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New Internationalist Issue 284

Nuclear Power

[image, unknown] New Internationalist Issue 284

Go East, young atom

[image, unknown]

Early for the tour, they went for a walk along Sizewell Beach. In front of them, a little out to sea and resembling the truncated piers of a nineteenth century holiday resort, were the water in-takes and out-takes for the nuclear power plant's cooling system.

Just a few yards back from the beach were the two power stations themselves: Sizewell A, a concrete 1960s building housing an old Magnox reactor due to have been decommissioned a decade ago. The other, Sizewell B, one of the world's newest, biggest and most expensive nuclear power installations. A flagship for the industry, in the process of being sold off to the private sector, it was painted a tasteful French blue, its white dome gleaming against the dark grey summer sky.

Gloria and Claire made their way to the Visitors Centre where they were handed blue hats. 'Small ones for the ladies,' said the matronly woman in a floral patterned dress who was to be their guide. 'We call this type of Magnox reactor "the workhorse of the industry",' she said as they entered the main hall of Sizewell A. 'It was intended to have a lifetime of 20 years, but it is so productive and reliable we have kept it going.'

'What would be the cost of decommissioning it?' asked Claire.

'That's too complicated to go into,' replied the guide, moving quickly on to explain how fuel-rods worked.

For the tour of Sizewell B they had another guide. Same floral patterned dress, different woman. This power station was closed for 'routine maintenance work', they were told. Nearly 900 men had been brought on to the site to do the work - cleaning out, maintaining, replacing radioactive fuel-rods. They came from the US, France, and 'all over' and were 'experts', they were told.

'Glow boys,' whispered Claire to Gloria.

'What's that?'

'Guys who are paid a lot of money to work with radioactive material. They go around the world doing it.'

'Records are kept of the radiation dosage of all the people who work in the power plant,' the guide was explaining.

Claire remembered seeing the records of a man she knew who had worked at Sizewell before his child was conceived. The baby developed leukaemia. But according to the records, and the official standard set, the father's dosages were okay.

'We go over the top on safety,' the guide repeated. 'We are rather proud of Sizewell B,' she went on, glowing. 'It's unique!'

The station was completed last year. The reactor is a Pressurized Water Reactor built by the US company Westinghouse - the type used at Three Mile Island in the US, site of one of the world's better-known nuclear accidents.

'It's basically the same model but we have improved it. We have used French computer technology and made it even more safe. There isn't one like it in the world...'

'And isn't likely to be...' muttered Claire.

'What's that?' said Gloria.

'I'll show you later...'

On the way back Claire asked Gloria what she had thought of the tour. There was a long pause.

Then Gloria replied: 'Well, I think they are very keen to promote their plant.'

Back at the office Claire handed her a magazine article entitled 'Eyeing the East'.

'Where's this come from?'

'The New Internationalist...'

'Ah..' said Gloria, enigmatically as she began to read:

The US company Westinghouse and British Nuclear Electric have lost their combined bid to sell their model nuclear plant based on Sizewell B to the Government of Taiwan. It failed to meet that country's procurement and safety requirements.

This is another blow for the ailing nuclear industry, which has virtually ground to a halt in the West. It is 18 years since a nuclear reactor has been ordered in the US, and none are being built in Canada or Australia. In 1995 the British Government decided there was no economic justification for public funding for new reactors and two proposed stations were cancelled. Even 'nuclear-happy' France has no 'new build' at the moment.

Until recently it looked as if Japan were the only industrialized nation still keen on nuclear power. It provides a third of the country's electricity and there are plans for another 5 stations in addition to the existing 49. But the tide of public opinion appears to be turning. With a two-to-one majority the people of the small town of Maki recently voted against the construction of a nuclear power plant on their doorstep. Other towns seem likely to follow suit.

There are three major problems facing the nuclear industry. One is the high cost of decommissioning power stations when they have reached the end of their intended lifetime, usually around 20 years. The Yankee Rowe reactor in Massachusetts, which cost over $186 million to build in 1960, was closed in 1991. To dismantle the plant fully will cost some US$370 million - a lot more than it cost to build. Naturally governments and energy companies favour extending lifetimes rather than footing the massive bill for closure.

The second obstacle is safety. Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are etched on the public consciousness and it seems unlikely that confidence will ever climb back to 1960s and 1970s levels. Nuclear watchers reckon it is only a matter of time before another large-scale accident occurs, especially if old outdated plants keep having their lives extended.

Even the newest technologies are failing the safety test. In December 1995 sodium coolant leaked from the Fast Breeder Reactor at Monju, Japan. This was meant to be the latest state-of-the-art, supposedly safe, technology. The nuclear industry's attempt to cover up the full extent of damage did little to help restore confidence.

Third, there is the growing and seemingly insoluble problem of what to do with nuclear waste - the 'back-end' of the process as it is rather graphically described. While this is essential it is hardly a profit-spinner. The commercial pressure for the industry is to build and sell new power stations.

'The future of the nuclear industry depends, in the short term, on exports,' admits Keith Parker of the British Nuclear Industry Forum, an organization that represents an international array of nuclear industries.

In the 1960s nuclear was touted as a clean, inexhaustible system that would be so economic to produce it would be 'too cheap to meter'. Nuclear power now produces 17 per cent of the world's electricity but has not met its promises on cost by any stretch of the imagination. Even after Chernobyl a huge amount of public money has been - and continues to be - pumped into nuclear power. In 1990, according to the International Energy Agency, $3,936 million was spent on nuclear research and development, of which $857 million was for nuclear fusion, compared with just $550 million for all renewables, including solar, wind and hydro. Nuclear fusion might or might not come up with a better, safer way of generating nuclear power than fission, but signs so far are that it will probably cost about ten times more.

So the main sales pitch today is that nuclear power is good for you because it's 'clean'. Unlike fossil fuels such as oil, gas and petroleum, it does not produce the carbon emissions that contribute to global warming and the greenhouse effect.

The other pitch is 'You need it'. The people who are currently being informed they 'need it' are the decision-makers in Eastern Europe and Asia. China, South Korea and Taiwan all have plans to increase their nuclear power programs. Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines have recently expressed interest. The company - or increasingly, international consortium - that brings the best finance package is likely to win the contract.

According to Roger Hayes, Director General of the British Nuclear Industry Forum: 'There is a tremendous export market for Western companies in countries like China, Indonesia and Vietnam. All this is driven by population and industrial growth and increasing energy demand. So despite minor opposition in some places, they know there is no choice. They have to have nuclear energy as part of the portfolio.'

People living in Korea and Taiwan might not agree. In these countries public resistance to nuclear power, and particularly to radioactive dump sites, continues to mount.

And what about the safety implications of building more nuclear plants in Asia?

'China is an issue,' says Hayes. 'They are going hell for leather for nuclear power and there is a bit of a risk that for pricing reasons they could cut corners and go for a Soviet reactor at a certain price. But I don't think safety is going to be a big problem in China. I think a far greater problem will be if they don't use nuclear. Then they are going to use their coal and that will be far more polluting. China is already about to take over from the US as the world's biggest polluter.'

The safety implications for the world of more nuclear power plants in areas of instability or in countries where there is not what the industry calls 'a safety culture' does not worry Roger Hayes unduly. 'Ours is a dangerous world. And we will share safety technology with them. There is also training available.'

These words may ring somewhat hollow to people living within wind-blowing distance of Chernobyl. The disaster there on 26 April 1986 unleashed a plague of cancers and affected, either directly or indirectly, nine million people in the former Soviet Union. The effects continue.

According to Anna Syomina, director of MAMA-86, a pressure group set up by mothers of children with radiation-related sicknesses, as many as 70 per cent of Ukrainian children are born with birth defects and of the 30 per cent born healthy only 20 per cent are still healthy.

'Previously, when my mother's friends came to see her, they laughed a lot and talked mostly about art and politics,' says Aleksandr Sirota, aged nine at the time of the accident. 'Later, their conversation was most concerned with their children's illnesses and with grief in their families and the families of their friends and acquaintances.'

The financial cost of the accident has been estimated at between $283 and $358 billion, making it the most expensive disaster ever.

But it's right here, in Ukraine, home of Chernobyl, that the nuclear industries of the West have set their sights. Earlier this year the G7 countries - Canada, US, UK, France, Germany, Japan and Italy - agreed to fund the closure of Chernobyl and the completion of two new nuclear plants in Ukraine - Khmelnitsky 2 and Rovno 4 - to replace it. This will cost one billion dollars. It's deemed the 'least cost' option.

Environmentalists and non-nuclear energy experts are not only concerned about safety, but also argue that the power is simply not needed.

Ukraine has the dubious accolade of being the most energy-intensive
country in the world. It uses ten times more energy per capita than Japan and seven times more than the US. The most simple no-cost, good-housekeeping energy conservation measures, which have been applied in the West for decades, would lead to an energy saving of ten per cent - that is three-per-cent more energy than produced by Chernobyl.

The trouble is that by focusing on managing supply rather than demand, energy over-capacity will only increase and there will be no incentive to move in the direction of energy efficiency. It would make a lot more sense to pump the money into new local, energy efficiency industries, such as making energy-efficient lightbulbs - something already successful in Poland. Or as the Ukrainian Institute of Electrodynamics points out, windpower could be developed to provide 40 per cent of current nuclear output.

Patching up dubious old Soviet plants is another market contract-hungry Western nuclear industries are keen to enter. In Mochovce, Slovakia, construction of a nuclear plant that started in 1984 came to a halt in 1991 due to lack of finances. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development drew up plans to complete it. But the Slovak Government ditched them because the safety requirements were too costly. Instead a consortium consisting of French Framatome and German Siemens have undertaken to do the work with a 40-per-cent lower safety budget. What this means, in effect, is that French and German companies are taking part in a project which will not raise Mochovce to Western safety standards. Yet the involvement of Western companies will give the impression that this is being done.

Siemen's nuclear arm needs the work. Since the disaster at Chernobyl no new power plants have been completed in Germany. Mochovce will provide the company with a showcase of what it can do for many other nuclear reactors - and there are some 60 of the same type in Eastern Europe alone.

'Yes, but what do the people in Eastern Europe want?' said Gloria, putting down the article. 'Or is it just Western environmentalists from Greenpeace making a fuss...?'

'No, Eastern and Western environmentalists are working together on these issues. And there have been a number of anti-nuclear protests in Eastern Europe. There was a big one in Hungary recently to try and stop the dumping of German nuclear waste in the city of Paks. But the campaign against Mochovce is one of the most concerted. Let's check the Internet when we get back and see if there's anything about it,' said Claire. The modem buzzed and after a brief search the following appeared on the screen, from Juro, a Slovakian activist.

'Copy this letter and send it via e-mail at the very least. It will take you mere seconds, but it can have a tremendous impact. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development is out of the project partially thanks to some 200,000 letters and cards protesting their participation. Help us.

Attn: Dr Heinrich von Pierer
Wittelsbacherpl 2
80333 Munchen, Germany
Fax: 89 234 42 42
[email protected]

Dear Dr. Pierer,
Siemens' corporate image is being tremendously damaged because of your willingness to take part in the completion of the Slovak nuclear power plant. It is obvious that neither your company nor any other is able to upgrade Mochovce's safety to acceptable standards.

Mochovce would not get a licence to be operated in the EU nor in the USA. It would be impossible to build Mochovce somewhere in Munchen: do not take part in a project which could not be acceptable in your country. Drop the double standards. Mochovce is not the most cost-effective method for the Slovak energy system. There are many options of cheaper and more environmentally friendly energy production. By halting your participation in the Mochovce project, you will contribute enormously to nuclear safety in Slovakia and Central Europe.

It may be business to you, but it is dirty money you want to earn. I want to let you know until you halt your participation in the Mochovce project, I will boycott your products. I will not buy Osram, Siemens Nixdorf, and Siemens products...

Stop Mochovce!
For Mother Earth, Slovakia
-Golded 2.50 Unreg

'OK,' said Gloria. 'So in Eastern Europe they have surplus capacity and unsafe nuclear reactors. It's crazy to go on building up nuclear capacity there. But that's not the case in my country. In South Africa we have eight million people homeless and 60 per cent of our people have no electricity. We need houses and we need power - lots of it. And if it has to be nuclear, many people will say: "so be it". If nuclear companies come to us with attractive financing proposals, why should we turn them down?'

'But do you have to copy our mistakes?' Claire was becoming quite animated. 'We have been screwing up the environment for 25 years! Huge power stations, economies of scale that don't exist! Phenomenal wastage in domestic and industrial use! Estimates vary but if we were using energy wisely we could be doing the same things with at least 30-per-cent less power than we currently use!'

'That may be true for you. But what would you say to a rural woman who spends her day looking for firewood and whose life would be transformed if she could just hook up to the electricity grid? Or to women I know whose families suffer from respiratory problems because they rely on coal and kerosene to heat and light their homes? Look, we want to develop, properly, in a way that will benefit all the people. We want to electrify the country. To do that we need power stations. Coal-fired, gas-fired, nuclear-fired power stations.'

The colour was rising in Claire's cheeks. 'But you have a real window of opportunity to do things differently! Why close it? You have a program to build homes for eight million people. You can use energy-efficient models and methods and so lessen the demands for new power stations. Look,' she was pulling out a file from her drawer. 'Are you familiar with this study? It's from the International Institute for Energy Conservation.' A photo of a rural house with the North-facing wall painted white, and windows of different sizes depending on their relation to the sun, fell out. 'This is passive solar-energy heating in rural South Africa. Simple but ingenious,' she said, picking it up. 'And it saves on fuel bills.'

Gloria laughed. 'It's very nice. I like white walls too. And conservation sounds good. But we can't conserve what we haven't got.'

'Haven't you got it? You have a lot of power already, and lots of it is wasted by tremendous energy inefficiencies in South African industry. Your steel industries, for example, use 50-per-cent more energy per output than in Western Europe. And you have sun and wind and water, don't you?'


'Use those.'

'Maybe sometime in the next millennium but our deadline is the year 2,000!'

'But you can leapfrog now! You can go straight to the technologies that are clean and cheap and renewable. You can go directly to ways of using energy that are efficient. People are doing it now, in lots of places in the Third World!'

'Oh yeah? Show me!'

Claire sat down at her computer and brought up a file. The answer-machine was flashing.

'Oh my God, I forgot. My partner!'

Gloria laughed, sitting on the edge of Claire's desk.

'Ah, here it is... one I prepared earlier...' Claire brought up onto a screen something she been putting together for her students. 'It's not quite finished yet. I've called it Leapfrogging.'

Illustration by POLYP.

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996 [image, unknown] NI Home Page[image, unknown] Issue 284 Contents

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