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7 Other problems associated with nuclear power

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Special Issue: A back-door come-back

(February, 2005) So far we have seen that nuclear power can play only a limited role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and that in any case the potential savings made would only be temporary. Nuclear power is very expensive and moreover, many alternatives are available which can reduce CO2 emissions far more effectively, for infinite time periods, and at far lower costs. However, some people argue that climate change is such an important issue that we must employ all available methods to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, no matter what the cost.


There are so many other serious problems associated with nuclear power that any minor and temporary benefits are of tiny significance compared to the problems. These problems have existed since the introduction of nuclear power and are still not resolved. The chance that they will be solved within a reasonable time becomes more and more unlikely. In this section we will highlight the four major problems: storing radioactive waste, safety, weapons proliferation and terrorism, and health.

Storing radioactive waste
One of the most serious and persistent problems of nuclear power is what to do with radioactive waste. Supporters argue that radioactive waste is actually not a major problem since the quantities are small. Whilst this may be true in relation to coal-fired power plants, there are still huge amounts of waste created during the nuclear process. In fact the production of 1,000 tons of uranium fuel typically generates 100,000 tons of tailings and 3.5 million litres of liquid waste (Cunningham et al, 2003).
The amount of sludge produced is nearly the same as that of the ore milled. At a grade of 0.1% uranium, 99.9% of the material is left over. As long-lived decay products such as thorium-230 and radium-226 are not removed, the sludge contains 85% of the initial radioactivity of the ore. In addition, the sludge contains heavy metals and other contaminants such as arsenic, as well as chemical reagents used during the milling process.

Still, the volume of waste is not the main problem associated with nuclear waste. The main problem is that high-level waste remains dangerously radioactive for up to 240,000 years (Greenpeace, 2004). After half a century of research there are still no satisfactory solutions to this problem. The most commonly suggested solution is to build underground waste repositories for long-term storage. In 1987, the U.S. Department of Energy announced plans to build such a repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. According to the plan, high-level radioactive waste will be buried deep in the ground where it will hopefully remain unexposed to groundwater and unaffected by earthquakes (Cunningham et al, 2003). On a timescale of hundreds of thousands of years, however, it is impossible to predict whether an area will remain dry or geologically stable.

Moreover the costs of monitoring and maintenance over such a timescale are unimaginable and generations for hundreds of thousands of years to come would still have to pay the cost for a few years electricity for our generation. The Yucca Mountain scheme has generated huge public outcry and it is likely that the project will never go ahead. Similar problems elsewhere in the world mean that there are currently no final repositories in operation.

In the last decades researchers have been working on the technology to reduce radioactivity and the decay time of nuclear waste, the so-called transmutation process. This has often been optimistically heralded as the future solution to the waste problem, however, there is no guarantee that this research will be successful, and if it is the financial costs will be enormous. Nuclear waste contains many different types of radioactive isotopes, which must all be partitioned separately and then transmutated separately. The aim is to decrease the decay time of the radioactivity of these isotopes. This will not be possible for all isotopes and not all isotopes can be partitioned. It will require new processing technologies and plants. At this moment only plutonium and uranium are separated in reprocessing. The application of these new techniques will require a large-scale introduction of fast breeder reactors or other new advanced reactor types, which will take billions of dollars and many decades. And it is obvious that these techniques can only be applied for future spent fuel and not for the present amount of nuclear waste (WISE, 1998). Every attempt to present it as a solution for already present waste is misleading.

Other so-called solutions that have been proposed include: disposing waste in deep ocean trenches, blasting waste into space, and leaving waste by nuclear power plants until a use for it is possibly identified in the future. This last method is now applied on a large scale.

Despite claims that the nuclear power industry has a "superb record" on safety (WNA, 2004a) and an "impeccable safety practice" (Ritch III, 2002), historical evidence provides many examples of nuclear disasters and near disasters, for example at Windscale (UK, 1957), Chelyabinsk-40 (Russia, 1957/8), Brown's Ferry (Alabama, USA, 1975), Three Mile Island (Pennsylvania, USA, 1979) and Chernobyl (Ukraine, 1986). Admittedly much progress has been made in increasing safety standards but reactors are still not inherently safe and problems are still common.

In 1995, a natrium leak in the Monju fast-breeder reactor in Japan led to its closure, and once again highlighted safety fears in the nuclear industry. More recently, in 2002, a near disaster was averted at the Davis-Besse reactor in Ohio, USA. The steel in the reactor head was found to be punctured and was within less than a quarter of an inch of causing catastrophic meltdown: in the years preceding this incident the reactor had received a near-perfect safety score (Mechtenberg-Berrigan, 2003). Due to cooling problems in France during the heat wave in the summer of 2003, engineers told the government that they could no longer guarantee the safety of the country's 58 nuclear power plants (Duval Smith, 2003). This is of particular importance as it suggests that nuclear power production will become even less safe as heat waves become more common due to climate change.

Apart from possible technical failures, the risk of human error can never be excluded. This risk will grow now that the onset of privatisation and liberalisation of the electricity market has forced nuclear operators to increase their efficiency and reduce costs. For nuclear energy, it is more difficult to reduce costs because it has high fixed costs: building costs make up about 75% of the total costs (compared, for example, with only 25% for gas). All savings must therefore come from the 25% variable costs of the electricity price, notably from efficiency increases and personnel reductions (Greenpeace & WISE, 2001). In the US significant reductions have been made with an estimated 26,000 workers leaving the industry over the last eight years. The reductions in the size of the workforce have in some cases led to concerns over safety.

Weapons proliferation and terrorism
One of the by-products of most nuclear reactors is plutonium-239, which can be used in nuclear weapons. The international Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is supposed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons but a number of countries with nuclear capabilities, including India, Pakistan and Israel, are not party in the NPT. While most countries claim a strict delineation between nuclear power production and the military use of plutonium, it cannot be ruled out that plutonium could be used in weapons proliferation. According to the UN Climate Panel IPCC, the security threat would be "colossal" if nuclear power was used extensively to tackle climate change. Within the Non Proliferation Treaty, it is completely legal to obtain all necessary technology and material and then to withdraw from the treaty prior to deciding and announcing the wish to make nuclear weapons.

Nuclear installations could also become targets for terrorist attacks: numerous studies since the 2001 attacks on New York have found nuclear plants to be at substantial risk from terrorism (Coeytaux & Margnac, 2003; Oxford Research Group, 2003). Furthermore, radioactive material could be used by terrorists to make "dirty bombs".

In the event of a nuclear disaster the health concerns are obvious. Exposure to radioactive fallout would lead to an increased risk of genetic disorders, cancer and leukaemia. In some areas of Belarus, for example, national reports indicate that incidents of thyroid cancer in children have increased more than a hundred-fold when compared with the period before the Chernobyl accident (UN-IHA, 2004). However, there are also health risks associated with the day-to-day production of nuclear power. Employees working in power plants are exposed to low-level radioactivity. According to a study by the University of California, based on research at the DOE/Rocketdyne nuclear facility in that American state, the risk of employee exposure to low-level radioactive waste is 6 to 8 times higher than was previously presumed (Mechtenberg-Berrigan, 2003). One should realise that there is no such thing as a safe limit. Each amount of radiation can cause serious health damage.