A Year Of Nuclear Bungles


The nuclear industry inflicts far more damage on itself than its opponents could ever hope to. The mere mention of the easily-preventable Fukushima disaster probably suffices to establish that point, but there are many more examples. To make the task manageable, this snapshot of recent nuclear shenanigans, jiggery-pokery, goings-on and own-goals is restricted to countries that Australia sells uranium to (or plans to sell uranium to).

Tests carried out at the European Union’s 143 nuclear power reactors have exposed hundreds of problems requiring up to €25 billion (AU$31 billion) to remedy, according to a report by the EU energy commissioner. The report concludes that "practically all" plants need safety improvements.

Gee-whiz "next generation" power reactors in Finland and France continue to embarrass the industry. When the contract was signed in 2003 for a new "European Pressurized Reactor" (EPR) in Finland, completion was anticipated in 2009. Now, commercial operation is not anticipated until 2015 — six years behind schedule. The estimated cost ballooned from €3 billion to €6.4 billion, and up again to €8 billion (AU$10 billion) Peter Atherton, utilities analyst at Citigroup, said: "There are few companies in the world that can take a loss of that size and remain solvent."

EDF’s Flamanville 3 EPR reactor in northern France is also behind schedule — it was originally meant to enter service in 2012 but that date has been pushed back to 2016. Its estimated cost has grown from €3.3 billion to €8 billion, and up again to €8.5 billion. Italian utility Enel recently pulled out of the project, prompting UBS analyst Per Lekander to say: "In a way, the last 24 hours have killed French nuclear finally because the cost makes it totally impossible to export and now you have one of the few partners actively withdrawing; it looks really bad."

In November, a report by the UK National Audit Office said that nuclear waste stored in run-down buildings at the Sellafield nuclear complex poses an "intolerable risk", and that costs of plant decommissioning have spiralled out of control. In the same month, UK government agencies filed nine charges against the owners of Sellafield for illegal dumping of radioactive waste.

The National Audit Office estimates the total future costs for decommissioning Sellafield, over a century or so, will be £67 billion (AU$103 billion) — well up from the 2009 estimate of £47 billion (AU$72 billion). Estimates of the clean up costs for a range of UK nuclear sites including Sellafield have jumped from a 2005 estimate of £56 billion (AU$86 billion) to over £100 billion.

In South Korea, five engineers were charged with covering up a potentially dangerous power failure at the Kori-I reactor in May. The accident occurred because of a failure to follow safety procedures. The manager of the reactor decided to conceal the incident and to delete records, despite a legal obligation to notify the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission.

In early November, the South Korean government shut down two reactors at Yeonggwang to replace thousands of parts that had been supplied with forged quality and safety warranties. Plant owner Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power (KHNP) has acknowledged possible bribery and collusion by KHNP officials as well as corruption by firms supplying reactor parts. In late November there were further revelations and the current total stands at 8601 reactor parts, 10 firms and six reactors. Inadequate and compromised regulation has been a key contributor to the problems in South Korea’s nuclear industry — just as it was a key factor behind the Fukushima disaster in Japan.

South Korea wants to develop uranium enrichment technology (a direct route to nuclear weapons material) in violation of its commitments under the 1992 Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

In Sweden, problems with back-up generators have forced two reactors off-line. One of the reactors had only just restarted after over a year out of service following problems with the turbine system and damage to the reactor vessel. The Swedish Nuclear Safety Authority has uncovered a deficit of at least €3.4 billion in the Swedish Nuclear Waste Fund.

The Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC) — established by  the Japanese Parliament — has lifted the lid on the widespread corruption that led to the Fukushima disaster. The report states that the accident was "a profoundly man-made disaster that could and should have been foreseen and prevented" if not for "a multitude of errors and wilful negligence that left the Fukushima plant unprepared for the events of March 11". The accident was the result of "collusion between the government, the regulators and [plant operator] TEPCO".

The NAIIC report is equally scathing about the response to the disaster: "Insufficient evacuation planning led to many residents receiving unnecessary radiation exposure. Others were forced to move multiple times, resulting in increased stress and health risks — including deaths among seriously ill patients." The report notes that most of the 150,000 evacuees from the nuclear disaster are still dislocated and they "continue to face grave concerns, including the health effects of radiation exposure, displacement, the dissolution of families, disruption of their lives and lifestyles and the contamination of vast areas of the environment."

Australia fuels proliferation tensions in North Asia by allowing Japan open ended permission to separate and stockpile weapons-useable plutonium produced from Australian uranium. The issue has resurfaced in recent months thanks to Japan’s nuclear hawks. Former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba put it bluntly: "Having nuclear plants shows to other nations that Japan can make nuclear weapons."

Last year, US President Obama told a nuclear security summit: "We simply can’t go on accumulating huge amounts of the very material, like separated plutonium, that we are trying to keep away from terrorists." Yet Australia gives open ended permission to Japan to separate plutonium from spent nuclear fuel and to stockpile it.

India’s comptroller and auditor-general, Vinod Rai, has found that the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board is ineffective and negligent. He found that 60 per cent of regulatory inspections for operating nuclear power reactors were either delayed or not undertaken at all. Smaller radiation facilities operate with no oversight at all. Existing legislation gives the board almost no punitive power.

Meanwhile, the Indian government continues to attack and murder citizens opposing nuclear power plants; to expand its nuclear weapons arsenal and its missile capabilities; and to thumb its nose at the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Nuclear security remains very poor and corruption is widespread.

Diplomatic cables from the US embassy in Beijing raise serious concerns about safety in China’s nuclear industry. Cables say that cheap, old technology is "vastly increasing" risks. Professor He Zuoxiu, who helped to develop China’s nuclear weapons program, warns about the pace of China’s nuclear power program: "Are we really ready for this kind of giddy speed? I think not — we’re seriously underprepared, especially on the safety front." Experts from the Chinese Academy of Sciences warn that China lacks a fully independent safety and regulatory agency and that risks are further increased by shortages of qualified staff.

The first consignment of uranium from Australia has arrived in Russia following the 2010 ratification of a uranium supply agreement. Unfortunately, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards inspections of Australian uranium (and its by-products) will be rare if indeed any inspections take place at all. In 2008, Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Treaties concluded that: "It is essential that actual physical inspection by the IAEA occurs at any Russian sites that may handle [Australian Obligated Nuclear Materials]. Further, the supply of uranium to Russia should be contingent upon such inspections being carried out." The Gillard Government ignored the recommendation and ratified the agreement.

In the United States, the New York Times reports that security guards at a nuclear weapons plant who failed to stop an 82-year-old nun from reaching a bomb fuel storage building were also cheating on a "security knowledge test". At least 99 nuclear accidents — resulting in the loss of human life and/or more than US$50,000 (AU$47,000) of property damage — occurred worldwide between 1952 and 2009. Most of them — 56 out of 99 — occurred in the US.

In August, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) announced the suspension of all reactor licensing decisions until political and legal disputes regarding high level nuclear waste management are resolved. Former NRC commissioner Peter Bradford said that "the reactors awaiting construction licenses weren’t going to be built anytime soon … Falling demand, cheaper alternatives and runaway nuclear costs had doomed their near-term prospects". Over AU$10 billion and over 20 years effort was wasted on plans for a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, before the scandal-plagued project was cancelled by the Obama Administration in 2009.

All these shenanigans would be a great laugh if it took place in, say, a Bureau de Change. But the nuclear industry brings with it immense risks: catastrophic accidents and WMD proliferation (and nuclear warfare has the potential to cause catastrophic climate change as well as killing millions directly).

Selling WMD feedstock (in the form of uranium) to dictatorships, crooks, murderers and proliferators is a mug’s game. Just ask BHP Billiton — the world’s largest mining company has disbanded its Uranium Division, cancelled the Olympic Dam mine expansion (citing the depressed uranium price), and sold the Yeelirrie uranium deposit in WA for less than 7 per cent of the nominal value of the uranium resource.

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.