Andreas Späth

A farewell to nukes

2011-03-16 07:30

I’ve had it with nuclear power. And I’ve had enough of nuclear pundits telling me how cheap and clean and green and low-carbon, oh and yes, how safe it is.

Repeated hydrogen explosions at Fukushima Daiichi, the stricken Japanese nuclear power plant; engineers scrambling desperately to stop several plutonium reactors from melting down by using “innovative” (read “improvised”) techniques; a spent fuel storage pond on fire; radioactivity being released into the atmosphere; and traumatised politicians who keep enlarging the evacuation zone look anything but safe to me, not even from half a world away.

Claims that under the circumstances Japan’s nuclear installations have done remarkably well and that things could be much worse and could never get as bad as Chernobyl don’t fill me with comfort either. How bad do things have to get for them to be disastrous? Just ask the tens of thousands of people who’ve been evacuated from their homes around Fukushima.

I have no time for nuclear engineers who assure us that their reactors were designed to cope with the worst possible case scenario and then complain that they were not prepared for the severity of this particular combination of natural calamities - a more than puzzling admission in a country as prone to large earthquake and tsunami double whammies as Japan.

It constantly amazes me that people whose entire industry is based on quantum mechanics, which itself is all about statistical probabilities, can so habitually overlook the fact that even catastrophic natural events with exceedingly low probabilities have a nasty tendency of happening unexpectedly.

And don’t tell me that we’re completely safe from earthquakes in South Africa. The Milnerton earthquake (estimated magnitude: 6.3) which struck the West Coast 200 years ago may have been much weaker than the latest Japanese shaker (magnitude 9.0), but its epicentre was also much closer to the location of Koeberg, currently our only atomic energy plant. The most recent environmental impact report for a further nuclear plant at Koeberg suggests that, taking into account statistical errors, the seismic risk could be significantly higher than the rating typically used in nuclear plant designs.

While nuclear accidents in various parts of the world are blamed on earthquakes, tsunamis, human error by incompetent operators and flawed, previous-generation reactor designs, we’re forever asked to believe that it can’t happen here. Which is exactly what the people of Fukushima believed until a few days ago.

I haven’t even mentioned the environmental havoc caused by uranium mining (think radioactive streams in the Witwatersrand), the health hazards associated with every-day operation, the ever-present threat of nuclear weapons proliferation, the fact that nuclear energy is neither carbon-neutral nor a panacea for climate change, or that nobody really knows what to do with the high-level waste accumulating worldwide which will remain dangerously radioactive for a very long time.

The time to argue that we need nuclear power because it causes less environmental damage and loss of lives through pollution and climate change than energy generated by burning oil, coal or natural gas has come and gone. The implication that our only energy options involve either carbon-based fossil fuels or nuclear power is a red herring.

In fact, the best reason why we should give up on nukes is simply that we don’t need them. There is a growing body of scientific evidence that suggests that the lion’s share, if not all, of our electricity needs can be met cost-competitively by truly green, long-term sustainable and renewable energy sources including solar and wind power.

In South Africa, the nuclear industry has the ear of government and unless we start shouting our opposition we’ll soon have more nuclear power rather than less. It’s on the cards and it will happen unless we stop it.

Now is the time to consign this dangerous and out-dated technology to the dustbin of history. We should have abandoned nuclear power after Three Mile Island in 1979. We should have outlawed it after Chernobyl in 1986. And we should most definitely get rid of it for good after Fukushima in 2011. Enough is enough.

- Andreas has a PhD in geochemistry and manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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