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GONE FISSION

15-01-2008

Atoms

This time last week the government signalled its support for a new generation of nuclear power stations. Barbara Panvel, an unashamed reactor reactionary, offers her own Q&A for anyone who wants to know why they should oppose the plans.

Are nuclear power plants a practical option?

Not according to environmental expert Dr David Fleming: the world supply of readily usable uranium ore is now so depleted that the nuclear industry will never, from its own resources, even be able to generate the energy it needs to clear up its own backlog of waste. Uranium prices have risen: only a few years ago inventories were being sold at $10, but the current price is $85.

Are nuclear power plants a clean option?

Every stage in the nuclear process, except fission, produces carbon dioxide. Large volumes of uranium hexafluoride, a halogenated compound (HC), and other HCs are also used in the nuclear life-cycle. These greenhouse gases have global warming potentials ranging up to 10,000 times that of carbon dioxide.

Dr Fleming believes that an independent audit should now review these findings and set out an energy-budget to establish how much energy will be needed to make all nuclear waste safe, and where it will come from. It should also supply a briefing on the consequences of the worldwide waste backlog being abandoned untreated in some countries.

Are nuclear power plants affordable?

Estimates of the cost of the UK's nuclear waste clean-up programme continue to rise; the latest from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) is more than £20bn. At present, nuclear plant operators have limited liability in the case of an accident: under international agreements, any claim over £700m falls on the taxpayer. No investor could realistically take on board the full insurance liabilities, which, in the case of Chernobyl, have run to billions of pounds.

The taxpayer will be liable, not only for meeting the costs of accidents and contamination but for financial failure of nuclear power companies. This has already happened with British Energy which was ‘bailed out’: the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee reported this year:

As a result of the restructuring of British energy, the taxpayer has been left to underwrite a large and uncertain liability, recently valued at £5.3 billion. The government assumed full responsibility for its nuclear power stations, including the associate nuclear liabilities, on privatisation in 1996. In reality, the government’s international obligations always meant that responsibility would fall on the taxpayer if the company was unable to meet them.

New stations, it is said, would be financed, built and operated by private consortia of energy companies, backed by banks. However, these companies will demand that – as in the USA - the government addresses the risks they face: lengthy planning inquiries, the possibility that electricity price could slump, forcing nuclear operators into insolvency (as happened to British Energy), and escalating decommissioning costs. These demands appear in the small print in agreements.

Is there good reason to apply the precautionary principle?

The unexplained cancer clusters in the vicinity of nuclear power stations and the contamination of sea, air and beaches have been well-publicised. The death rate from cancer in neighbourhoods near Hinckley Point is officially 17% higher than in other parts of the country, and allegations by a government advisor that it is 30% higher have been denied by health official Paul Courtney, spokesman for Somerset Coast Primary Health Care Trust, who added that there was no evidence linking Hinckley with the increased cases of breast cancer.

In Germany, Sweden and Japan this year, nuclear plants have been shut down for a variety of reasons affecting safety - the latest UK incident being cracks detected in boilers at Hinckley Point B and Hunterston B.

Some experts have said that a jumbo jet, or at least its engines, might break through the dome of a power station and ignite a fire or explosion that could cause enough disruption to start the reactor toward meltdown and release of radioactivity into the atmosphere.

But the World Nuclear Association, representing the people and organisations of the global nuclear profession, says: "... the local impact of a severe accident or terrorist attack is likely to be small".

All these are what vested interest calls acceptable risks.

Would I choose to live near a nuclear station?

Some do. Routine precautions are taken on behalf of those living near the stations. For example around Dungeness: Sam Denton, assistant director of public health at Shepway primary care trust, describes the precautions taken in case of a nuclear accident:

“We distributed potassium iodate tablets so people had quicker access to them. We have an automatic phone system that, in a major incident, notifies everyone in the area if they need to take them. Large doses of radiation can result in an accumulation of radioactive iodine in the thyroid gland which can increase the risk of thyroid cancer. The tablets help but only need to be taken in a big incident. Our emergency planning is always evolving and we have regular exercises, sometimes involving actors, so we understand how to respond to different situations. We also work with other emergency services, the police, fire and ambulance, the county council. "

Is there no alternative?

Dr Fleming sees no single solution to the coming energy gap; energy conservation and efficiency; change in patterns of energy-use and land-use; and renewable energy all have a part to play within a framework for managing the energy descent, such as Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs).

Ken Livingstone’s answer is similar: he opposes the new drive for nuclear power, and his strategy for London is reduction of energy wasted, energy efficiency improvements and moving to a decentralized energy system using combined heat and power system and renewable energy. By these means he believes that by 2025 London will have cut its emissions by 60%, meeting the government’s 2050 target before time.

He calls nuclear power ‘an expensive distraction from the real changes needed to tackle climate change’.

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