We don’t know yet how serious the nuclear crisis in Japan will be. With luck, the leaks will be contained soon. God knows, the Japanese people have suffered enough. But what’s happened so far highlights the fundamental problem with nuclear energy.
The case against atomic power is – and has always been – very straightforward.
Nuclear reactors produce substances that are astonishingly deadly. Those substances stay toxic for tens of thousands of years. No-one has yet developed an adequate means of disposing of nuclear waste, something that the boosters of atomic energy rarely like to mention.
Proponents of atomic energy must, therefore, guarantee that no accidents will occur over an almost geological period. In other words, it’s not enough to assure us that a plant and its waste will remain safe barring extraordinary circumstances, since, given the timescales in question, the extraordinary becomes almost certain.
In the WSJ, for instance, physicist Richard Meserve explained that Japanese reactors experienced a ‘one-two punch of events beyond what anyone could expect or what was conceived’.
But the more reactors you have, and the longer you operate them (forty years, in the case of Fukushima), the likelier the inconceivable becomes. According to the International Atomic Energy Authority, about one in five of the world’s 442 commercial nuclear power stations operate in areas of ‘significant’ seismic activity. Given those figures, was the earthquake-tsunami combination really so unlikely?
In any case, when it comes to nuclear waste, deadly for tens of thousands of years, discussions about what ‘anyone could expect’ become entirely meaningless. Burying radioactive isotopes under a mountain in Nevada might seem reasonable for the next year or the next decade. But can anyone seriously guarantee the safety of that site for the next century – or for ten more centuries after that?
Consider the disaster brewing in the former Soviet Union:
In 1989, the first year for which the USSR openly published monthly statistics and an annual report on nuclear-power-plant performance, there were 118 unplanned shutdowns and 100 “unscheduled reductions of capacity”—a “decrease” from 1988, for which no figures have been provided. A quarter of all the stoppages occurred in the Balakovo nuclear plant, near a branch of one of the largest water reservoirs in the USSR. The authorities attributed the stoppages to “personnel not doing their jobs properly” and “the indolence of managers,” along with other “weak aspects of operation.” A high rate of shutdowns may be a positive sign if it means that the authorities are now prepared to sacrifice electricity output for the sake of safety. But the Soviet reports also indicate that along with design flaws, the principal causes of the stoppages are the same sort of human-factor problems that led to Chernobyl: mistakes by operating officials, poor maintenance, and inadequate coordination. One of the most serious blunders occurred in June, 1989, at a facility in the Russian city. Kursk, when, because of “negligence on the part of workers,” radioactive water was allowed to spill from a cooling circuit, “swamped the floor of the plant,” and overflowed onto the territory surrounding the power reactor. […]
A severe problem with nuclear waste is also said to exist in Central Asia. According to Colonel Nikolay Petrushenko, one of Kazakhstan’s representatives in the new Soviet parliament, more than 70,000 nonmilitary “radioactive sources,” distributed among 8,664 installations, exist in the Kazakh republic. Ten percent of these sources need to be buried, a task currently entrusted to “the housing and municipal services.” Moscow television announced that radioactive containers have been found near Tashkent, in neighboring Uzbekistan, and that “specialists regard the discovery as a major emergency.” Nearby, in ancient Samarkand, cancer patients were inadvertently exposed to “sources of radioactive emanation” found in a local oncology clinic.
OK, these shocking stories (and let’s not even get started on the ageing Soviet-era nuclear weapons) come from a nation in decline, rather than from advanced states like the US or Japan. Remember, though, the Soviet Union once led the world in atomic technology, and its nuclear industry only fell into disarray when its economy collapsed. Well, is anyone really prepared to bet on the health of the American and Japanese economies over the next half century? Will a reactor built today be properly maintained in the decades to come? Can anyone give that guarantee?
Of course they can’t. You only have to look at, say, the proliferation of urban decay in Detroit to be reminded that, while radioactive isotopes last forever (or near enough anyway), economic prosperity comes and goes. Who is to say what condition the shiny plant commissioned today will face in twenty years time?
In the days after the Japanese earthquake, it was often pointed out that the website of Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company) makes the following boast: ‘Before constructing a nuclear power plant, the site is carefully studied for previous earthquake records and geological features. This study establishes that there is no active fault under the site.’
Over the years, Japanese plant operators, along with friendly government officials, have sometimes hidden episodes at plants from a public increasingly uneasy with nuclear power…
Last year, [a] reactor with a troubled history was allowed to reopen, 14 years after a fire shut it down. The operator of that plant, the Monju Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor, located along the coast about 220 miles west of Tokyo, tried to cover up the extent of the fire by releasing altered video after the accident in 1995…
This represents more than the usual corporate duplicity. Because of the public’s understandable fears about nuclear energy, the plant owners guarantee absolute safety, a level that they simply can’t deliver.
Thus the Times Week in Review looks at the Japanese disaster and concludes that, ultimately, there’s no way to be entirely secure from natural catastrophes.
The sobering fact is that megadisasters like the Japanese earthquake can overcome the best efforts of our species to protectagainst them. No matter how high the levee or how flexible the foundation, disaster experts say, nature bats last. Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of theNational Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, warned that an earthquake in the United States along the New Madrid fault, which causedstrong earthquakes early in the 19th century, could kill tens, or even hundreds of thousands of people in the more densely populated cities surrounding theMississippi River.
All technology can do in the face of such force is to minimize damage to communities and infrastructure, he said, and “on both of those fronts, we’re never going to be perfect.”
But no-one – especially those living near a nuclear reactor – wants to hear that. Hence the industry’s penchant for obfuscation and falsification.
If all this sounds entirely obvious, that’s because it is.
The critique of the nuclear industry was, until comparatively recently, a commonplace of the Left. Indeed, it’s often forgotten just how powerful the anti-nuclear movement once was.
In the eighties, the annual Palm Sunday anti-nuclear rallies attracted huge crowds in major Australian cities – the 1986 march in Melbourne, for instance, drew perhaps 250 000 people. At that time, surveys showed that half the population opposed both uranium mining and export, as well as the visits of U.S. nuclear powered warships to Australian ports.
In 1984, a Senate seat was won by the Nuclear Disarmament Party, an organisation in which a certain Peter Garrett played a leading role. Garrett’s band Midnight Oil gave the anti-nuclear sentiment of the time a powerful voice: consider, for instance, the description in the song ‘Harrisburg’ of an atomic plant melting down.
At that time, activists staunchly opposed not only atomic weapons and power but also uranium mining, on the entirely reasonable basis that digging the stuff up and selling it abroad facilitated the nuclear industry abroad. If you sell uranium, you have to take responsibility for what’s done with it, for to do otherwise is to embrace the morality of a drug dealer.
Let us note, then, that the company that operates the Fukushima plant uses uranium mined in Australia.
Since the late nineties, there’s been a concerted and largely bipartisan attempt to break down the broad public hostility to nuclear power.
Uranium mining was, of course, a major battleground between the Labor Left and the Labor Right. In 1977, the ALP (then in opposition) declared its opposition to all mining of uranium. But once in power, the Hawke government adopted the so-called ‘Three Mines Policy’, under which mining would not be extended but would continue in sites already in operation.
Not surprisingly, this position satisfied no-body. Anti-nuclear activists contended that, if uranium mining was wrong, it was wrong wherever it was conducted, whether the mines were already open or not.
The Right, on the other hand, sought to open the market up – not, initially, on an economic basis (the price for uranium remained unsustainably low throughout the nineties) but as a matter of ideology. The mining industry saw restrictions on uranium as a dangerous precedent, in which environmental and social concerns (such as Aboriginal rights) impinged upon the alienable rights of entrepreneurs to make money however they wanted.
Over the last decade, the uranium lobby has been increasingly successful.
Partly, the end of the Cold War eased fears of a nuclear confrontation.
More importantly, the decline of the Left generally corresponded with an almost total collapse of the Left within the ALP, as all the Labor factions adapted, implicitly or explicitly, to neo-liberalism. Yesterday’s anti-nuclear activists are today’s cabinet ministers.
In many ways, though, the arguments today are more compelling than they were in the past. The world is, after all, far more politically and economically unstable now than in the 1980s, which means the safety of nuclear plants and waste dumps is far more difficult to guarantee.
Apologists for the industry are openly fretting that the Japanese situation will re-ignite the debates about nuclear power.
They should be worried. Quite rightly, people are not going to believe anything they say for some time to come.
But we need to go further, revisiting the case not only against atomic energy but against the mining of uranium. Again, you can’t sell the raw material for nuclear plants around the world and then not take a position on the industry that depends upon it. If we think that nuclear power stations are dangerous – and they clearly are – then we should not be facilitating their operations.
Again, it’s not a difficult argument.