have occurred, with only one Level 7 incident (Chernobyl) and one Level 6 incident (Kyshtym). This is an exemplary record compared to almost any industry.
As tragic as Chernobyl was, the death toll stands at only 31. In comparison, 84 people died when the oil rig Ocean Ranger sank off Newfoundland in 1982, 200 people died in a gas explosion in Guadalajara in 1992, 2,500 people died the the failure of a hydro-dam in Macchu in 1979, and 53 people died in a coal mining disaster in Shanxi in 2003. Between 1969 and 1986, hydroelectric power plants have had eight accidents with 3,839 fatalities, coal power plants 62 accidents with 3,600 fatalities, oil power plants 63 with 2,070, natural gas plants 24 with 1,440, and nuclear power plants (NPP) a solitary accident with 31 deaths. Even if the injured are added to list of fatalities in the case of nuclear power, the number still stands at less than half of the deaths at hydroelectric plants.
Nuclear power also has the distinction of doing the least damage to the environment so far – according to the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), nuclear power’s contribution to radiation is less than 0.05% of the world’s release of radioactivity. A 1,000 MWe coal-fired power plant releases about 100 times as much radioactivity than a comparable NPP. Another issue of concern is radioactive waste. The amount of waste created at NPPs is far less than at other power plants – only 1.1% of nuclear fuel input is finally discarded as waste. However, the waste from NPPs is far more persistent (half-life for some radionuclides can be as high as 10,000 years). This is a problem that is yet to be satisfactorily solved by any country, the most popular idea being deep geological disposal. NPPs are however designed with storage silos on-site and many countries are able to store nuclear waste for several more decades (the amount is not as astronomical as some would choose to believe – Canada’s entire stockpile of nuclear waste would fill about three ice hockey rinks).
In the environmental debate, the key advantage of NPPs lie in their zero emission of carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, or nitrous oxide. A single coal plant emits six million tonnes of carbon dioxide and 16,000 tonnes of nitrous oxide while a natural gas plant emits 140 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. In 2000 alone, the 438 NPPs operating worldwide saved 600 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere. According to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), if all the world’s nuclear power were replaced by coal-fired power, the carbon footprint of the power industry would rise by about 34%. This is of course assuming that the world has enough coal and feasible means of transport to power plants to sustain such a heavy demand.
Nuclear critics such as Irene Kroch of the Nuclear Awareness Project (an apt acronym, NAP?) is outraged by this suggestion. She insists that if all stages of the nuclear process – mining, enrichment, transport, constructing reactors, decommissioning – are taken into account, then nuclear power does indirectly emit greenhouse gases. However, studies have shown that even this amount is over a hundred times less than emitted by plants using fossil fuel. NPPS come out favourably even when compared to “clean” energy – over the course of its life-cycle, coal produces about 1,000 CO2 emissions (grams/kilowatt-hour), solar between 60 and 150, wind between 3 and 22, and nuclear only 6. In terms of energy efficiency, nuclear power is again unbeatable – a ball of uranium the size of an orange can produce as much energy as 30,000 tonnes of coal. Other environmental costs critics of nuclear power ignore are the 7,000 tonnes of hazardous waste produced by a single solar power plant over the course of its 30-year lifetime through metals-processing alone. Meanwhile, wind farms require millions of kilogrammes of concrete and steel, thousands of square-kilometres of land, and are a major killer of birds.
No source of emery is truly completely green. It is always a question of balancing the costs with the benefits. So far, critics of nuclear power have been quite irrational in their hatred of the atom. The mere probability of a terrible accident is, for them, reason enough to stop all nuclear activity. By that logic, no one could ever fly, drive, live in high rises, or even eat, for the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that about 5,000 people die of food poisoning in the US alone each year. However, effective procedures to govern the life-cycles of projects make risks, no matter how large, manageable. Otherwise, we will be no different from the witch hunters of the Church during the time of Galileo.
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Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.