Why bury nuclear waste, when it could meet the world’s energy needs?
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 6th December 2011
It’s a devastating admission to have to make, especially during the climate talks in Durban. But there would be no point in writing this column if I were not prepared to confront harsh truths. This year the environmental movement to which I belong has done more harm to the planet’s living systems than climate change deniers have ever achieved.
As a result of shutting down its nuclear programme in response to green demands, Germany will produce an extra 300 million tonnes of carbon dioxide between now and 2020(1). That’s almost as much as all the European savings resulting from the energy efficiency directive(2). Other countries are now heading the same way. These decisions are the result of an almost mediaevel misrepresentation of science and technology. For while the greens are right about most things, our views on nuclear power have been shaped by weapons-grade woo.
A fortnight ago, the Guardian examined the work of a Dr Chris Busby(3,4). We found that he has been promoting anti-radiation pills and tests to the people of Japan, which scientists have described as useless and baseless. We also revealed that people were being asked to send donations, ostensibly to help the children of Fukushima, to Busby’s business account in Aberystwyth. We found that scientists at the NHS had examined his claims to have detected a leukaemia cluster in north Wales and discovered that they arose from a series of shocking statistical mistakes. Worse still, the scientists say, “the dataset has been systematically trawled”: they’re accusing him of picking the data that suits his case(5). Yet Busby, until our report was published, advised the Green party on radiation. His “findings” are widely used by anti-nuclear activists.
Last week in the New York Times, the anti-nuclear campaigner Helen Caldicott repeated a claim which has already been comprehensively discredited: that “close to 1 million people have died of causes linked to the Chernobyl disaster”(6). The “study” on which it is based added up the excess deaths from a vast range of conditions, many of which have no known connection to radiation, in the countries affected by Chernobyl – and attributed them to the accident(7,8,8a). Among these conditions was cirrhosis of the liver. Could it have any other possible cause in eastern Europe? Earlier this year, when I asked Caldicott to provide scientific sources for the main claims she was making, she was unable to do so(9,10). None of this has stopped her from repeating them, or has prevented greens from spreading them.
Anti-nuclear campaigners have generated as much mumbo-jumbo as creationists, anti-vaccine scaremongers, homeopaths and climate change deniers. In all cases, the scientific process has been thrown into reverse: people have begun with their conclusions, then frantically sought evidence to support them.
The temptation, when a great mistake has been made, is to seek ever more desperate excuses to sustain the mistake, rather than admit the terrible consequences of what you have done. But now, in the UK at least, we have an opportunity to make amends. Our movement can abandon this drivel with a clear conscience, for the technology I am about to describe ticks all the green boxes: reduce, reuse, recycle.
Let me begin with the context. Like other countries suffering from the idiotic short-termism of the early nuclear power industry, the UK faces a massive bill for the storage and disposal of radioactive waste. The same goes for the waste produced by nuclear weapons manufacturing. But is this really waste, or could we see it another way?
In his book Prescription for the Planet, the environmentalist Tom Blees explains the remarkable potential of integral fast reactors (IFRs)(11). These are nuclear power stations which can run on what old nuclear plants have left behind. Conventional nuclear power uses just 0.6% of the energy contained in the uranium that fuels it. Integral fast reactors can use almost all the rest. There is already enough nuclear waste on earth to meet the world’s energy needs for several hundred years, with scarcely any carbon emissions. IFRs need be loaded with fissile material just once. From then on they can keep recycling it, extracting ever more of its energy, until a small fraction of the waste remains. Its components have half-lives of tens rather than millions of years. This makes them more dangerous, but much easier to manage in the long term. When the hot waste has been used up, the IFRs can be loaded with depleted uranium (U-238), of which the world has a massive stockpile(12).
The material being reprocessed never leaves the site: it remains within a sealed and remotely-operated recycling plant. Anyone trying to remove it would quickly die. By ensuring the fissile products are unusable, the IFR process reduces the risk of weapons proliferation. The plant operates at scarcely more than atmospheric pressure, so it can’t blow its top. Better still, it could melt down only by breaking the laws of physics. If the fuel pins begin to overheat, their expansion stops the fission reaction. If, like the Fukushima plant, an IFR loses its power supply, it simply shuts down, without human agency. Running on waste, with fewer pumps and valves than conventional plants, they are also likely to be a good deal cheaper(13).
So there’s just one remaining question: where are they? In 1994 the Democrats in the US Congress, led by John Kerry, making assertions as misleading as the Swift Boat campaign that was later deployed against him(14), shut down the research programme at Argonne National Laboratories that had been running successfully for 30 years. Even Hazel O’Leary, the former fossil fuel lobbyist charged by the Clinton administration with killing it, admitted that “no further testing” is required to prove its feasibility(15).
But there’s a better demonstration that it’s good to go: last week GE Hitachi (GEH) told the British government that it could build a fast reactor within five years to use up the waste plutonium at Sellafield, and if it doesn’t work, the UK won’t have to pay(16). A fast reactor has been running in Russia for 30 years(17) and similar plants are now being built in China and India(18,19). GEH’s proposed PRISM reactor uses the same generating technology as the IFR, though the current proposal doesn’t include the full reprocessing plant. It should.
If the government does not accept GEH’s offer, it will, as the energy department revealed on Thursday, handle the waste through mixed oxide processing (mox) instead(20). This will produce a fuel hardly anyone wants, while generating more waste plutonium than we possess already. It will raise the total energy the industry harvests from 0.6% to 0.8%(21).
So we environmentalists have a choice. We can’t wish the waste away. Either it is stored and then buried. Or it is turned into mox fuels. Or it is used to power IFRs. The decision is being made at the moment, and we should determine where we stand. I suggest we take the radical step of using science, not superstition, as our guide.
5. John A Steward, Ceri White and Shelagh Reynolds, 2008. Leukaemia incidence in Welsh children linked with low level radiation—making sense of some erroneous results published in the media. Journal of Radiological Protection 28, 33–43. doi:10.1088/0952-4746/28/1/001
7. Alexey V. Yablokov, Vassily B. Nesterenko and Alexey V. Nesterenko, 2010. Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. I have this in pdf form, sent to me by the NYAS.
8. The “study” was published by the New York Academy of Sciences, which has now disowned it. Here’s what it says: “In no sense did Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences or the New York Academy of Sciences commission this work; nor by its publication do we intend to independently validate the claims made in the translation or in the original publications cited in the work. The translated volume has not been peer-reviewed by the New York Academy of Sciences, or by anyone else.” Sent to me by Douglas Braaten, Director and Executive Editor, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2nd April 2011.
8a. Here’s a devastating review of the “study”: MW Charles, 2010. Review of Chernobyl: consequences of the catastrophe for people and the environment. Radiation Protection Dosimetry (2010) 141(1): 101-104. doi: 10.1093/rpd/ncq185. http://rpd.oxfordjournals.org/content/141/1/101.full
11. Tom Blees, 2008. Prescription for the Planet: the painless remedy for our energy and environmental crises. ISBN 1-4196-5582-5 You can read a chapter summarising what IFRs are and how they work here: http://tinyurl.com/cwvn8n
12. As above.
13. As above.
15. Amazingly, Kerry himself quotes this with no sense of the way in which it flatly contradicts everything else he’s been saying: “I quote from her letter of June 27: ‘No further testing of the Integral Fast Reactor concept is required to prove the technical feasibility of actinide recycle and burning in a fast spectrum reactor, such as the Experimental Breeder Reactor in Idaho. The basic physics and chemistry of this technology are established.’”
16. This pledge was made during a meeting between GEH and UK government officials and advisers on 30th November 2011.