Monday, September 3, 2007


“Considering its history of accidents and near-misses, it is hard to understand how anyone could then label nuclear power as 'very safe'”. This is according to Mycle Schneider, an international consultant on energy and nuclear policy in France. The people of South Africa may well ask why it is that they have remained uninformed as to the impact that the government’s plan to build nuclear reactors in this country will have on themselves and future generations?

You walk into the car showroom. What can you afford? A budget vehicle or a flashy sports car? Your decision will be based on the price of the car, not only its running costs. This is where nuclear power industry officials have been playing a dirty trick. Their boast that nuclear is cheap power is not based on the construction of the reactors, only running them. This is like counting the cost of petrol as opposed to the price of the car.

According to Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, government loans (aka the taxpayer) are what put nuclear power on the table. In reality, nuclear power is far less economical than investing money in energy saving devices. Money spent on nuclear power takes money away from better solutions. This slows down the world's response to global warming when it needs to speed up.

According to Professor Steve Thomas of Energy Policy, Public Services International, the true cost of nuclear power “requires a large number of assumptions to be made”. He said forecasts have often been very inaccurate and are usually “far too optimistic”.

When things go wrong with nuclear power, the costs are passed on to taxpayers. The cost of “decommissioning” nuclear facilities in the United Kingdom will fall on future taxpayers. Lenders do not like to invest in nuclear power because of the risks involved.

The dangers of radioactive waste have also not been explained to the South African consumer. Schneider says radioactive isotopes or radio-nuclides of half-lives vary from hours to millions of years. “Plutonium particles inhaled can cause lung cancer in quantities of a few millionth of a gram while its penetrating radiation is low and can be shielded relatively easily. Plutonium is a highly strategic heavy metal that is very dense. The 6kg that were contained in the Nagasaki bomb would fit into a coke can. The radioactive form of hydrogen tritium has a half-life of 12.3 years.

“Tritium behaves like water, including in the human body, and is extremely difficult to contain. The radiological half life of plutonium is about 24,000 years and the biological half life is about 20 years for liver and 50 years for skeleton. Plutonium represents about one per cent of spent nuclear fuel. A standard light water reactor produces about 250kg of plutonium per year. A large scale reprocessing plant separates several metric tons of plutonium per year”.

Other radionuclides in nuclear waste include iodine-129 with a half-life of 16 million years that is released into the air and the sea in vast quantities by reprocessing plants or remains contained in spent fuel. Iodine fixes on the thyroid and the short-lived isotope iodine-131 released from Chernobyl has generated hundreds of cancer cases in children and adults.

Twenty years after the Chernobyl accident, highly contaminated game in Germany, reindeer in Scandinavia and mushrooms in various countries cannot be consumed. About 200 000 sheep in the UK have to undergo a complex pasture management scheme in order to allow them on clean pastures for the natural decay of radioactivity taken up on contaminated pastures before.

The Chernobyl-4 reactor generated power for two years, four months, and four days but human suffering goes on for generations. An “identical accident” to Chernobyl is unlikely, but an accident that releases the same amount of radiation or more is possible.

A research project into the impact of radiation on worker health in 2005 showed that one to two per cent of deaths from cancer among workers may be attributable to radiation. The results suggest there is a risk of cancer, even at low doses received by nuclear workers.

Antony Froggatt, international energy and nuclear policy consultant from the UK said nuclear power plants require large amounts of cooling water from the sea or a river. If there is a drought and high temperatures, the nuclear plant could warm the water to such an extent as to damage life in the river. The level of the water could also drop to a level that caused problems.

It seems that calculations stating nuclear power is “cheap” may not have counted all the costs to the health of people, future generations and the environment upon which we depend for food, air and water.

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