The heavy hidden costs of nuclear power

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In part 2 of his rebuttal, Ludwig Heinrich says Professor Barry Brook predictably ignores nuclear power's significant economic, social and moral costs while spruiking its benefits.

[Read Part One.]

Spruiking nuclear by the Brook (Part 2)

In his article ‘Low-carbon electricity must be fit-for-service (and nuclear power is)’publishedin The Conversation, Professor Barry W. Brook, Professor of Climate Science at the University of Adelaide, says:
“Indeed, I would argue that the principal limitations on nuclear fission are not technical, economic or fuel-related … but are instead linked to complex issues of societal acceptance, fiscal and political inertia, and inadequate critical evaluation of the real-world constraints facing low-carbon alternatives.”

Brook’s arguments and statements against these stated issues are, when not simply wrong, at the very least contentious. But more than this, they offer a flawed argument from a moral point of view. There is no mention of values in this list of issues. Or is that all swept under the cover of “societal acceptance”?

Even if it is, Brook fails to mention security issues. Surely he doesn’t think they are irrelevant to nuclear energy? Security of fissile materials starts at the cradle but persists beyond the grave. From the moment it is mined, until the centuries have long made the power plant irrelevant, security is required. Aside from the economic costs, one of the social implications of adding more locations that require a military or similar level of security is a lessening of freedom.

What about proliferation? Terrorism? To guard against these we would need more regulations and regulators, more analysts and agents ― and again a lessening of freedom. Are any of these threats real or likely? Well, many UN and US agencies warn that building more nuclear reactors unavoidably increases nuclear proliferation risks, and
“...on 20 June Sweden ramped up security at its three nuclear power plants (NPPs) after explosives without a triggering device were found on a forklift on the grounds of the country's largest atomic power station at Ringhals, 45 miles south of Sweden's second-largest city, Goteborg, which has a population of 550,000 people.”

At the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit, fifty-eight world leaders from 53 states and four international organizations, including the United Nations, International Atomic Energy Agency, the European Union and INTERPOL, discussed nuclear terrorism threats and nuclear security preparedness. They also discussed issues of radiological security and protection against dirty bombs or the sabotage of nuclear facilities. The Seoul summit also discussed the integration of nuclear security and safety. No-one at that summit argued that any individual country could manage the security issues − including terrorism − alone. It could only be done (assuming that it could be done at all) through significant international cooperation and eternal vigilance. That comes at economic and social costs.

When other generating systems fail − whether due to natural disasters, human malevolence or error − the social costs are not so disastrous; they do not require such ongoing vigilance and exclusion, they do not entail such a radical restructuring of people's lives. Yet, aside from the economic costs of cleaning up and decommissioning the Fukushima Daiichi reactors, no cost estimates have been made on the health consequences, and the human and social costs are ignored.

Brook, and other promoters of nuclear energy, are proposing that we should take parts of the earth and, effectively, remove them from all future changes. For 500 years, at the least, those sites must remain. They must remain as exclusion zones, monitored and guarded, and constituting a serious risk for that duration. This period of exclusion could extend into thousands of years.

Perhaps, if they considered what such an exclusion can mean, they might think differently.

I hope so, because I do have some experience of such an enterprise. While the scale is not so great in terms of the time that this area must remain locked up, what Brooks et al are suggesting is also on a vastly larger scale.

As a child I lived in Wittenoom Gorge and in the nearby town of Wittenoom. The town doesn't really exist anymore as it has been degazetted, but the gorge remains. However it is an exclusion zone, as that was where they mined and milled blue asbestos (crocidolite).

So what? Let's start with the oldest issue. The Aboriginal people who lived there, before the mine, had done so for thousands of years. According to a staff geologist the rock carvings were at least 15,000 years old, and possibly over 25,000 years old. The mine destroyed their history. That is a lot of human knowledge to destroy. How much could we have learned? And, for a people who see themselves as continuously linked back, though their ancestors, to their dreamtime, is it surprising that they react as we would to a genocide?

Wittenoom Gorge was one of the most beautiful places in Australia. In the dry season it was a patchwork of rivulets feeding into rock pools. Ghostly white barked gums dotted the lower reaches as it broke out onto the plain. It was one of only a handful of locations in these zones that could support any density of life. So what we also lost there was biological diversity and the potential for supporting even more life.

The toxicity of asbestos probably doesn't need elaborating, but I have to add my personal note. My brother died from mesothelioma. This was identified, unsurprisingly, as being a result of having worked in the mill, at 15, on his school holidays. It is estimated that more than 10 per cent of the workers will die of mesothelioma. Can you assure me that other animals − that do not comprehend human semiotics − are not susceptible to that toxicity? Can you assure me that future generations, for whom our civilisation may be prehistory, will get our message that the place is not safe?

Of course, as you will say, not all places have the qualities of Wittenoom Gorge. But, in our hunger for power, we do not always even look to see what it is we are destroying, Consider Murujuga (also known as Burrup Peninsula) on Dampier Archipelago in Western Australia. It is the world's largest outdoor rock engraving site, containing rock art of world importance dating back perhaps to 30,000 years ago, including what may be the first ever representation of the human face. The Western Australian Government is planning to turn part of this site into a natural gas production and processing facility. We often seem too concerned about economic benefits to consider what else might be at stake.

The moral issues that arise from nuclear power use are unique amongst energy systems in that the burden constitutes an inter-generational injustice. So does doing nothing about greenhouse gases ― but ameliorating our impacts on the climate by alienating parts of the earth is not a solution. Whilst in opposition, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called climate change "the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time". But if you supplant that moral challenge with another how have you advanced? If there is no other way to economically provide that power, then we should either do without that power or reassess the economics. However, I do not accept that we cannot find a way to provide that power with renewable energy sources. There is an energy budget flowing in from a remote reactor ― the sun. Consequentially, we have wind and waves as well as heat and light; we have algae and mallee roots and, most likely, things not yet thought of. We must learn to utilise them efficiently so we may live within our means.

For the nuclear power proponents to distance themselves from the analogy I have drawn, they have to show that nuclear power plants and their waste repositories do not need to be exclusion zones for centuries to come; to prove that the toxicity is trivial, and to able to demonstrate a system of governance that maintains safety for that duration. The nuclear industry has had fifty years to show that it can rise to those challenges. It has failed to show that it can.

One of the intractable problems with nuclear power is that once you have built it you have to keep looking after it for a few hundred years, at least. I have read too much history to be blithe about that. If this civilisation fails − and the track record suggest that most civilisations do − who will monitor and make safe the nuclear power plants and waste repositories? When Rome fell, Europe muddled its way through about 900 years before re-emerging. For much of that time, knowledge was eroded, skills lost and systems of governance ignored. We are now transitioning from tribal and national models towards a global model of human society. Are we prepared to bet the future of the planet that we will get it right the first time?

Predicting the technological capacity of a society 500 years or more into the future is a brave act ― or should I say, foolhardy. If there were no other paths, we might be forgiven our hubris, but given that nuclear power plants are not even an economically attractive option (once cradle to grave costs, including security and decommissioning, are factored in) so why are we even talking about it?

The sad reality is that having nuclear facilities will require military level security, it will require exclusion zones, it will require active policing. The nuclear supply lines needs security from the mine to the − still imaginary − long term storage of waste.

Contrast this with wind farms. In most cases the land beneath the windmills is still available for grazing and other agricultural pursuits. There is negligible danger in walking around the towers - I have done so at a number of sites, and in general approval ratings are high ― see the CSIRO Report, for example.

Public acceptable for nuclear power plants is very different. Even people who support or promote nuclear power plants rarely volunteer to have them located near themselves and it is hard to imagine anyone wishing to locate one within an urban centre. Distributed solar power, which we already see blossoming on rooftops world-wide, causes no such concerns.

Let me quote from Renewable Energy for Urban Application in the APEC Region:
'Cities have a tremendous opportunity — some would say responsibility — to lead by example in conducting renewable energy projects in public buildings and city operations. This creates a market for the local renewable energy industry, encourages firms to locate in the city and creates good jobs in manufacturing, construction and maintenance. It also provides an environmentally sound, efficient and less expensive way of providing energy to government facilities. 

'Further, installing solar and other renewable energy equipment and systems on public buildings increases familiarity with the technologies and demonstrates the city’s commitment to technology development and innovation.'

Cities worldwide consume over 70 per cent of global energy demand and the APEC study identified a substantial number of renewable energy programs, spanning residential, commercial, industrial, government, educational and utility sectors. Projects located with the urban areas are often close to, or within, public spaces.

If we are to restructure and build an electricity supply system for our future, we could also include addressing economic and social injustice in our calculations. For example, if it is economically viable to generate power in the African desert and export it to Europe, as the Desertec proposal suggests, then perhaps it's economic − and politically much less fraught − to set solar installations on Aboriginal lands − much of which are amongst the highest insolation profiles are in the world − thereby providing those communities with an income stream from installation rents.

That is part of the reason why renewable energy sources are infinitely more appropriate than nuclear power plants. There is no significant problem with social acceptance and siting, there is no relinquishing of social amenity, there is no requirement for elaborate oversight and policing, there is no threat of terrorism ― and it can be used to address inequities in the economic system.

The pro-nuclear lobby is currently trying to run the argument that nuclear power is required to address the moral issues of climate change. Their argument fails for the reasons I have outlined above.

It is renewable energy systems that provide a moral response we need.

* Note that electricity losses using High-voltage direct current transmission amount to only 3 per cent per 1,000 km (25% per 10,000 km)

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