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Can nuclear power be green and safe?

This article is over 12 years, 6 months old
In our second column, Tony Staunton looks at the persistent problems with nuclear power
Issue 2181

The threat of climate change has led some in the environmental movement to back nuclear power as a green source of energy.

But nuclear power is not part of the solution – it is part of the problem.

Nuclear reactors pollute the planet. Every stage of the production of nuclear power releases carbon dioxide into the environment.

The mining, processing and enrichment of uranium releases a huge level of emissions, as does constructing reactors, decommissioning reactors, and transporting and storing the lethal waste products.

Some say that we need new nuclear plants or we’ll run out of energy. By 2017 most existing reactors will be shut down, along with aging coal-fired plants.

But the current nuclear contribution to Britain’s energy production is just 3.6 percent and falling. Even if they’re all replaced we will need to invest in energy production from other sources.

Producing nuclear power is expensive. The estimated initial cost of replacing the decommissioned plants is £30 billion.

The taxpayer underwrites the entire costs of disposal of nuclear waste, which are currently estimated at £50 billion.

This money could be invested in sustainable, green and safe energy instead. But that would hit the huge profits that private companies can make from nuclear power.

Most worryingly, nuclear power is not safe.

There were 1,767 leaks, breakdowns, or other safety “events” at British nuclear plants between 2001 and 2008.

Half of those inspected were serious enough to compromise the nuclear safety systems. The ghastly meltdown of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in 1989 proved how dangerous nuclear power is.

Since the accident, recent research has proved that nearly one million people have died, mostly in long, lingering and deforming slow deaths, with children, animal and plant life showing significant genetic mutation.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recently found significant design faults in many reactor designs.

But the HSE is under extreme political pressure to back down.

The French government is required to announce all nuclear incidents. There are currently 800 per year.

In July a heatwave shut a third of French reactors because rivers became too hot to act as a coolant.

As the earth warms, the impact on nuclear safety will be greater.

The £1.8 billion Sellafield reprocessing plant takes nuclear waste from many countries for reprocessing or storage.

The plant – originally called Windscale – was the site of a serious nuclear accident in 1958. Its name was changed to bury its terrible safety record.

But it has continued to be plagued by leaks and shutdowns because of “technical problems”.

One radioactive leak went undiscovered for 14 months. A report printed in the Guardian newspaper last month identified a 32 million square metre footprint of hazardous radiation encircling Sellafield.

The cost of nuclear power is astronomical, both in financial subsidies and human and environmental degradation.

But these are not the worst aspects of nuclear power. Nuclear power plants are associated directly with, and essential to, the production of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear power plants have the useful consequence of turning uranium into plutonium – the stuff that explodes.

The military and civil nuclear industries are wedded together.

High level waste from the nuclear base at Plymouth Devonport joins waste from nuclear power at Sellafield and elsewhere.

It’s no coincidence that the British government wants a new generation of nuclear power plants at the same time as it proposes to produce new nuclear weapons – the Trident replacement programme.

The mining of uranium, supposedly for nuclear energy, means a dangerous trade in the raw ingredients of weapons of mass destruction.

There were five serious security breaches at nuclear power plants across Britain last year, all covered-up. We simply cannot afford the nuclear option.

The first of the new generation of British nuclear power stations is likely to be built at Hinkley, North Somerset. It must be stopped.

Socialists, peace groups and environmentalists have to join together to campaign against nuclear power and the weapons of mass destruction to which it is allied.

Tony Staunton is on CND’s national council. Email him at [email protected]

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