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Nuclear Power Nearly as Dangerous as Weapons, Critics Say
UNITED NATIONS - The quest for nuclear disarmament is likely to fail if governments and corporations continue to promote nuclear technologies as a solution to the world's energy needs, say independent experts.
Their warning comes as international talks on the future of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) continue here at U.N. headquarters in New York. The review meeting on the 1970 treaty is due to conclude by the end of this month.
At the meeting, many delegates from countries that do not possess nuclear weapons called for those nations who have them to take speedy actions towards disarmament. Citing the treaty, some also said it was their "inalienable" right to use peaceful nuclear technologies.
Just like the representatives of nuclear weapons states, almost none of the delegates from non-nuclear countries offered any views on the pros and cons of the use of nuclear technologies for so-called "civilian and peaceful purposes".
"I am surprised. It is unfortunate," said David Krieger, president of the U.S.-based Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (NAPF), who is closely watching the talks on NPT from the sidelines as he has done in the past. "So many countries seem to be pursuing nuclear energy."
Last Monday, at the opening of the review conference, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington wants to help "expand the ability of all states to utilize peaceful nuclear energy" and that it was ready to give more funds to the U.N. nuclear agency.
"We have provided 200 million dollars to support the International Atomic Energy Commission's technical cooperation fund," she told delegates. "We are the largest contributors to that effect." The U.S. will give another 50 million dollars in the next five years.
Clinton added that the initiatives would help countries develop the infrastructure for "safe and secure use of nuclear power".
On Tuesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad offered similar views on nuclear energy: "It's clean. It's cheap."
In Krieger's opinion, both got it wrong. Nuclear energy is "neither cheap, nor safe. It is not only expensive, but also poses major risks to the health of the planet," he said.
Mining uranium for nuclear power plants produces radioactive compounds that often contaminate groundwater, air, and plant life, according to the non-profit NAPF. The group notes that the byproducts of the nuclear energy include plutonium, which remains hazardous.
A report by the environmental group Greenpeace pointed out that the use of nuclear energy is not only costly but also has the potential to cause catastrophic accidents, such as the one occurred in the Ukrainian region of Chernobyl in April 1986.
According to the 2007 Greenpeace report on Chernobyl, the nuclear incident caused over 250,000 cancers and nearly 100,000 life-threatening cancers. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimated deaths due to disaster-related cancers at 4,000 to 9,000, a number critics called far too low.
Under the non-proliferation treaty, the Vienna-based U.N. agency is tasked to promote the use of "safe and peaceful" nuclear technologies to meet growing energy needs around the world. Independent researchers say the IAEA has failed to show much progress for a variety of reasons.
"They [IAEA] are not successful in promoting nuclear power plants," Zia Mian, a noted nuclear expert at Princeton University, told IPS. He explained that many countries were reluctant to pursue nuclear energy because it is very costly.
Currently, there are 30 countries using nuclear energy. About half of the plants are based in just four countries - the U.S., Japan, France and Russia.
The four major corporations that dominate the global nuclear industry are Westinghouse and General Electric (U.S.), Hitachi (Japan), and Areva (France).
Growing concern about climate change is one of the factors behind a renewed push to expand nuclear energy, because it has near-zero carbon emissions. However, many observers believe that the role of industry lobbyists cannot be ignored.
In his 2008 World Nuclear Industry Status Report, Mycle Schneider, a French independent nuclear analyst, observes that the nuclear industry is racking up losses and that the percentage of nuclear-generated electricity in the overall global energy mix is decreasing.
"They [industry] want to make money," said Mian, reflecting on the speeches delivered by officials who are attending the month-long NPT review conference. "It is good that many countries have chosen not to pursue nuclear energy."
Krieger thinks that parties to the NPT need to be considering the "strong relationship" between nuclear proliferation and nuclear disarmament because the existence of nuclear material for "peaceful" purposes could still pose the threat of weaponization.
"If you believe that by spreading nuclear power around the world you could stop proliferation of weapons, then you are over-optimistic. It's unlikely to happen," he said.