The End of the Nuclear Era? Not So Fast …
The August 23, 2011 (5.9 magnitude) earthquake on the east coast prompted no less than 10 nuclear plants in four states to declare “unusual events,” according to the NRC. (The NRC defines an “unusual event” as a term used to denote that “something out of the ordinary” has happened.) The NRC reported that after the quake, the North Anna and Surry plants in Virginia; the Hope Creek, Oyster Creek and Salem plants in New Jersey; the Susquehanna, Three Mile Island, Peach Bottom and Limerick plants in Pennsylvania; and the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant in Maryland all declared such “unusual events.”
The east coast temblor and the nuclear “events” that followed should remind us that, despite hopes that Fukushima would spell the end of nuclear power, the so-called “nuclear renaissance” is alive and well.
In the aftermath of the March 11 triple-reactor meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility, stories and opinion polls trumpeting Japan’s “growing anti-nuclear sentiment” flourished in both the corporate-owned and alternative media. When Germany’s Angela Merkel announced that her country would reject nuclear power and begin shuttering its old plants, the headline spanned newspapers across the globe.
Less widely reported is that, even as Germany, Japan and a handful of other countries -- among them, Italy, Switzerland and some ASEAN member states -- are rejecting or at least reconsidering their commitments to nuclear power, many more (including the US) are still on the nuclear fast track.
Russia, India, Brazil, some Middle Eastern oil economies and a host of developing countries number among those still hot to go nuclear. And the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported recently that more than 60 new countries have expressed “strong interest” in nuclear power -- among them, Iran, which is very close to commissioning its first reactor. The IAEA further promised that global use of nuclear energy will continue to increase for decades -- despite the ongoing crisis at Fukushima.
Only this summer, the UK-based Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), a decades-old economic research group, predicted “a massive worldwide growth in nuclear energy production” over the next decade. In a new study, the EIU found that the impact of the Fukushima disaster, now widely considered the worst industrial accident in history, “is expected to be minimal.”
According to the EIU, Germany’s decision to scrap eight nuclear power plants and place its remaining nine under review will be more than made up for by an expansion of nuclear production in other countries. The report, titled “The Future of Nuclear Energy,” suggests a 27 percent growth in output by 2020. The EIU notes that reactors planned for China, India and Russia will add five times the nuclear capacity that the German decision will remove from world nuclear output. Sixteen new reactors began construction in 2010 -- ten in China, with others in Russia, India and Brazil. Even Japan, the EIU reminds us, has resumed construction work at a new nuclear plant, after putting additional anti-earthquake measures in place. Indeed, by 2015 one new nuclear reactor is expected to be coming online every month somewhere in the world.
The online publication, “Nuclear Engineering International,” while more reserved in its nuclear projections than the IAEA or the EIU, pointed out in August that, “Beyond Iran, the Gulf States are the most likely hosts of future reactors in the Middle East. The six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and Oman – have been studying possible nuclear programs for about five years now. Together they have total installed capacity of about 80 GW with a common grid, all fossil fuel based.”
Here in the US, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported that the Obama administration intends to resume talks on “nuclear cooperation” with Saudi Arabia. WSJ reported in July that the administration has promised to send a team of State Department and Department of Energy officials to Riyadh this summer to discuss “plans for pursuing nuclear power” with senior Saudi officials.
Massive expansion amid pockets of reason
All of this is not to say that there are no ‘pockets of reason’ amid what seems an increasingly unreasonable (if not pathological) pursuit, or that the nuclear power industry will not ultimately self destruct. There is plenty of reason to believe that nuclear power -- at least as a primary source of electricity -- is on its way out.
Today, largely thanks to dedicated activists like Michael Mariotte at the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (www.nirs.org) and Solartopia author Harvey Wasserman (www.nukefree.org), a growing number of people across the globe are beginning to understand that, safety issues aside, the economics of nuclear power simply don’t add up. In Japan, a July 24 poll by the Kyodo news agency found that more than two-thirds of Japanese now support Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s call to do away with nuclear power. And, in the Northeast region of the US, the Vermont Yankee plant in Vermont, New York’s Indian Point, and the Millstone Nuclear Power Plant in Connecticut are all on the chopping block. In New Jersey, Exelon Corporation’s Oyster Creek nuclear plant is scheduled for shut down in 2019, and the state has begun to plan for the development of much needed alternative energy sources.
There’s little doubt that Fukushima has been a global call to sanity -- and that the technology is, as so many polls suggest, “losing favor” with growing numbers both here in the US and abroad. We are likely to see a host of nuclear plant closures in coming years. Yet, such developments have done little to deter a nuclear industry that is hell bent on proliferating its toxic product.
These safety issues were made all the more prescient by the spate of “nuclear incidents” occurring this summer -- both in the US and abroad.
In the US, besides the 10 “unusual events” declared after the August 23 earthquake on the east coast, there remain unanswered questions regarding the criticality of a host of other nuclear mishaps occurring this summer. Among them, those reported during the June floods at two of Nebraska’s nuclear facilities. (See www.solartimes.org.) And abroad, a July 3 explosion at France’s (EDF-owned) Tricastin nuclear power facility sent a dense cloud of black smoke into the air and over a nearby motorway on one of the busiest travel days of the year. The explosion occurred only weeks after the plant had been harshly criticized by the French nuclear safety authority, which demanded 32 new safety measures be immediately implemented.
In an industry notorious for its secrecy and deceptive marketing practices, these constitute only a small fraction of (reported) problems occurring at nuclear power plants in recent months.
Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead
A July 28 Reuters article is illustrative of current attitudes in the industry.
Cheerfully headlined, “Areva still upbeat on nuclear post-Fukushima,” an article by Reuters reporter Marie Maitre observes: “Areva’s new chief executive said the Fukushima disaster was creating new business opportunities for nuclear service providers as the industry’s focus moves to safety upgrades and sometimes plant dismantling.”
The executive told Maitre that although the impact of the Japanese catastrophe remained “difficult to assess in terms of lost business,” Areva (the world’s largest builder of nuclear reactors) was still convinced that “most countries would forge ahead with their atomic power plans.” He said that safety tests planned around the world “should delay the construction of reactors,” but that the tests would “also be sources of opportunities on the existing facilities.”
More concerning still, the expansion of nuclear power is an international phenomenon -- so the impact of any accident would be global. Yet there are still no internationally agreed and enforceable safety standards for the industry. Instead, as the Fukushima disaster has highlighted, national governments and the nuclear industry collaborate in a secretive manner and connive to cover up safety issues.
The UK Guardian recently released emails detailing the collusion between the UK government and the nuclear industry in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster. Two days after the earthquake, British government officials emailed EDF, Areva, Westinghouse and the Nuclear Industry Association to warn that the “Fukushima situation” could damage public confidence in nuclear power. It was not as bad as the television pictures suggested, they said. And (apparently attempting to hedge their nuclear bets), the officials invited industry executives to “send their comments,” so they could be included in government statements: “We need to all be working from the same material to get the message through to the media and the public,” one email declared. Yet another neatly summed up the UK government’s nuclear attitude. The email stated: “Anti-nuclear people across Europe have wasted no time blurring this all into Chernobyl and the works. We need to quash any stories trying to compare this to Chernobyl.”