Wednesday, June 25, 2008
  Another Anti-Nuclear Rant?

I have burdened you with my anti-nuclear stance 33+ times in the life of this blog - just type 'anti-nuclear' or 'nuclear power' in the SEARCH box to the right for the multifarious reasons.

However, with only 2 mentions so far this year, it's time for another post, albeit not a rant because there's enough recent evidence around to demonstrate that for Indonesia to follow this route would be madness. This is a country whose electricity company, PLN, cannot get guaranteed supplies of fuel for its largest coal-fired power plant.

That other countries are considering the nuclear power option in the face of rising oil prices is not the focus of my stance, although it's worth bearing in mind that Vietnam, Burma and Malaysia, three of our neighbours in South East Asia, have recently expressed an interest.

Last week, according to the national news agency, Bernama, Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak explained the rationale by pointing out that the country needs to phase out the fuel subsidies, totalling $17 billion this year.

"The prospect of Malaysia opting for nuclear technology cannot be discounted, only we will look at other alternatives first."

He said the cost of setting up nuclear power plants would be high, while a power company official said infrastructure development would take years.

It's good to see at least one country taking a long-term view; however it's important to look even further ahead. Assuming that a power plant has been run efficiently at its maximum expected potential - which, to my knowledge, none anywhere have - then consider what happens when a nuclear power plant reaches the end of its productive life after, say, fifty years.

In 1956, the UK became the first country to open a nuclear power station, Calder Hall, now part of the Windscale/Sellafield complex in West Cumbria, north-west England. At the time, its main purpose was to use nuclear energy for "peaceful purposes" - to provide electricity, 196 megawatts, for the national grid. Although not explicitly stated, this was a reminder that Britain was involved in the Cold War arms race, as a useful by-product was weapons-grade plutonium for our nuclear arsenal.

The main focus of this post is the aftermath, with maths being important. None of the nine nuclear power stations in the UK have proved 'profitable' or efficient. None.

Furthermore, the costs of decommissioning nuclear power plants is astronomical, and no country has yet provided a permanent solution to the problem of storing the radioactive waste products - for up to 100,000 years.

One might have expected a major nuclear power such as the UK to provide a lead to other countries. But all we Brits can offer is a catalogue of disasters.

And there are lobbyists in Indonesia who seriously think that a nuclear power station will help solve this country's energy crisis? That a country which cannot satisfactorily dispose of its household waste can dispose of its radioactive waste?

Don't make me laugh, or cry, and don't just take my words for it either. Please click on the links.

Nuclear Power for Dummies
Is nuclear power the answer to the energy crisis? Ian Sample explains how it works - and how we get the awful side-effects of bombs and waste.

The many problems of Sellafield

Britain's nuclear complex at Sellafield is Europe's biggest single industrial site and home to what was meant to be a huge fuel reprocessing system that would produce power while reducing the legacy of radioactive waste. It was built amid enthusiasm that atomic power would be "too cheap to meter" and yet, 52 years on, its catalogue of failures has left it with one of the world's largest stockpiles of plutonium and a bill to the taxpayer of about £3bn a year, a new report says.

Radioactive waste storage at Sellafield

Sellafield houses two state-owned reprocessing works and a plant for making mixed uranium and plutonium fuel called Mox. None of these facilities, which cost hundreds of millions of pounds, work as they were meant to do. Their problems are rebounding on the part-privatised British Energy (BE), which is wholly dependent on Sellafield to reprocess and store spent fuel from its 14 advanced gas-cooled reactors.

The difficulties have also hit the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), which the government set up in 2004 to preside over the £72bn clean-up of all British atomic sites and which was meant to be partly funded by income from reprocessing spent fuel.

On-Site Safety
Work on Britain's Trident nuclear warhead programme was suspended for much of the last year due to wide-ranging safety fears, it has been disclosed. Following suspension of work at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) Burghfield in Berkshire last July, when flooding increased the risk of fire at the plant, concerns about on-site safety became so acute that a decision was taken in the autumn to stop all live nuclear work on missile warheads.

AWE claims to be a 'centre of technological excellence, with some of the most advanced research, design and production facilities in the world'.

Two kilometres of beach outside one of Britain's biggest nuclear plants, Dounreay, have been closed since 1983, and fishing banned, when it was found old fuel rod fragments were being accidentally pumped into the sea. The cause was traced and corrected but particles - including plutonium specks, each capable of killing a person if swallowed - are still being washed on to this bleakly beautiful stretch of sand and cliff on mainland Britain's northern edge.

Robot submarines fitted with a Geiger counter are to be used to sweep the seabed in one of the most delicate clean-up operations ever in this country. Each submersible will crisscross the sea floor to pinpoint every deadly speck close to Dounreay before lifting each particle and returning it to land for safe storage.

Costs of Decommissioning 1
Although the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) kept no precise accounts (eh?) for building and running Dounreay on Scotland's north coast, it is known to have cost several billion pounds. Now a further £2.5 billion will be spent returning the site to its pre-nuclear condition, leaving only a vault, covered with grass, to hold low-level nuclear waste while high-level waste will probably (eh?) be shipped to a central UK nuclear store yet to be approved.

Costs of Decommissioning 2
The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), which is nursing a £300m budget overrun for 2006-07 alone, is attempting to raise cash to help pay for a £72bn clean-up bill. It plans to do this by selling off, to the private sector, everything from stockpiled uranium to atomic fuel manufacturing plants and land at 18 sites where they hope new nuclear plants will be built.

Waste Disposal
Scientists know that eventually they need to find a way of storing nuclear waste safely for thousands of years. Some countries, such as America and Finland, plan to store nuclear waste in deep underground bunkers. For this to be safe, scientists have to be sure the material could never leak out and contaminate water supplies or rise up to the surface. Other plans for disposing of nuclear waste have included dumping it at sea and blasting it into space

Apparently Britain already has more than 100,000 tonnes of radioactive waste that needs to be stored. It's worth repeating that no country has yet decided on a definitive method, or place, for the disposal of its radioactive waste.

Sellafield which was built to reprocess nuclear fuel, thus reducing the waste, has been a monumental failure. This February Malcolm Wicks, the energy minister, admitted in parliament that the plant had only produced 2.6 tonnes of reprocessed fuel in 2007 and a total of 5.2 tonnes since it opened in 2001, despite promises it would produce 120 tonnes a year.

A study, commissioned by the UK's Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, has shown that British buildings equipped with solar panels, mini wind turbines and other renewable energy sources could generate as much electricity a year as five nuclear power stations. Furthermore, the report has shown that a large-scale switch to micro renewable energy units could save 30m tonnes of CO2 - the equivalent of nearly 5% of all the emissions produced in generating UK electricity.

Tom Tuohy R.I.P.
An unsung hero, his bravery averted a possible British nuclear catastrophe.
Footnote with thanks, again, to J-Walk Blog.

About 100 years ago, the best known radioactive material was radium and folk weren't particularly aware of the damage radioactivity could cause to tissues and cells.

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