Thursday, 15 October 2015

Let’s Come Clean about Nuclear Waste

A relatively small amount of material can generate a vast amount of energy, without polluting the atmosphere or depleting the precious ozone layer. Nuclear fission sounds like the Holy Grail of energy management. No wonder big corporations have stepped in and offered it as the magic solution to everything – from supplying electricity to those who can pay for the privilege, to threatening annihilation against anyone who might end up paying the ultimate penalty.

But it brings in its wake the most dangerous waste – not just in the form of its deadly radioactive by-products which retain their potency to destroy lives for hundreds of thousands of years, but in terms of the resources its production consumes when they can be so much more beneficially utilised elsewhere.

Let us look at a few facts relating to the economics of nuclear power.

Disguised Costs
It is often claimed that safe, renewable energy such as solar powered electricity costs users more than nuclear-power generated electricity. But that is because, instead of comparing the retail costs of both on the same basis (which would reveal solar powered electricity to be cheaper [1]), the retail cost of the former is compared with the wholesale price nuclear plants charge electricity companies. Not only is this a false comparison, the ‘lower’ wholesale cost of nuclear-based electricity masks a huge government subsidy to the nuclear industry.

In the UK alone, the government’s own 2012/13 budget revealed that £2.5bn ($3.8bn) a year was spent on “nuclear legacy” issues (i.e. decommissioning and waste handling). Nuclear companies would charge electricity suppliers a lot more if the government (using taxpayers’ money) does not cover the costs of dealing with their nuclear waste. No such subsidy on a comparable scale is given to solar or wind energy [2].

Plutocratic Deals
While solar and wind energy companies are relatively small, start-ups, the nuclear business is made up of large corporations with the financial muscle to do deals with governments to maximise their own profits. When plutocratic parties are in power, no matter if they are in the east or west, they align themselves with the agenda of wealthy corporations. The latest example can be seen with the UK Government asking for China’s help to finance the £24.5bn ($38bn) Hinkley nuclear plant project, and in return, China will be given the opportunity to construct another nuclear plant at Bradwell in Essex, which will be owned by Chinese companies. To assist Chinese investors, the UK Government will give a £2bn ($3.07bn) loan guarantee for the Hinkley project. The profit will go to wealthy corporations based abroad, and the harmful nuclear waste will be left in Britain.

Costly Accidents Do Happen
The nuclear business model is dependent on people forgetting that when nuclear power plant accidents happen, they can be devastating, and such accidents do happen. Between 1952 and 2009 there were at least 99 nuclear power plant accidents (defined as incidents that either resulted in the loss of human life or more than $50,000 [£32,555] of property damage) around the world. The total property damage caused by these accidents amounted to $20.5bn (£13.4bn). The most notorious of these was of course Chernobyl (1986), where in Belarus alone, incidence of congenital defects rose by 40% within six years of the accident. Even the lowest estimate of cancer related deaths caused by Chernobyl put the number at 27,000 worldwide.

After Chernobyl, lessons were supposed to have been learnt, and the mistakes of a Soviet-era operation would allegedly not be found in developed democracies around the world. Then came Fukushima in 2011. While the death toll from radiation exposure will rise from the 1,232 reached in 2014, the bill for radiation clean up and compensation for injuries has been estimated at $105bn (£68bn).

Cost-Benefit Analysis of Nuclear Weapons
Finally, it may be argued that even though the civil use of nuclear power generates too much harmful waste and dangerous accidents, its military use is vital. Without disputing the principle that the possession of nuclear weapons by at least one country necessitates their acquisition by a number of other countries to maintain a balance of power, there is still the issue of strategic coherence.

The sole objective of nuclear weapons has always been to deter an enemy invasion. And while there are already more than enough nuclear weapons to wipe out the entire planet’s population, more is still being spent on them. A 2011 report estimated that the nine ‘nuke’ countries spent $100bn (£65bn) in a single year on developing and maintaining their nuclear weapons. Yet far from giving them sufficient security, they spent a further 10 times more (i.e., $1trillion) on their non-nuclear military capability.

It has reached a point where it is clear that the ever-expanding purchase of nuclear weaponry may not meet either economic or military objectives. In the UK, the debate about replacing Trident submarines with nuclear missile-firing capability has highlighted this issue. The Government’s own estimate indicated it would cost over £20bn ($31bn). If we factor in running costs over the purported 40-year lifespan with £2bn a year (i.e., £80bn), plus at least £13bn in decommissioning costs, we have a total of £113bn ($174bn). Leaving aside how that much more could be done for the country with that amount of money, there is the military question of why that should be prioritised over the army which, already cut down to 82,000 troops by the Government, is now going to be further cut to 60,000. And with terrorism being the major threat, would not well trained and equipped troops be a less wasteful way to strengthen a country’s defence than having even more nuclear weapons against fanatics who are quite prepared to martyr themselves?

Add up all these costs, and we have trillions of pounds/dollars spent on generating profits for the few and hazards for the many; an expensive short-term solution for now and the risk of radioactive leaks for virtually ever; devastating industrial accidents threatening our safety and dysfunctional military priorities undermining our security.

What a waste.

[1] Recent Deutsche Bank analysis confirmed it was cheaper in around 30 countries than grid electricity, and others are likely to follow.
[2] In fact, the UK Government is further cutting public support for solar energy and using its planning power to curtail the development of wind farms.

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