The nuclear industry's dangerous pipedream: electricity too cheap to meter

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by Scott Ludlam

Australian Greens Senator Scott Ludlam gave on June 15 in the Federal Parliament one of the most comprehensive accounts of the true nature and impact of the devastating Fukushima nuclear disaster. He sums up by saying the future of the nuclear industry is in long-term toxic waste management and "...in looking after the people it has already damaged in three generations of the reckless pursuit of electricity too cheap to meter that must finally be set aside as the pipedream that it always was".

I rise to express my concern, the concern of my colleagues and the concern of people all over the world for the people of Japan, including our friends and colleagues whose lives changed on 11 March this year, when the triple disaster of an earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear plant accident occurred. I am continually moved by the strength, ingenuity and improvisation of the Japanese people and by their remarkable capacity for efficient and large-scale organisation. They have endured through the crisis and trauma stages and are now continuing into the long-term recovery and clean-up phases.

I want to honour those people who continue to open their homes, care for the displaced and support the grieving and traumatised. It is also life-saving work. It is less glamorous and it occurs in slow motion behind the scenes, but it is no less important for that. I continue to believe, as I said three months ago when the crisis first hit, that our efforts and concern should be focused on supporting the Japanese people through their time of crisis.

However, I also observe that the nuclear industry is using this national and global catastrophe to wage a pro-nuclear crusade. Some in the industry have trivialised the incident as a sideshow or a distraction, which is an extraordinary way of referring to three or four full-size nuclear power stations in full-scale meltdown. I said at the time of the disaster that there must at some stage come a reckoning. That time is now.

In Australia we have witnessed some of the more vulgar examples of the uranium export industry almost using the suffering and real and long-term damage at Fukushima as a free promotional ad rather than warning against the world's most expensive and dangerous method for boiling water. That is why I want to put some facts on the table today about the significance and the severity of the disaster that is still unfolding. There are those who still have not learned the lessons of 60 years of this industry's sordid history and those who continue to profit from the export of uranium from Australia.

Fukushima now is a word that has entered our lexicon in the same way that Chernobyl and Three Mile Island did. It is no longer just the name of a place. It is the name of an event, an event that continues to worsen. Within only a few days of the 25th anniversary of the disaster at Chernobyl, the disaster at Fukushima was upgraded to level 7 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale-that is, it is the worst possible type of nuclear event, where it is acknowledged by industry and government that the impacts are far-reaching and extend well beyond the immediate vicinity of the plant.

ARPANSA, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, states that the upgrade to level 7 is based on an assessment of the cumulative radiation releases since the accident began. The radiation has, according to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation, the CTBTO, reached Australian shores. The Darwin CTBTO radionuclide-monitoring station has detected trace amounts of xenon 133 at the air samples collected in April. The radioactive cloud reached Europe in late March. French institutions detected traces of iodine 131 in milk that were eight to 10 times higher than background. So Fukushima is now the name of a place and the name of an event, and that event is not only happening in Japan but also in Europe, North America and here in Australia. At the epicentre, Australians, Americans and French were warned by their governments to keep at least 80 kilometres away.

Japan's prime minister, Naoto Kan, said transparency about Fukushima was essential to regain international confidence.

On 7 June in a report from Japan to the United Nations the Japanese government included in its 750 pages a confession that fuel in three of the reactors at Fukushima had melted right through the containment structure. The day before this report was tabled Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency doubled the figure for the radiation it believed was released into the atmosphere in the first six days from 370,000 terabecquerels to 770,000. On 3 June we learned that the authorities had suppressed the finding of radioactive tellurium six kilometres from Fukushima. The presence of this isotope indicates that the temperature of the fuel rods was over 1,000 degrees and this was known on 12 March-the day after the tsunami hit the plant. It was known that there had been a loss of coolant accident and that a meltdown had commenced before the emergency ventilation of the unit 1 reactor containment.

I am very interested to know whether our government knew this. Was this information transmitted from the government of Japan or not? Did the interdepartmental group know? Did ARPANSA know? Did the CTBTO monitoring system tell us that the meltdown had already occurred within 24 hours of the reactor complex being hit by the tsunami? What else did we know besides the fact that we were lied to and that the Japanese people were lied to? We know that the Japanese National Police Agency has been tasked with issuing internet service providers with requests to delete information deemed to be harmful rumours confirming Fukushima including, perhaps, harmful rumours like the truth about radioactive toxins leaking for three months and for many more months into the future, into the air, into the water and onto the Japanese fields-radiation that has now turned up in Tokyo's sewerage system, radiation that during the early days made people in Tokyo afraid of the water coming out of their taps. For a time they were told not to feed tap water to infants or to pregnant women on account of iodide concentrations in the tap water in Tokyo. That is 260 kilometres from the site of the triple meltdown. The suppression and concealment of information only increases fear, suspicion and a lack of faith that people might hold in their institutions. That information is vital for people to protect themselves. Australian authorities told Australian nationals not to stay within 80 kilometres of the plant, but we know that the exclusion zone is still only 30.

Greenpeace has found unsafe radiation levels in marine species 50 kilometres from the site of the meltdown. The US Department of Energy aircraft surveys have shown a belt of contamination with three million to 14.5 million becquerels of caesium-137 per square metre to the north-west of the plant. So there is now a plume of caesium reaching 60 kilometres to the north-west towards Fukushima City. To put those figures in perspective, those living in areas around Chernobyl with more than 555,000 becquerels of caesium-137 were forced to relocate. As the disaster continues and the radiation spreads so too does a new level of awareness that nuclear energy is too expensive, the risks are too high, the government subsidies are too large and this is simply no solution at all to climate change.

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, the German government has decided to phase out nuclear power by 2022. The Swiss government will phase out nuclear power permanently by 2034. Japan has abandoned plans for nuclear energy to provide half of its capacity and has scrapped 14 planned new reactors The Chinese State Council has put an embargo on approval of new reactors. There is quite simply no nuclear renaissance. The nuclear industry was in enormous trouble well before the disaster at the Fukushima complex reminded the world and awoke the ghosts of Chernobyl who perhaps had been forgotten by a whole new generation of people who were told that nuclear power is safe and that that was a one-off.

The United Nations Secretary General has called a high-level meeting of world leaders on nuclear security for 22 September and has initiated a UN system wide study on the implications of the accident at Fukushima. He said:

This exercise will also need a serious global debate on broader issues, including assessment of the costs, risks and benefits of nuclear energy and stronger connections between nuclear safety, nuclear security and nuclear non-proliferation.

In the past, including at the NPT Review Conference that took place in New York last year, the nuclear industry has been all over these disarmament and non-proliferation conferences like flies seeking to protect their commercial interests in the expansion and proliferation of nuclear technology even as the world grapples with the problem of reducing the proliferation of this exact same technology into more and more hands while working out what on earth to do with the nuclear armed states who adopted this Cold War suicide pact that was never stood down.

Of the United State's 104 nuclear reactors, 66 have already had their licenses extended 20 years, while another 18 are under Nuclear Regulatory Commission review. This is extraordinarily dangerous. People on the side of nuclear advocacy and the expansion of uranium mines from the troubled radioactive hotspots in the Northern Territory and South Australia need to be aware that, if the industry believes that Fukushima was the last time that this will ever happen, they must be living in some kind of state of delusion. They have been having one-in-a million-year accidents and disasters about once every 30 years and that is simply unacceptable. The idea of course is that the industry now faces this extreme crunch as the cohort of reactors that were built during the binge in the 1960s and 1970s are ageing and these plants must be retired. At the other end of the spectrum the Chinese government has embarked on an aggressive build of new and untested nuclear plants with help from the global nuclear industry. With sales flatlined at home the global nuclear power sector has been very aggressive at pushing their technology not just into China but deeply into our region as well, which is why nuclear advocates are happy to publish maps of a new fleet of plants in Indonesia, for example-a seismically active zone where you would have to imagine that putting nuclear power plants would be utterly reckless.

Before the disaster in Fukushima, the world's nuclear industry was in decline. As at 1 April 2011 there were 437 nuclear plants operating in the world, seven fewer than in 2002. In 2008 for the first time since the beginning of the nuclear age no new unit was started up. Seven new plants were added in 2009 and 2010 while 11 were shut down over that period. This trend is set to accelerate as the huge number of reactors that were built in the 1960s and 1970s will be forced to close by citizen advocacy, by expert opinion and by engineering testing. When these reactors are stress tested people will realise that some of them are quite simply too dangerous to run any longer. They certainly should not be relicensed to extend their lives from 40 to 60 years such that you would have plants operating that would have been running since before any of the current generation of operators were even born.

I say to investors in the nuclear industry and particularly to their strongest advocate in this building, the Minister for Resources and Energy, Martin Ferguson: take a very close look at the performance of the industry globally because Australian uranium exporters and investors are uniquely vulnerable to this volatile and unpredictable industry that has never lived up to the promises it has made in the past. We have been given a sharp reminder of the consequences of those exports from the three troubled facilities that we have in Australia for exporting this toxic material to other parts of the world with Australian uranium now burning the air over the Tohoku region on Japan's Pacific coast. I say to these investors: take a really good look at the performance of this industry-not its promises but its performances-and at what it has actually managed to achieve in the 60 years of colossal government largess, loan guarantees, direct subsidies, immunity from insurance liability and the enormous amount of money that has been shovelled into research and development so that the industry can continually say, 'No, you have got us wrong; we are just about to invent the safe lead of nuclear reactors or imaginary commercial thorium reactors or fourth-generation reactors or invoking a plutonium fuel cycle', which does not exist and must not ever be brought into being.

This industry not only poses a real and present threat to the surrounding host communities, who are exposed to the trace radiation, the low level radiation, from radon gas emissions from the mines and so on, but indeed poses a threat to investors themselves, the people who believe this industry has a bright future. It absolutely does not. The future of the nuclear industry is in long-term intergenerational waste management and stewardship of the extraordinary categories of toxic and poisonous waste it produces and in looking after the people it has already damaged in three generations of the reckless pursuit of electricity too cheap to meter that must finally be set aside as the pipedream that it always was.
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