Nuclear power: Myths about low cost, safety and emission

Mathew Thomas

Former president Dr Abdul Kalam’s effort at mollifying the Kundamkulam protesters has not succeeded.

TV debates did not shed light on cheapness, emissions and safety of nuclear power plants. Are the efforts to push for nuclear power a reflection of ignorance? In the 2005 Energy Bill, the US Congress allocated $ 13 billion in subsidies to revive the moribund nuclear power industry. It did not succeed. Why was USA interested in the 123 deal? Public debates on the nuclear power option are needed.

That India signed the Kundankulam agreement with Soviet Union just a year after Chernobyl, speaks volumes both of the cavalier foolhardiness of Indian signatories and the delusional power of nuclear lobby. Fukushima has re-focussed attention on nuclear plants. Several claims about nuclear power should be examined, to avoid a ‘Fukushima’ here. Nuclear reactors are expensive, complex and inefficient burners; they are a sophisticated, yet hazardous, if silly, way to boil water to produce electricity. They consume and pollute huge quantities of water.

The nuclear lobby propagates the myths of cheap and clean power. Now disgraced Enron sponsored the ‘Clean Power Group,’ which constantly met former US vice-president Dick Cheney. Kenneth Lay, Enron CEO, gave Cheney a list of corporate recommendations. These found their way into the report of the US national energy policy development group. Could this be the root of US influence in our government’s anxiety to rush into nuclear power?

Three nuclear power myths are discussed here.

Myth 1 – Cheapness: It is not viable without huge subsidies. The nuclear industry received subsidies of $ 15.3 per kwh for 15 years in USA, compared to $ 0.46 for wind energy. Not one plant has been ordered since 1978 in USA. MIT’s 2003 study, concluded, “Levelised cost of electricity generated by a new nuclear power plant is about 60 per cent higher than the cost of electricity from a coal-fired or combined cycle gas turbine plant, assuming moderate gas prices.” The original Kundankulam project cost of Rs 6,000 crore now stands escalated to Rs 17,000 crore. Costs, of waste storage and disposal, decommissioning, insurance and environment damage are hidden. In 1987, US designated Yucca Mountain as the primary waste repository. It is yet to receive a shipment of nuclear waste. Where would India store its radioactive wastes?
Has the cost of decommissioning and dismantling reactors been considered? During operations, intensely radioactive isotopes are formed inside the reactor vessel. The reactors must be protected from damage and guarded for hundreds of years, before dismantling can begin. During this long period, the shrouded reactors remain mute testimony to monumental human stupidity.

Myth 2 —Emission-free: A 1,000-megawatt nuke plant generates 30 tons of highly radioactive waste each year. The waste is stored in huge cooling pools at reactor sites. These wastes contain, substances, like plutonium, (named after the Greek god of hell – Pluto), which is so toxic that one-millionth of a gram, if inhaled, causes lung cancer. It remains radioactive for half a million years. Iodine 131 is very carcinogenic. It deposits on soil near the reactors, where it is taken up by grass and plants.

Cattle eat these and iodine 131 is concentrated in their milk. Radioactive iodine enters human bodies through either inhalation from air or eating dairy products. Strontium 90 is released from reactors on a daily basis, mostly in wastewater and sometimes in air. It contaminates vegetation and enters the food chain through cattle. It induces bone cancer. The mining and refining of uranium ore, constructing the reactors, transporting and storing the wastes, require large amounts of fossil fuels, which emit huge quantities of CO2. CFC gases are emitted during uranium enrichment.

Radioactive emissions occur during processing of nuclear fuel. Uranium miners are exposed to radon 220, in the air of the mine. It causes lung cancer. About half of miners in North America have died of lung cancer. Millions of tons of radioactive dirt left at mine sites leak radon 220 into the air exposing populations nearby to radiation. In the uranium milling process, waste ore, called mill tailings, is discarded on the ground. Mill tailings contain thorium, an alpha and gamma emitter.

Workers at all stages of the uranium enrichment process are exposed to radiation.
Depleted Uranium (DU) – uranium 238 – is discarded after enrichment. In one US enrichment facility alone, 38,000 cylinders of DU await disposal. DU has contaminated ground water there forcing the government to provide drinking water for residents. It is easy to see the keenness of the US nuclear industry to sell their plants to India.

Myth 3 – Safety: Pictures of the Fukushima disaster expose the safety myth. Chernobyl exposed 8.4 million people in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia to radiation. Some 150,000 sq km, were contaminated. Agricultural areas, covering 52,000 sq km, were ruined. Nearly 400,000 people were resettled. Millions live in environments with continual residual exposure.

Why would anyone insist on building these death-dealing monstrosities with the experience of such devastation? Mechanical and human factors are a prime cause of disasters. Aging of reactors and reluctance to shut them is another reason. Estimated life of a plant is only 40 years. Nuclear plants are vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Meltdowns, a major cause for nuclear accidents, caused the catastrophe of Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Nuclear power is neither cheap, nor ‘clean’ nor safe. Yet, politicians, in ignorance and scientists, with bias, and industry in greed, harp on its virtues. ‘Look before you leap,’ is an old adage. Our government seems to have leapt blindly into the nuclear power cesspool. Is it too late to commence the ardours climb out of this hellhole? When it comes to human life, it is never too late. The answer to our energy needs lies in renewable and clean sources, which we have in abundance.


(The writer is a former defence missile scientist)


Article Courtesy: Deccan Herald





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