A future that's not nuclear

Thinking Ahead

A future that's not nuclear

The global population is set to increase from the current figure of seven billion to between nine and ten billion by 2050. Many wonder just how the energy needs of such a burgeoning population can be met.

Coal and oil resources are finite and pressure on them increases by the year. Their adverse environmental impact has been well documented. While wind, tidal and solar energy, for instance, are posited as being cleaner and sustainable, many countries have opted for nuclear power as the solution to their energy needs.

Any debate about nuclear power is dominated by perceived risks and benefits. There are also questions of opportunity cost: investing in and developing nuclear energy impacts on how much money (and commitment) is left to invest in other sources. Of course, various vested interests shape the nature of the debate, not least the pro-nuclear lobby. There’s a lot to be gained — and to be lost, depending on which way the policy decisions go.

And those interests are well aware that public opinion counts. Influencing risk perception among both policy makers and public alike is a particularly important aspect of the discourse. Incidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima have all raised concerns about the safety of nuclear power and have placed the nuclear industry on the back foot.

Nevertheless, supporters of nuclear power argue that, as an energy source, it is carbon-friendly, clean, safe (incidents have been few and far between, they claim) and relatively cheap and abundant. Others, however, argue that when government costs, the impact of uranium mining and the issue of long-term nuclear waste storage are factored in, the process isn't as cheap, energy efficient, sustainable, environmentally friendly or as safe as is claimed. And even uranium is a finite resource. Reserves may not last another 60 years or so.

There are also concerns over devastating accidents and acts of terror. Those who favour nuclear energy also forward that the notion that alternative ‘green’ energy will not be able to cater for rising energy demands in the coming decades. The argument is that such energy sources are unstable and cannot produce sufficient amounts of energy to satisfy increasing demands. In defence, physicist Sowmya Dutta argues that the alternative energy sources are actually more abundant: the world has potential for 17 terra watt nuclear energy, 700 terra watt wind energy and 86,000 terra watt of solar energy.

Then there is the thorny issue of the link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, which we are told can be monitored and controlled by the regulatory regimes that are in place. Any number of Chernobyls or Fukushimas pale into insignificance when placed alongside the potential danger of nuclear arms proliferation that nuclear power undoubtedly brings.

The late French environmentalist Jacques Cousteau said in 1976 that human society is too diverse, national passion too strong and human aggressiveness too deep seated for the peaceful atom and the warlike atom to stay divorced for too long. One only has to look at the ongoing debate about Iran's civil nuclear programme and its potential ability to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons to see the link. Countries with nuclear technology and know-how all have the potential to embark on a weapons development programme. At present, there are 21 countries using nuclear energy.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) walk a fine line by seeking to promote the development of ‘peaceful’ nuclear power, while at the same time trying to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. A major challenge to nuclear proliferation controls has been the spread of uranium enrichment technology. The question arises as to whether it is possible to adequately oversee a civil
nuclear energy programme in order to prevent the diversion of plutonium to
nuclear weapons.

Article Two of the IAEA states that the Agency shall seek to enlarge its contribution to peace throughout the world and that it shall ensure that assistance is provided by it to prevent atomic energy from being used for military purpose. Article Four of the NPT reaffirms the inalienable right to develop the peaceful use of nuclear technology and pledges to facilitate trade with this in mind. Both bodies seek to promote the development of peaceful nuclear power, while at the same time trying to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons parties to the NPT — US, Britain, France, the Soviet Union and China — are prohibited from transferring nuclear weapons or associated technology to non-nuclear states, but can provide technologies for civilian nuclear activities. In return, the non-nuclear states agree not to seek nuclear weapons and to accept ‘safeguards’ on their civilian nuclear materials.

Of course, this has been made a mockery of, with various states transferring nuclear technologies to others, which have gone on to develop nuclear weapons. Israel, North Korea, India and Pakistan all have nuclear weapons and are not party to the NPT.

When the Bush regime agreed to help India with its nuclear energy programme, the very principle on which the treaty is supposed to be based was undermined — that assistance with the development of nuclear energy is available only to those who say they will shun nuclear weapons. Many technologically advanced nations, including Japan, South Africa and Indonesia, have chosen to abide by the NPT to gain access to foreign nuclear technology. If India was made a special case, why should those nations do without nuclear weapons?

Former US president Jimmy Carter said the deal with India was just one more step in opening a Pandora’s box of nuclear proliferation. Preventing the spread of uranium enrichment or reprocessing technology and thus access to weapons usable material is an ongoing problem.

The role that the powerful pro-nuclear lobby plays in shaping the debate about nuclear energy should not be underestimated. The US Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) is described by Dr Helen Caldicott, a long-standing nuclear critic, as the propaganda wing for the US nuclear industry, which spends millions of dollars annually to engineer public opinion. The NEI forwards the message that nuclear energy is clean, safe and cheap and in promoting this message has often attacked opponents and targeted legislators and policy makers via ‘independent’ reports, phoney claims and ‘donations’.  

Journalism Professor Karl Grossman of the State University of New York suggests the misinformation from General Electric and Westinghouse, the ‘Coke and Pepsi’ of the nuclear industry (who will incidentally both benefit enormously from India’s lucrative, multi billion dollar expanding nuclear sector), has made the money put into PR and lobbying by the tobacco companies appear miniscule. Perhaps such a level of spending and propaganda is not surprising because Harvey Wasserman, writer and activist, says this is an industry that can’t solve its waste problems, can’t operate without leaking radiation, can’t pay for itself and can’t get private insurance against terror or error.

One thing that is usually missing from the nuclear energy debate, however, particularly from the pro-nuclear lobby, is the notion of democracy. In a way, the whole debate revolves around the kind of world we wish to live in. Look no further than one of India’s fiercest anti-nuclear critics for an articulation of how democracy, human rights and ecology are central to the debate.

Vandana Shiva argues that most civilisations throughout history worked with nature and regarded themselves as part of it. The scientific and industrial revolution was based on the idea that nature is a dead weight to be dominated and manipulated by humans for their own ends. As a trained physicist, she is more aware than most of how this form of Cartesian dualism impacted science and led to a dangerous separation between mind and matter, between humans and nature.

If Fukushima tells us anything, it is that, according to Shiva, we should recognise that humans cannot dominate nature with technology, tools and industrial infrastructure. China, Germany, Switzerland, Israel, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines are realising this and are currently reviewing their nuclear power programmes.

In the US too, the incident has refocused attention on the vulnerability of spent fuel pools at the 104 operating US nuclear plants. Senator Edward J Markey recently stated that the US should not wait for a meltdown to beef up US nuclear safety measures and that lessons must be learnt from Japan to ensure nuclear safety. Plutonium, produced as nuclear waste, has a half life of 2,40,000 years, while the average life of nuclear reactors is 21 years. There is so far no proven safe system for nuclear waste disposal.

As for India, the proposed Jaitapur nuclear power plant in Madban village, Ratnagiri district, Maharashtra, will be the world’s largest nuclear power plant. Vandana Shiva argues that Jaitapur is a seismically sensitive area, and that, here too, there is no proper plan for the disposal of 300 tonnes of nuclear waste that the plant will generate each year. What’s more, the plant will require about 968 hectares of fertile agricultural land that the government claims is “barren”.

Jaitapur is one of many nuclear power plants proposed on a thin strip of fertile coast land. Villagers of the Konkan region have been protesting against the nuclear plant, and Jaitapur has been put under prohibitory orders in an attempt to dampen protests. Activities concerning other planned nuclear plants are affecting hundreds of villages across India and are also mired in accusations of land grabbing and forced population displacement.

Factor in the dodgy dealings that went on in parliament to help push these policies through, not least the cash for votes scandal, and it becomes clear that
Vandana Shiva has a point when she declares the destruction of democracy and constitutional rights is the price being paid for India’s expansion of nuclear energy.

A new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows that close to 80 per cent of the world’s energy supply could be met by renewables come mid-century, if backed by the right enabling public policies. And here lies the solution for energy, which, going by the hundreds of billions of dollars to be ploughed into nuclear power in the next 20 years or so, the Indian government has little commitment to. It involves proper research and investment in renewables to improve availability and efficacy, coupled to a deep seated commitment to democracy by making renewable ‘green’ energy integral to local economies and communities, rather than uprooting, polluting or destroying them.

Such a strategy could also include something that is all too often left out of the
energy debate — reducing levels of consumption. In the fog of rhetoric and facts concerning the merits or drawbacks of nuclear energy, many fail to question the wider model of development it is tied to. It is a model that is not only ecologically destructive, but promotes high consumption levels of energy in order to engage in unnecessary work to produce unnecessary goods that have an inbuilt planned obsolescence. This wasteful, high-energy system is tied to what is ultimately an environmentally unsustainable consumerist mindset shaped by an image of the world laid down by powerful transnational corporations.  

Moving away from such a system would throw into question the perceived inevitability of spiralling energy demand in the coming decades and the apparent need for nuclear power. But perhaps there are just too many policy makers who are too eager to dismiss renewable sources on the misguided basis that they are impractical anyhow. Thankfully, though, not everyone thinks so.

A recent report produced by London-based Bloomberg New Energy Finance for the United Nations Environment Programme says that worldwide investments in renewable energy have gone up by roughly a third over the last year, to $211 billion. Led by China’s renewable push, the world is now on a trajectory that will see its investments in renewable electricity surpass those in fossil fuels within a year or two.

Excluding hydropower, renewables made up about 35 per cent of the power capacity added worldwide last year, and produced over five per cent of the total power. In Africa, led by Egypt and Kenya, investments were up nearly five-fold, reaching $3.6 billion.

At a time when the anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and
Nagasaki are fast approaching in early August, it is right that questions be asked of the nuclear industry. Happenings in Japan have led many to contemplate if we as a species should continue with our nuclear experimentations.

Indeed, Chancellor Merkel and the German parliament have announced concrete plans to phase out nuclear energy by 2022, making Germany the first major industrial power to take such steps since Japan’s devastating incident. With proper commitment and investment in renewable energy, the future need not resemble the past. The future could be bright. The future could be renewable.

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