What is now happening in Japan is terrible. The earthquake, the tsunami, now the near-catastrophe in the nuclear power station of Fukushima. All the people suffering after having lost relatives, homes, and now being in danger of losing their health or even life. One may say that Japan is the country best prepared for such a calamity. It is probably true, but this doesn’t really alleviate suffering of the affected part of the Japanese population.
While the attempts to limit the negative consequences are ongoing, it is time to think about the catastrophe and its causes: It is clear that we have no influence on earthquakes and tsunamis. They are independent of our doings. We may be able to contain the damages – that is something the Japanese are really good at. However, the nuclear catastrophe is not independent of us. All in all, it is men who build power stations and use nuclear fission to produce electricity.
One may say: Japan is a special case because of the frequent earthquakes. Perhaps they shouldn’t have built nuclear power stations, it was too dangerous. In other parts of the world it is not. This may be true if we consider natural disasters as the only source of problems for this technology. I already have written twice on that subject – that there are many other problematic aspects one should take into account. Now, since the nuclear fission technology is becoming the central subject of public discussion world wide, I have decided to discuss the arguments against nuclear power one more time. Here they are:
- For the time being, there is no single launched final storage site in the world for the highly radioactive waste produced through nuclear power generation – even though the first nuclear power plants were launched in the 50-ies. There are two sites agreed on, in Sweden and in Finland – but both are still controversial and shall be launched as late as in 2025.
- Uranium mining: whether a uranium peak is arriving or already passed, is a highly controversial issue, so I won’t discuss it here. But it is a certain fact that uranium mining causes high environmental damages – and that it does even in countries like Australia and Canada, where there are comparatively high legal standards and modern technology. Meanwhile, much of the uranium we used, e.g., in European power plants is mined in Africa and Asia – and there the standards aren’t even comparable.
- Nuclear power stands in conflict with renewables. While generation and transmission of energy from renewable sources must be flexible and decentralized, nuclear power stations are quite the contrary – it is very costly to drop their energy production in the short term, and they produce vast amounts of energy each, thus being the antipode of decentralization.
- It is often claimed that nuclear electricity is cheap. Yes, it is, but to a high extent because of vast indirect subsidies by the State, without which the development of those power stations would have paid off. One part of the subsidies are the R&D costs. But the main part is the implicit insurance in the case of an accident: there is no insurence company in the world that is dumb enough to insure a nuclear power stations. Thus, in case of an accident, it is the people, the tax-payers, who pay for cleaning the mess.
- Not only does the mining cause huge environmental damages. There are further steps in the life cycle of uranium that are problematic. Consider the amounts of water needed for cooling of a single nuclear power station (and this in a world becoming ever hotter and, in many areas, ever dryer). Even “nuclear plants with closed-loop cooling (recycling water within the plant instead of using it once and then returning it to its source) consume 720 gallons of water per MWh of net power produced; the comparable figures are 310 to 520 gallons per MWh for several types of coal plants, and 190 gallons per MWh for natural gas combined-cycle plants.” (Ackerman 2010) Then there is the radioactivity of the plants (one cannot prevent all radiation from escaping)…
And then there is the hazard of possible accidents: as in Harrisburg in 1979, in Chernobyl in 1986, at Mayak in 1957, and now in Fukushima (for a more detailed analysis of the risks, see this article at Project Syndicate).
Taking these problems into account, we should reconsider the claim that nuclear energy “is the solution”. The solution of what? It may cause relatively little emissions of greenhouse gases. But, at the same time, it is a huge risk. The life cycle of uranium as fuel contains a multiplicity of hazards and unsolved problems. We may be able to solve them one day (though I don’t believe that). But as long as we still are not, nuclear power remains a huge mistake.
Related post: Is Nuke the Lesser Evil?