Nuclear Power: Time to End the Experiment The new millennium presents the ideal symbolic opportunity for a final shutdown of nuclear power - a technology that has failed us in every arena since it was first conceived.
By Peter Bunyard and Pete Roche
As we enter the 21st century, we carry with us an out moded, dangerous technology that has left a legacy of irretrievable contamination, and a trail of disease, death and runaway costs. Nuclear power is clearly no longer economic, i f it ever was. Nowhere in the world has the indus try been able to demonstrate that it can safely deal with the highly dangerous wastes that are an inevitable consequence of the nuclear fuel cycle. The dream of a reactor which can gen erate its own fuel by burning plutonium extracted from ordi nary reactor waste has never materialised; thus removing the whole raison d'etre for 'reprocessing'. Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Windscale and numerous other accidents have blown apart the myth that nuclear power is safe, and, even under nor mal operation, nuclear facilities contaminate our environment irrevocably.
With such a legacy, one might expect the industry to die qui etly. But, far from admitting defeat, the nuclear industry is attempting to make a comeback - hoping that governments will turn to it to help solve the problem of climate change (see box on page 394). At the last Climate Conference in Buenos Aires, the nuclear industry was the single largest lobby group. In the meantime, the industry ticks over, extending the life of decrepit old reactors and selling the odd reactor to unsuspect ing developing countries.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the nuclear industry's history is the wasted opportunity. Huge sums of public money have been spent subsidising research, waste-management and decommissioning, which could have been better spent on new industries more suited to the demands of the next millennium, like the offshore wind industry, solar photovoltaics, or energy efficiency, and tackling the scourge of fuel poverty. But one thing should be very clear to environmentalists as the 21st cen tury dawns - it is time now to despatch this industry to 'meet its maker', before it is resurrected in a new guise, and contam inates our hopes and dreams for the new century as it has for the last five decades.
Shored-up by Subsidies In the past, the nuclear industry has survived on massive sub sidies, indirect and direct, with billions of dollars spent world wide. Economic competition was stifled. But deregulation of the electricity supply industry has now exposed the true cost of nuclear power, without even taking decommissioning and radioactive waste-management into account, nor indeed the legacy of disease and death. As a consequence, the nuclear industry is in the doldrums, with no orders for new reactors anywhere in Europe or the United States.
Even a year before the Three Mile Island accident in March 1979, the love affair of US utilities with nuclear power had
begun to sour. Cancellations began in the 1970s, and every reactor ordered after 1973 - some 120 in all - was subsequent ly cancelled. Nevertheless, that spate of orders in the 1960s and early 70s for light-water reactors has given the US the dubious status of being number one nuclear reactor power in the world.
The nuclear industry is in the doldrums, with no orders for new reactors anywhere in Europe or the United States. It now generates approximately 30 per cent of the world's nuclear electricity, followed by France with 17 per cent, Japan 11 per cent and the former Soviet Union 10 per cent. The rest is made up mainly of nuclear power in Britain, Germany, Tai wan, South Korea, China and India.
In 1974, in an exuberant overstatement, the International Atomic Energy Agency of the United Nations forecast that by 2000 the world would have 4,450 gigawatts (1 GW = 1 billion watts) of nuclear capacity. By 1996, though, total installed capacity was just one twelfth of that. By 1990, predictions were more modest. The UK Atomic Energy Authority antici pated that the world would have 1,000 GW of nuclear electric ity by 2020.
The Nuclear Survival Strategy The miserable myth that nuclear power is cheap, safe and clean has also run out of currency, and i f the industry limps into the 21st century, then it should simply be used to deal with the mess that it has landed us in. Of course, this is not the way the industry sees it. Worldwide, it has developed a three-pronged survival strategy:
First: Extend the life of existing reactors, and move into East ern Europe to refurbish old and highly dangerous Sovietdesigned reactors. Second: Promote new reactors in a few unsuspecting devel oping countries. Third: Promote nuclear energy as a solution to climate change.
British Nuclear Fuels Ltd's (BNFL) latest Annual Report proudly boasts that its Magnox reactors saved over 22 million tonnes of carbon dioxide compared with producing the same electricity by coal. BNFL wants to "maximise the safe and eco nomic lifetimes of the Magnox stations so that they can con tinue to help the UK meet its Kyoto climate change targets." And BNFL has its eyes on the future, highlighting "the need for replacement nuclear capacity... over the next couple of decades".
But the Magnox reactors are already well past their intend-
The Ecologist, Vol. 29, No 7, November 1999