AMONG the many departures from the truth by opponents of the Kyoto protocol, one of the most invidious is that nuclear power is "clean" and, therefore, the answer to global warming.
So we found during the last round of talks in Bonn that the Environment Minister, Senator Hill, bruited about the idea that developing countries should be encouraged to take the clean nuclear route to limiting greenhouse gases - thereby becoming customers for Australian uranium. How convenient.
You can expect to hear more of the same as we move closer to the next round of Kyoto protocol talks which are coming up in Marrakesh in October and November.
However, the cleanliness of nuclear power is nonsense. Not only does it contaminate the planet with long-lived radioactive waste, it significantly contributes to global warming.
While it is claimed that there is little or no fossil fuel used in producing nuclear power, the reality is that enormous quantities of fossil fuel are used to mine, mill and enrich the uranium needed to fuel a nuclear power plant, as well as to construct the enormous concrete reactor itself. Indeed, a nuclear power plant must operate for 18 years before producing one net calorie of energy. (During the 1970s the US deployed seven huge 1,000-megawatt coal-fired plants to enrich its uranium and it is still using coal to enrich much of the world's uranium.)
So, to recoup the equivalent of the amount of fossil fuel used in preparation and construction before the first switch is thrown to initiate nuclear fission, the plant must operate for almost two decades.
But that is not the end of fossil fuel use because disassembling nuclear plants at the end of their 30- to 40-year operating life will require yet more vast quantities of energy. Taking apart, piece by radioactive piece, a nuclear reactor and its surrounding infrastructure is a massive operation: imagine, for example, the amount of petrol, diesel and electricity that would be used if the Sydney Opera House were to be dismantled. That's the scale we're talking about.
And that is not the end of fossil use because much will also be required for the final transport and long-term storage of nuclear waste generated by every reactor.
From a medical perspective, nuclear waste threatens global health. The toxicity of many elements in this radioactive mess is long-lived.
Strontium 90, for example, is tasteless, odorless and invisible and remains radioactive for 600 years. Concentrating in the food chain, it emulates the mineral calcium. Contaminated milk enters the body, where strontium 90 concentrates in bones and lactating breasts later to cause bone cancer, leukemia and breast cancer. Importantly, babies and children are 10 to 20 times more susceptible to the carcinogenic effects of radiation than adults.
Plutonium, the most significant element in nuclear waste, is so carcinogenic that hypothetically half a kilo evenly distributed could cause cancer in everyone on Earth. Lasting for half a million years, it enters the body through the lung where it is known to cause cancer. It mimics iron in the body, migrating to bones where it can induce bone cancer or leukemia, and to the liver where it can cause primary liver cancer. It crosses the placenta into the embryo and, like the drug thalidomide, causes gross birth deformities.
Finally, plutonium has a predilection for the testicles, where it induces genetic mutations in the sperm of humans and other animals that are passed on from generation to generation. Significantly, five kilos of plutonium is fuel for a nuclear weapon. Thus far, nuclear power has generated about 1,139 tons of plutonium.
So, nuclear power adds to global warming, increases the burden of radioactive materials in the ecosphere and threatens to contribute to nuclear proliferation.
No doubt the Australian Government is keen to assist the uranium industry, but the immorality of its position is unforgivable.
Dr Helen Caldicott is the founding president of Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Copyright © 2001smh