The machinations of the industry shouldn’t be allowed to spoil the case for nuclear power.
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 5th July 2011
Power corrupts; nuclear power corrupts absolutely. The industry developed as a by-product of nuclear weapons research. Its deployment was used to shield the production of weapons from public view. Though the two industries have now been forced apart, in most parts of the world the nuclear operators remain secretive, unaccountable and far too close to government.
Last week the Guardian revealed that the British government connived with corporations to play down the impact of the disaster at Fukushima(1). Comments from the nuclear companies, a business department official suggested, should be incorporated into ministers’ briefings and government statements.
It is through such collusion that accidents happen. The latest report by the International Atomic Energy Agency shows that Tepco, the firm that ran the stricken plant at Fukushima, had under-estimated the danger of tsunamis, had not planned properly for multiple plant failures and had been allowed to get away with it by a regulator that failed to review its protective measures(2). Nuclear operators worldwide have been repeatedly exposed as a bunch of arm-twisting, corner-cutting scumbags.
In this respect they are, of course, distinguished from the rest of the energy industry, which is run by collectives of self-abnegating monks whose only purpose is to spread a little happiness. How they ended up sharing the names and addresses of some of the nuclear companies is a mystery that defies explanation. The front-page story in Friday’s Guardian quoted “former government environmental adviser” Tom Burke saying the following about the government’s relationship with the nuclear companies. “They are too close to industry, concealing problems, rather than revealing and dealing with them.”(3) What the article did not tell us is that Burke currently works for Rio Tinto, one of the world’s biggest coal-mining corporations(4). It has, of course, always refrained from colluding with governments.
All the big energy companies – whether they invest in coal, oil, gas, nuclear, wind or solar power – manipulate politicians, bully regulators and bamboozle the public. Their overweening power causes many kinds of harm; among them is the damage it has done to the case for nuclear technology. Strip away the interests and the arguments are strong.
Let’s begin with safety. The best evidence for the safety and resilience of nuclear power plants can be found at Fukushima. Not at Fukushima Dai-ichi, the power station where the meltdowns and explosions took place, but at Fukushima Dai-ni, the plant next door. You’ve never heard of it? There’s a good reason for that. It was run by the same slovenly company. It was hit by the same earthquake and the same tsunami. But it survived. Like every other nuclear plant struck by the wave, it went into automatic cold shutdown(5). With the exception of a nuclear missile attack, it withstood the sternest of all possible tests.
What we see here is the difference between 1970s and 1980s safety features. The first Dai-ichi reactor was licensed in 1971. The first Dai-ni reactor was licensed in 1982. Today’s technologies are safer still. The pebblebed reactors now being tested by China, for example, shut themselves down if they begin to overheat as an inherent property of the physics they exploit(6). Using a plant built 40 years ago to argue against 21st-century power stations is like using the Hindenburg disaster to contend that modern air travel is unsafe.
Even the Dai-ichi meltdown, the same energy agency report tells us, has caused no medical harm. While the evacuation it necessitated is profoundly traumatic and disruptive, “to date no confirmed health effects have been detected in any person as a result of radiation exposure” from the accident(7). Compare this to the 100,000 deaths caused by air pollution from coal plants every year, and you begin to see that we’ve been fretting about the wrong risks(8).
Compare it to the damage and death that climate change will cause, and you find that our response is so disproportionate as to constitute a form of madness. It’s a straightforward pay-off. Germany’s promise to ditch nuclear power will produce an extra 40 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year(9). In June Angela Merkel announced a possible doubling of the capacity of the coal and gas plants Germany will build in the next 10 years(10). Already Germany has been burning brown coal, one of the most polluting fuels on earth, to make up the shortfall(11). The renewable technologies which should have replaced fossil fuels will instead replace nuclear power.
This is the point at which anti-nuclear activists reach for one of four arguments. The first is that we should concentrate on reducing energy demand. Dead right we should – regardless of which technology we favour. But even with a massive cut in overall demand, getting the carbon out of transport and heating means increasing electricity supply. The Centre for Alternative Technology’s radical and optimistic plan for decarbonising Britain envisages a 55% cut in energy consumption by 2030 – and a near-doubling in electricity supply(12). Contest this by all means, but you’ll have to explain what it got wrong.
The second is that it takes 10-15 years to build new nuclear plants. This, they argue, is too long. It is. So is the 10-15 years it takes to roll out a major renewables programme. The third is that uranium supplies will run out. They will, one day. The Committee on Climate Change estimates that they’re good for 50 years(13). Long before then, we should have switched to fourth generation technologies, which would run on the waste produced by current nuclear generators. This leads us to the fourth objection: that nuclear waste cannot be disposed of safely.
Even if we assume that we’ll want to get rid of them, rather than use them as a valuable fuel, the claim that it’s unsafe to put fissile materials underground is inexplicable. Isn’t that where they came from? Why is it less safe to leave uranium several thousand metres below the surface, encased in lead, backfilled with bentonite and capped with concrete than it is to leave it, as nature did, scattered around the planet, just beneath the surface? And is it plausible that a future civilisation would possess the technology to extract our waste from those astonishing depths, but not to figure out that it might be harmful?
All these arguments have been obscured by the justifiable distrust bred by industry spin and collusion. There is no contradiction between favouring the machines and opposing the machinations. A new generation of nuclear power stations should be built only with unprecedented scrutiny and transparency – and the same applies to all our energy options. Corporate power? No thanks.
The Guardian is hosting a live online debate about nuclear power between George Monbiot and readers at 10am on Wednesday.
2. IAEA, 16th July 2011. International Fact Finding Expert Mission of the Fukushima Dai-ichi NPP Accident Following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami: Mission Report. http://www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/Meetings/PDFplus/2011/cn200/documentation/cn200_Final-Fukushima-Mission_Report.pdf
5. See Table 1.2, page 22. IAEA, 16th July 2011, as above.
6. See for example http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.09/china.html
7. Page 40. IAEA, 16th July 2011, as above.
13. Committee on Climate Change, May 2011. The Renewable Energy Review, page 49. http://hmccc.s3.amazonaws.com/Renewables%20Review/The%20renewable%20energy%20review_Printout.pdf