Nuclear Energy Is a False Saviour


There is a uranium party going on around the world at the moment, and Australia is playing host. We have the rest of the world at our doorstep, begging to buy our uranium. Australian mineral stocks are soaring through the roof, and the media abounds with laudatory articles about huge increases in uranium exports.


This week John Howard told a Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) lunch in Sydney that Australia had the potential to become a global ‘energy superpower,’ as one of the world’s biggest exporters of coal, natural gas, uranium and petroleum.

Considerable pressure is also being applied within the Labor Party to change its ‘no new mines’ policy, which has been in place since 1984.

Meanwhile, governments around the world are promoting nuclear power as an efficient, safe, ‘clean and green’ answer to the looming energy crisis. In fact, none of these claims is true.

Nuclear power is not ‘clean and green,’ as the industry claims. Large amounts of traditional fossil fuels are required to mine and refine the uranium needed to run nuclear power reactors, to construct the massive concrete reactor buildings, and to transport and store the toxic radioactive waste created by the nuclear process.

Burning of this fossil fuel emits significant quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2) the primary greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. In addition, large amounts of the now-banned chlorofluorocarbon gas (CFC) are emitted during the enrichment of uranium.

CFC gas is not only 10,000 to 20,000 times more efficient as an atmospheric heat trapper (or greenhouse gas) than CO2, but it is a classic pollutant and a potent destroyer of the ozone layer.

While, currently, the creation of nuclear electricity produces only one-third the amount of CO2 emitted from a similar-sized, conventional, gas generator, this is a transitory statistic. Over several decades, as the concentration of available uranium ore declines, more fossil fuels will be required to extract the ore from less concentrated ore veins. Within 10 to 20 years, nuclear reactors will produce no net energy because of the massive amounts of fossil fuel that will be necessary to mine and enrich the remaining poor grades of uranium.

By extension, the operation of nuclear power plants will then produce exactly the same amounts of greenhouse gases and air pollution as standard power plants.

Contrary to the nuclear industry’s claims, smoothly running nuclear power plants are also not emission free. Government regulations allow nuclear plants ‘routinely’ to emit hundreds of thousands of curies of radioactive gases and other radioactive elements into the environment every year.

Thousands of tons of solid radioactive waste are presently accumulating in the cooling pools beside the operating nuclear plants in the United States and hundreds of others elsewhere throughout the world. This waste contains extremely toxic elements that will inevitably pollute the environment and human food chains, a legacy that will lead to epidemics of cancer, leukemia, and genetic disease in populations living near nuclear power plants or radioactive waste facilities for many generations to come.

On top of this, nuclear power is exorbitantly expensive, and notoriously unreliable. Wall Street is deeply reluctant to re-involve itself in any nuclear investment, despite the fact that in the 2005 Energy Bill the US Congress allocated US$13 billion in subsidies to revive a moribund nuclear power industry. To compound this problem, the global supplies of usable uranium fuel are finite. If the entire world’s electricity production were replaced today by nuclear energy, there would be less than nine more years of accessible uranium available.

Meanwhile, every billion dollars spent on this supremely misguided attempt to revivify the nuclear industry is a theft from the production of cheap renewable electricity. Think what these billions could do if invested in the development of wind power, solar power, co-generation, geothermal energy, biomass, and tidal and wave power let alone basic energy conservation, which itself could save the United States 20 per cent of the electricity it currently consumes.

A Greenpeace report issued in October 2005 predicted that solar power could supply clean electricity to 100 million people living in sunny parts of the world by the year 2025. Such an enterprise could create 54,000 jobs and be worth US$19.9 billion. In just two decades, the amount of solar electricity could be equivalent to the power generated by 72 coal-fired stations enough to supply the needs of Israel, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia combined. (Egypt is currently one of the few countries in the world that hosts a government department solely devoted to the development of renewable energy sources.)

The Carbon Trust, an independent company established by the British Government, estimates that, with the correct amount of investment, marine energy tidal and wave power could provide up to 20 per cent of the United Kingdom’s current electricity needs.

Thanks to Sean Leahy.

According to Amory Lovins, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute, in 2004 the amount of electricity supplied by renewable energy sources wind, co-generation, biomass, geothermal, solar, hydro (excluding electricity generated from large hydro dams) added 509 times the total capacity worldwide that nuclear power contributed, and raised the global electricity production 2.9 times more than nuclear power contributed.

These ‘minor’ electricity sources already dwarf the annual growth of nuclear power generation, and experts predict that by 2010, they will add 177 times more capacity than nuclear power provides.

When nuclear proponents say that nuclear power can be used to reduce the United States’s insatiable reliance on foreign oil, they are simply wrong. Oil and its by-product gasoline are used to fuel the internal combustion engines in automobiles and trucks. Oil is also used to heat buildings. But oil does not power the electricity grid.

The grid, which is used to power electric lights, computers, VCRs, fans, hair dryers, stoves, refrigerators, air conditioners, and for industrial needs, is powered primarily through the burning of coal, other fossil fuels, and, currently, through nuclear power. (Oil does generate an infinitesimal amount of electricity 2 per cent in the United States.)

Before the British election in May 2005, the nuclear industry slowly and surely fashioned a classy public relations campaign targeting politicians, media, and the British public. The campaign, coordinated by the Nuclear Industry Association, cleverly did not address the dubious benefits of nuclear power but focused instead upon the current shortcomings of wind-generated electricity and other alternative power sources.

The British Department of Trade and Industry (DIT), also viewed the 2005 election as an opportunity to promote nuclear power. Adrian Gault, director of DIT’s strategy group, made a wild and uninformed prediction that nuclear power would be supplying half of Britain’s electricity by 2050 while cutting greenhouse emissions.

Meanwhile, in 2001, DIT’s Nuclear Industries Directorate had already agreed to participate in an international consortium to build the next generation of nuclear reactors to be constructed by a British or American company. So their real agenda had been established four years earlier, and the propaganda campaign in May 2005 was merely an attempt to bring the British public around to seeing the wisdom of pr
e-ordained policy.

The British nuclear industry is working hard to persuade members of parliament and other influential public figures of the benefits of nuclear power. Dr James Lovelock, the UK-based scientist who developed the Gaia theory, now wrongly advocates the use of nuclear power as one solution to the global warming crisis.

Sir David King, chief UK Government science advisor, says that nuclear power plants are the only realistic way to satisfy growing energy demands while meeting global warming targets. And former UK Greenpeace leader Peter Melchett, who now works for the giant public relations company Burson Marstellar, has also publicly endorsed this concept.

Tragically, more and more people are believing the myths propagated by the nuclear industry about nuclear power that it is emission free, produces no greenhouse gases, and is therefore the answer to global warming.

It is increasingly critical to set the record on nuclear power straight, as international battles for oil threaten to morph into world wars, and leading NASA scientists are taken to task by the Bush Administration for daring to tell the truth about global warming.

As a physician, I contend that unless the root cause of a problem can be ascertained there can be no cure. So too, the pathology intrinsic in the nuclear power gang needs to be dissected and revealed to the cold light of day. The potential for growth in the renewable non- CO2 producing sectors is enormous. All that is required is a commitment by government leaders to urgently enact serious laws mandating energy conservation, and to shift the subsidies currently provided to the nuclear power industry to alternative and renewable electricity generation.

Corporations, as well, should be given incentives to invest in exciting and diverse non-polluting energy technologies. In truth, the earth is in the intensive care unit, and the prognosis is poor indeed unless we all take courageous measures.

This is an edited extract from Nuclear Power is Not the Answer to Global Warming or Anything Else (Melbourne University Press, $24.95).

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.