Environment Analysis

HELEN CALDICOTT: The truth about nuclear power — neither clean nor green

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Waste produced by nuclear power plants is extremely harmful and difficult to dispose of (Screenshot via YouTube)

While nuclear power is considered clean by many, there are several harmful and long-lasting consequences resulting from its use, writes Dr Helen Caldicott.

AN ENORMOUS AMOUNT of fossil fuel is used to mine and mill uranium, to enrich and fashion the nuclear fuel rods, to build the enormous concrete reactor, let alone decommission the radioactive mausoleum at the end of its active life of 40-60 years. Finally, but not least, to transport millions of tons of intensely radioactive waste to some as-yet-to-be-constructed storage site in the U.S. to be kept isolated from the ecosphere for one million years according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

We all know to our detriment that the combustion of oil, gas and coal creates CO2, the main global warming gas.

According to a definitive study by Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith titled ‘Nuclear Power: the Energy Balance’, the use of nuclear power causes, at the end of the road, approximately one third as much CO2 as gas-fired electricity production. The rich uranium ores required for this reduction are limited and the remaining poorer ores in reactors would produce more CO2 than burning fossil fuels directly. Nuclear reactors are best understood as complicated expensive and inefficient gas burners.

They write:

Setting aside the above energetic costs and accepting the nuclear industry’s claim that it is clean and green, and assuming a 2% growth in global demand, all present-day reactors – 440 – would have to be replaced by new ones. Half the electricity growth would be provided by nuclear power and half the world’s coal fire plants replaced by nuclear plants requiring  the construction over 50 years of 2,000 to 3,000 1,000-megawatt reactors — one per week for 50 years.

The International Atomic Energy Agency estimates already there are 370,000 tons of high-level radioactive waste in the world awaiting disposal, containing over 100 radioactive elements such as:

  • iodine-129, half-life 16 million years and a thyroid carcinogen;
  • plutonium-239, half-life 24,400 years, a potent alpha mutagen that induces bone carcinogen, lung cancer, leukemia, foetal abnormalities and genetic diseases;
  • strontium-90, half-life 29 years, which causes bone cancer and leukemia; and
  • caesium-137, half-life 30 years, causing muscle sarcomas and cancers of many other organs because it is a potassium analogue and resides in many cells of the body.

Dr John Gofman MD, the discoverer of uranium-233, estimated that if 400 reactors operated for 25 years at 99 per cent perfect containment, caesium loss would be equivalent to 16 Chernobyls. A half-life is multiplied by ten or 20 to give the total dangerous radiological life.

There is no containment that lasts 100 years let alone one million. As these radioactive elements inevitably escape and leak into the environment, they will concentrate at each step of the food chain tens to hundreds of times, for instance through algae, then crustaceans, then small fish, then big fish, then us. They are tasteless, invisible and odourless. Once deposited in human or animal organs, they irradiate a small volume of cells over many years inducing mutation of regulatory genes which control the rate of cell division, thus inducing uncontrolled cell division which is cancer.

Leukemia takes five to ten years to appear post contamination, solid cancers 15 to 80 years. Genetic abnormalities will take generations to manifest.

Animals and plants are similarly affected.

In effect, by creating more and more nuclear waste, we humans will be inducing random compulsory genetic engineering for the rest of time.

That’s what clean, green nuclear power means.

You can follow Dr Caldicott on Twitter @DrHCaldicott. Click here for Dr Caldicott’s complete curriculum vitae.

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