Articles

“Nuclear energy and Humankind cannot co-exist”
Kazumi Matsui, first Mayor of Hiroshima born after 1945, at 66th Anniversary of atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

On March 11 2011, a 30 foot tsunami slammed into the Japanese coast causing a nuclear meltdown at the Fukishima Daiichi Nuclear Plant (See map simulation of radioactive spread ). On May 11 2012 Germany announced the closure of eight nuclear plants and set in motion the closing of the remaining nine by 2022. This essentially heralded the end of the most destructive technological era known to man. More recently, Japan joined them with a goal to end dependence on nuclear energy by the 2030’s.The process is not without its problems, but imagine this:

Imagine if the first Model-T Ford had been rejected because it wasn't a Ferrari.

Within months of Fukushima, Germany began installing solar power plants  which currently produce 22 Gigawatts of electricity per hour - equal to 20 nuclear power stations at full capacity. By 2022 Germany plans to get 100% of their electric energy from Renewable Energy (RE) sources such as wind, solar and bio-mass. Some bio-mass is controversial as it contributes to world hunger if food crops are used (mainly by pushing up prices). Similarly, solar energy presents debates as does wind. All technologies will present moral, financial, practical & development challenges. We must decide which challenges we can live with. Japan’s road ahead will not be easy but if it wants to, it can install enough solar reactors within one year to almost make up the shortage created by the Fukushima meltdown, the effects of which we haven’t even begun to see. (Also here, here & here). NOTE: Solar power for domestic use is a huge opportunity with prices set to decrease, but Solar Power Plants must still be subsidised and are currently not seen as viable to run industries.

While the Renewable Energy (RE) industry is still in its infancy, there is nothing stopping the government from putting stringent energy efficiency laws and incentives into place, thus vastly reducing burden on the grid, and facilitating systems to decentralize power generation e.g. microgrids.

Download: Carbon-free-nuclear-free by Arjun Makhijani

"Nuclear energy is not clean, it is not safe, and it is not necessary."

Paraphrase of position held by Arjun Makhijani, head of the Institute for Energy & Environmental Research (IEER)

According to Arjun Makhijani of the Institute for Energy & Environmental Research (IEER), the rate at which renewable energy technology is advancing means that nuclear energy will be obsolete within 10 years. That’s about how long it will take Eskom to build a reactor at Thyspunt using taxpayers’ money. Jeff Immelt, chief executive of GE, which produces nuclear technology, said nuclear power was “really hard” to defend financially, when compared both with gas-fired generation and certain renewables.(Gas being an interim measure while renewables fast-track.)

In the first world, nuclear is on the way out and renewables are on the way in. Having said that, if you look into it, you will the debate ongoing. The nuclear industry creates powerful spin, also called greenwashing, but this has been equally met through, for example, the excellent works of Makhijani (e.g. The Nuclear Power Deception) and Helen Caldicott (e.g. Nuclear Power is not the Answer).

We ask you to examine the views closely. But first, how is nuclear energy generated by nuclear fission? (Skip this if you already know!)

How is energy generated by nuclear fission?

If you look at a Periodic Table, all the chemical elements that form the building blocks of everything are arranged according to atomic weight i.e. how many protons are in the nucleus of the atom. The lightest, Hydrogen (1 proton) and Helium (2 protons) are the most abundant elements in the universe. The ‘heaviest’ naturally occurring element is Californium (Cf), with an atomic weight of 98. Anything heavier than gold (atomic weight 79) is unstable and anything above lead (atomic weight 82) is radioactive. In other words, its energy escapes with such high velocity that it damages and causes mutation in living cells.

Uranium (atomic weight 92) is radioactive and fissionable or fissile. When, under specific circumstances, it is bombarded with fast moving neutrons, it breaks apart (fissions), resulting in a chain reaction releasing enormous amounts of energy which can be harnessed to make electricity (or bombs or nuclear medicine). The flip side to this vast energy resource is that radioactive materials must be carefully monitored. What’s more, spent nuclear fuel (‘leftovers’) continues to throw off fast moving particles for up to half a million years or until it reaches a stable form i.e. lead(atomic weight 82). This is because they have a very long ‘half-life’ which is the term used to measure how long it takes for half the remaining molecules in a substance to decay to half its value. For example, the half-life of uranium-238 is about 4.47 billion years and that of uranium-235 is 704 million years. Over that time its energy release does not decrease, as one might assume, but remains constant.

See here how a Pressure Water Reactor works.

Only a small amount of the radioactive fuel is actually fissioned (split) in a reactor, but spent fuel rods can be reprocessed. There are serious problems with reprocessing. It’s expensive and dangerous – money could be better spent developing renewables to the point of high efficiency.

Production of nuclear energy has three main phases:

Front end (mining of heavy metals like uranium, processing and enrichment); the service period (generating electricity, refuelling and interim waste management) and back end (decommissioning and long-term waste management). See here for more about the dangers and hazards in all three stages. Of course, decommissioning a NPP i.e. dismantling it at the end of its 40-60 lifespan is an expensive and can take decades.

There are three types of radioactive energy emitted at various stages.

  1. Alpha waves are the shortest and can be stopped by paper or clothing (many industrial processes are hazardous, emitting alpha particles, hence the wearing of protective gear).
  2. Beta waves are longer and can be stopped by aluminium.
  3. Gamma energy is the longest and most destructive of the radioactive particles and can only be contained by concrete and lead. “Spent nuclear fuel is a ‘ticking time bomb”.