The challenge to meet increasing national and global energy demand, while at the same time reducing climate change emissions, has led a number of governments to turn to nuclear energy as a potential saviour. The Fukushima disaster should prompt us to stop, assess the real dangers and costs of nuclear energy, and make the necessary transition to the development of safe, clean, renewable energy sources.
The earthquake and tsunami in Japan devastated a whole region. Radioactive emissions from the damaged nuclear reactors are very serious, and have already contaminated food and water in Japan, prompting bans on food exports from four prefectures. The release of contaminated water into the Pacific ocean has caused growing international concern as the radiation continues to spread, beginning to impact human health and the environment on an even wider scale — across Japan and around the globe.
The Abolition 2000 Global Council expresses its concerns and support for everyone in Japan in the wake of the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor damage. We express our condolences for the many thousands who lost their lives, our sympathies for the more than 150,000 people injured or displaced, and our best wishes for the rescue, recovery and rebuilding efforts.
Whether or not the brave technicians in Fukushima are successful in containing the bulk of the radiation remaining in the six reactors, the lesson of Fukushima is clear: natural disasters and accidents will happen. If it can go wrong sooner or later it will go wrong. Murphy’s law and nuclear technology do not mix. Fukushima is not the first – and won’t be the last – nuclear disaster as long as countries continue to operate nuclear power facilities. Three Mile Island, Windscale/Sellafield and Chernobyl are other tragic examples of nuclear accidents which have had severe impacts on human health through radiation releases. According to a 2005 study by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences National Research Council (BEIR VII – Phase 2), a preponderance of scientific evidence shows that even low doses of ionizing radiation are likely to pose some risk of adverse health effects.
In the case of Chernobyl, tens of thousands have died and millions have had their health severely affected by the accident. Alexei Yablokov from the Russian Academy of Sciences reports that, “Prior to 1985 more than 80% of children in the Chernobyl territories of Belarus, Ukraine, and European Russia were healthy; today fewer than 20% are well. In the heavily contaminated areas it is difficult to find one healthy child.” We will not know the full impact of Fukushima on human health and the environment for many years. As the crisis continues to unfold, further releases of radioactive materials will occur until the reactors are stabilized, and the possibility of additional problems leading to an even more catastrophic radiation release remains – which is why the disaster has been given a similar rating of seriousness as Chernobyl (category 7) and could lead to a similar permanent radioactive sacrifice zone in Japan.
Fukushima clearly showed the vulnerability of nuclear power plants to external attack, whether by an act of nature or a human act. The tsunami hit the external power source and destroyed the entire cooling system of the reactor complex.
Even without accidents, disasters or attacks, nuclear energy production releases harmful quantities of radiation at all stages of the nuclear fuel chain, including uranium mining, extraction, enrichment and transport, and routine nuclear power plant operation itself.
And no-one yet has found a solution to the storing of spent nuclear fuel, the radioactive waste byproduct of nuclear power production, which is highly dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years. Building nuclear reactors without knowing what to do with this radioactive waste is like building a house with no functioning toilet.
Just as alarming is the fact that every nuclear power program provides the potential to make nuclear bombs. France, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea all developed nuclear weapons from nuclear energy programs. There are serious concerns that other countries with nuclear energy programs could follow suit.
As far back as 1946, a US Secretary of State Committee on Atomic Energy concluded that, “The development of atomic energy for peaceful purposes and the development of atomic energy for bombs are much of their course interchangeable and interdependent.” The committee further concluded that “…there is no prospect of security against atomic warfare” in an international system where nations are “free to develop atomic energy but only pledged not to use it for bombs.”
Claims that nuclear energy is a viable economic choice do not withstand a reality check. The true cost has been hidden by extensive government subsidies, limits on liability for accidents, and pricing structures not including the costs for waste storage and nuclear power plant decommissioning. Add to this the huge costs incurred for compensation and clean-up after accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima. Even without these costs included, the price of nuclear energy per kilowatt hour is approximately twice that of natural gas and is unlikely to decrease. The costs of wind and solar, on the other hand, are now comparable with nuclear energy and rapidly falling as energy efficiency improves and economies of scale kick in (as more wind turbines and solar panels are produced, for example, the unit cost is reduced).
Equally false are claims that nuclear energy is carbon neutral and thus a desirable choice to halt and reverse climate change. It is true that the fission of enriched uranium in a nuclear reactor to generate energy produces no carbon emissions. However, every other step required to produce nuclear energy releases carbon into the atmosphere. These include uranium yellowcake mining, ore transport, ore crushing, uranium extraction, uranium enrichment, uranium oxide furnacing, uranium casing, nuclear power plant construction and decommissioning.
J.W. Storm van Leeuwen and P. Smith (“Nuclear Power : the energy balance”) calculate that with high quality ores, the CO2 produced by the full nuclear life cycle is about one half to one third of an equivalent sized gas-fired power station. For low quality ores (less than 0.02% of U3O8 per tonne of ore), the CO2 produced by the full nuclear life cycle is equal to that produced by the equivalent gas-fired power station.
In addition, nuclear power plants take years to build and consume billions of dollars in research and development costs and subsidies. If these funds were applied instead to development of renewable energy technologies, this would enable a much faster, safer and sustainable replacement of fossil fuels. It would also enable the development of energy sources suitable to the needs of communities in developing countries – many of which are not part of national electricity grids and thus not served by centralized electricity generation but able to be served by local energy sources such as wind and solar.
The Abolition 2000 Global Council heralds the establishment of the International Renewable Energy Agency which can assist countries in meeting their energy needs through safe, sustainable and renewable energy sources without the need to resort to nuclear energy.
As noted in the 1995 Abolition 2000 Statement, “The inextricable link between the ‘peaceful’ and warlike uses of nuclear technologies and the threat to future generations inherent in creation and use of long-lived radioactive materials must be recognized. We must move toward reliance on clean, safe, renewable forms of energy production that do not provide the materials for weapons of mass destruction and do not poison the environment for thousands of centuries. The true ‘inalienable’ right is not to nuclear energy, but to life, liberty and security of person in a world free of nuclear weapons.”
In solidarity with the hundreds of thousands of victims and survivors of the nuclear energy and weapons industries we call for an end to nuclear energy and weapons – the human and environmental impact of both being uncontrollable in time and space.