Nuclear is never safe - renewable energy now!

The nuclear accident in Japan caused by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami has affirmed many of the concerns that anti-nuclear campaigners have been warning of for decades.  Above all else, nuclear power is a deadly form of energy production. At every point of the nuclear energy cycle, there is a risk of a major environmental and social catastrophe.

The crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant is a timely warning of just how dangerous and unsustainable nuclear energy is. Within a short time of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami, it became evident that back-up systems for the cooling process had failed at more than one of the plant’s reactors.

The declaration of the state of emergency in the area surrounding the stricken Fukushima plant on March 11 resulted in 3000 people being immediately evacuated and the establishment of a 10-kilometre exclusion zone. The early reports on the first explosion, which tore the top off a reactor building, implied that the reactor itself was not affected. Very soon it became clear that this was far from the case.

After two days, at least three of the reactors at the Fukushima plant experienced major cooling problems that became increasingly difficult to control. By March 14 a meltdown process was under way, and later a fourth reactor experienced similar problems. Some 200,000 people were evacuated from the expanded 30-kilometre exclusion zone, with an untold quantity of radiation leakage to the environment taking place.

Despite the best efforts of emergency fire control crews, the reactors failed to cool, and further explosions took place. By March 15 there were reports of dangerous radiation leaks, in part from fire releasing long-lived radioisotopes directly into the environment. Elevated levels of radiation have been detected in Tokyo, 200 kilometres from the plant. The full extent of the contamination remains unknown, though radioactive vegetables and milk have been detected in Fukushima and three neighbouring prefectures.

The events surrounding the cooling failures are becoming clearer as more assessments are made and information gets out. The ABC Four Corners program on March 21 highlighted the background to a disaster waiting to happen.

Worldwide protests

Something similar happening at another Japanese reactor or anywhere else in the world is not a unique or outside possibility, but a very real threat. Not surprisingly, there have been significant anti-nuclear protests worldwide in response to the crisis in Japan. In Europe, protests have taken place in Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Finland, Bulgaria and Britain.

One of the largest demonstrations took place in Germany, in the city of Stuttgart, on March 12. Some 50,000 protesters formed a 45-kilometre-long human chain, the largest anti-nuclear protest in Germany since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Ongoing protests in Germany are targeting the decision made last year by the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel to delay the phasing out of nuclear power plants from 2020 to 2035. On March 16, Merkel was forced to announce a temporary halt to power generation at seven of Germany’s 17 reactors.

In neighbouring Switzerland the government on March 14 announced the suspension of plans to replace its five ageing nuclear reactors with new ones. According to a recent news poll, 87% of Swiss people want an end to nuclear power generation.

In the United States, which leads the world in the number of nuclear reactors, there are renewed concerns about the hazards of nuclear energy. Several of the 104 reactors are located in seismically unstable areas such as California and parts of New York. In the town of Vernon in Vermont, 600 people mobilised over the weekend of March 20-21 outside the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in solidarity with the people of Japan and to mark one year to the due date for the closure of the plant. Vermont is the only state in the US that requires a nuclear plant to get legislative approval for an extension. The March 22 Boston Globe quoted Governor Peter Shumlin as stating: “Fortunately, Vermont has taken steps to close down the ageing Yankee plant, and I have urged other states with older nuclear facilities to follow our example and take control of the lifespan of their plants”.

Uranium mines

Despite the crisis in Japan and the revived anti-nuclear sentiment internationally, Australian big business and its friends in government are determined to push ahead with the expansion of uranium mining and the nuclear industry. The CEOs of the big mining companies are viewing the crisis in Japan as a momentary inconvenience for their longer term profits.

The push for more uranium mines and nuclear industries in Australia has steadily increased since 2003. That year there was a significant rise in the price of uranium, which increased six-fold by late 2006. The John Howard Coalition government also moved to recapture the initiative after the successful campaign to stop the Jabiluka mine (proposed near the existing Ranger mine in the Northern Territory) and the campaign against locating a nuclear waste facility in South Australia. The latter setback was reversed in 2005 by the Howard government’s announcement that it would approve a waste facility in the Northern Territory.

In 2010 the Rudd Labor government approved a facility on Aboriginal land at Muckaty Station, against the wishes of the majority of the traditional owners. There is an ongoing campaign against the waste facility, including a legal challenge in the Federal Court. Martin Ferguson, the federal resources minister, has ignored petitions and letters of concern from traditional owners opposing the waste dump and refused to meet with them.

Success or otherwise in establishing this waste facility will be critical in the development of a nuclear waste storage and future nuclear power industry in Australia. The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), which would be both the main supplier to the facility and its operator, is under scrutiny at the moment over a secret Comcare report leaked to the ABC by a former ANSTO employee. The report details how ANSTO has under-reported accidents and breached safety precautions at its Lucas Heights reactor.

Serious moves are under way to open and expand uranium mining across Australia, and both the federal Labor party and the Coalition have given their full support for more uranium mines. Labor’s dodgy three-mines policy stands a good chance of being scrapped completely at the next ALP national conference, especially with the influential Australian Workers Union openly supporting and calling for a change. Ferguson has also hinted at dropping this policy.

At the state government level there is strong support for more uranium mines, particularly in Western Australia. In 2010, WA experienced an 87% increase in uranium exploration spending, representing just over half that spent on exploration for uranium nationally. Four new uranium mines in WA are going through state and federal approval processes.

No answer to climate change

The renewed debate and concern over nuclear energy come on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The official estimate by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation of 57 directly killed by the disaster is strongly refuted by a range of organisations, nuclear experts and alternative findings, including a damning 2007 Russian report released in English in 2009. Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment estimates that up to 985,000 deaths may have been caused by radiation from Chernobyl between 1986 and 2004.

The crisis in Japan also comes at a time when capitalist governments worldwide flounder and grandstand on how to deal with human-induced climate change. For many of these governments and the multinational fuel and energy corporations, nuclear energy is being peddled as a solution. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Nuclear energy is not a solution to the climate change problem. There is no known safe way to store the waste, which remains toxic for tens of thousands of years. Construction of the large, costly nuclear plants takes a minimum of 10 years, and the mining of uranium results in the release of massive amounts of greenhouse gases. The nuclear power industry since its inception has been plagued by countless a accidents, from near-catastrophes to major environmental and human disasters.

Only an intense and fast-tracked program for the development of renewable energies is a viable solution to the looming climate change catastrophe. The first steps towards the development of sustainable energy production are well known, but the free and unfettered development of renewable technologies is blocked and thwarted by the powerful fossil fuel and mining corporations and the capitalist governments eager to please them. If we are to save the planet, we need to act now to bring about fundamental change and replace the capitalist system that is literally killing the planet.