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Wednesday 21 March 2012

The end of the nuclear illusion: Praful Bidwai

Date: 20 March 2012
Subject: The end of the nuclear illusion: Praful Bidwai

A year after the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe began in Japan, the world
has a historic chance to end one of the biggest-ever frauds played on the
public to promote a patently unsafe, accident-prone, expensive and
centralised form of energy generation based upon splitting the atom to boil
water and spin a turbine. Candidly, that's what nuclear power generation is
all about.

The promise of boundless, universal prosperity based on cheap, safe and
abundant energy through "Atoms for Peace," held out by US President Dwight
Eisenhower in 1953, was deceptive and meant to temper the prevalent
perception of atomic energy as a malign force following Hiroshima and

Eisenhower was a hawk committed to building up the US nuclear arsenal from
under 1,500 to over 20,000 warheads. He sought to "compensate" for this by
dressing up nuclear energy as a positive force and camouflage the huge US
military build-up.

The nuclear promise was based on unrealistic assumptions about safety and
being "too cheap even to metre." The US Navy transferred reactor designs
developed for nuclear-propelled submarines to General Electric and
Westinghouse for free. The US also limited the nuclear industry's accident
liability to a ludicrously low level.

The world has since lost over $1,000 billion in subsidies, cash losses,
abandoned projects and other damage from nuclear power. Decontaminating
Fukushima alone is estimated to cost $623 billion, not counting treatment
costs for thousands of likely cancers.

All of the world's 400-odd reactors can undergo a catastrophic accident.
They will remain a liability until decommissioned (entombed in concrete) at
huge public expense -- one-third to one-half of the cost of building them.
They will also leave behind nuclear waste, which remains hazardous for
thousands of years, and which science has no way of storing safely.

All this for a technology which contributes just 2% of global final energy
consumption!. Even the Economist magazine, which long backed nuclear power,
calls it "the dream that failed."

Nuclear power declined on its home ground because it became too risky and
"too costly to hook to a metre." The US hasn't ordered a new reactor since
1973. Western Europe hasn't completed a new reactor since Chernobyl (1986).

As a former member of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission says: "The
abiding lesson [from Three Mile Island meltdown (1979)]… was that… reactor
operators…could turn a $2 billion asset into a $1 billion cleanup job in
about 90 minutes."

Nuclear power is now on the run globally. The number of reactors operating
worldwide has fallen from the historic peak of 444 (2002) to 429. Their
share in global electricity supply has shrunk from 17% to 13%. And it's
likely to fall further as some 180-plus 30 years-old or older reactors are
retired. Just about 60 new ones are planned.

Post-Fukushima, nobody will build reactors without big subsidies or high
state-guaranteed returns --or unless they are China or India. China's
rulers don't have to bother about democracy, public opinion or safety

Nor are India's rulers moved by these. They are desperate to award the
reactor contracts promised to the US, France and Russia for lobbying for
the US-India nuclear deal in the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Dr. Manmohan Singh has even stooped to maligning Indian anti-nuclear
protesters as foreign-funded, as if they had no minds of their own, and as
if the government's priority wasn't to import reactors.

Nuclear power is bound up with secrecy, deception and opacity, which clash
with democracy. It evokes fear and loathing and can only be promoted by
force while violating civil liberties.

A recent BBC-GlobeScan poll shows that 69% of people in 23 countries oppose
building new reactors, including 90% in Germany, 84% in Japan, 80% in
Russia and 83% in France. This proportion has sharply risen since 2005.
Only 22% of people in the 12 countries which operate nuclear plants favour
building new ones.

Nuclear reactors are high-pressure high-temperature systems, in which a
fission chain-reaction is barely checked from getting out of control. But
controls can fail for many reasons, including short circuits, faulty
valves, operator error, fire, earthquakes or tsunamis.

No technology is 100% safe. High-risk technologies demand a meticulous,
self-critical and highly alert safety culture, which most countries lack.

The world has witnessed five core meltdowns in 15,000 reactor-years. At
this rate, we can expect one core meltdown every eight years in the world's
400-odd reactors. This is simply unacceptable.

Yet, the nuclear industry behaves as if this couldn't happen. It has a
collusive relationship with regulators, highlighted in numerous articles on
Japan, including one by Yoichi Funabashi, chair of the Rebuild Japan
Initiative Foundation: "We Japanese have long prided ourselves on being a
society that provides safety and security…[But this] has been matched by
our aversion to facing the potential threat of nuclear emergencies..."

He adds: "Any drills for a nuclear emergency were meticulously designed to
avoid giving any impression that an accident could possibly progress to the
severity of a meltdown…. But avoidance ultimately translated into

Nuclear power is bound up with radiation, which is harmful in all doses, at
each step of the nuclear fuel cycle. Nuclear plants routinely expose
surrounding populations to harmful radioactive and chemical emissions.

Nuclear power is costlier not just than coal- or gas-based electricity, but
increasingly, renewable energy. The European Pressurised Reactor of the
crisis-ridden French firm Areva, and earmarked for Jaitapur in India, is
now quoting for $6,500-plus per kilowatt, compared to under $2,000 for wind

Nuclear power cannot be a solution to the climate crisis. Its potential
contribution is too small, it's too slow to deploy, and too expensive. By
contrast, renewables have already emerged as a safe, flexible, quickly
deployable solution, with a typically lower carbon footprint than nuclear

The world needs a new climate-friendly, safe, decentralised energy system
with smart grids and high efficiency. Nuclear power can have no place in it.

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