Nuclear Energy Generation
By Gordon Shaw
| Nuclear Reactors
have the potential to provide almost unlimited amounts of energy with much lower carbon emissions than with fossil fuels. Unfortunately there
are extreme dangers associated with attritional pollution from discharges,
operational accidents and long-term cleanup after decommissioning. As
a result, many nations have rejected expansion of nuclear methods for
national energy generation. Developing countries are more likely to expand
their nuclear power capacity, for example China may follow this route
and Ukraine will probably commission new plants. Otherwise there are strong arguments that nuclear power
generation should decline, especially where the industries are privatised.
The following synopses was sourced from several references on the net and written reports. The subject is too broad and too important for this précis to do full justice to the matter. The topic abounds with passions either from those who are vehemently opposed to nuclear power (often with good personal reasons) or those with their reasons to support and expand the industry. It is therefore difficult to form a truly objective assessment of the situation. One reference that we used, by and large, refrained from judgmental discourse, being relatively free from ideological influences, was a student project [Sunderland University] and we took some comments from her report.
At the time of drafting the original (end 2000) there were more than 120 nuclear power plants in Europe, the first appearing about 50 years previously. Although the dangers are recognised, the existing nuclear power plants, around the world, are valued because if they were closed down large populaces would be without electricity or at best would have to pay more for it.
There are dangers in all aspects of using nuclear materials from the stage at which they are mined, refined and transported, through to their use (in power stations, hospitals, submarines, satellites etc), storage and eventually in reprocessing and disposal. It does seem that human errors, incompetence or disregard for safety are the main causes of the most dangerous consequences. But these shortcomings are normal in our societies.
Perhaps the most important dangers arise from the waste and decommissioning, although, superficially, the most visible and recognised dangers are associated with mining and power generation. There are parallels with the mining of other ores and fuels, locally and abroad. These have often left a deadly legacy of toxic waste, ground subsidence and unsightly landscape, but radioactive ores carry even greater, longer lasting and more pernicious threats. There appear to be two ways of handling the used material: reprocessing and containment. However, reprocessing produces local but serious radioactive discharges, so countries which aim to reprocess, such as the UK, must still face the problems of how to cope with the discharges and how to 'bury' the ultimate products. It seems that for many nations the strategy for this final disposal is still in the planning stage and is not yet a fait accompli. Reprocessed, low-activity waste is a potential hazard for decades; high activity waste can remain hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years.
At the time of updating this in late 2001, we observed a new and awesome danger. The threat of terrorist action against a nuclear power resource has been brought into sharper focus by the events of 11 September of that year when the World Trade Centre twin-towers were destroyed. If nuclear power stations were to become targets, the consequences would be unimaginable.
A later update in January 2004 confirmed fears of terrorist threats. Ben Aris writing in The Guardian (12 January) reported that a German government security survey had found that eight of the country's oldest power stations would melt down if even a small jet crashed into them. Even the seven newer pressurised water plants whose cores are surrounded by concrete shields could not withstand a direct impact from a commercial passenger plane. Authorities have beefed up security and the environment ministry is considering special equipment which would throw up a wall of artificial fog around the country's 18 nuclear power stations if they were to be threatened by a hijacked plane. Ursula Hammann, the Green Party environment policy spokesperson called the fog machine idea another "hapless initiative .... only a total exit from nuclear energy will bring real safety for the population". We couldn't have put it better ourselves and are reminded of Tony Juniper (Executive Director of FoE) who said more than a year previously"Nuclear stations themselves could be terrorist targets; no one is ever likely to try to fly an aeroplane into a wind farm"
The UK problem was created in the 1940s when development was rapid and the industry simply tried to store the waste pending later treatment, according to , Dominic Lenton writing in December 2003 in the IEE Review (Coming Clean, p26). The nuclear industry has been obliged to be more honest recently and opines that clearing the existing waste could take a century and cost £50bn or more. 'Managing the Nuclear Legacy' is a white paper (July 2002) which specifies the role of a new body, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) due to become fully operational in April 2005. However, in the meantime the Liabilities Management Unit (LMU) at the DTI is trying to anticipate the working of the NDA so that it can function quickly when it does become operational. There is serious concern that the estimate of cost might be seriously in error and at the end of 2003 no specific fund had been allocated to meet the bill. There seems to be no defined strategy to deal with the problem and since the quantity of waste is enormous, the infrastructure is likely to deteriorate in the time scale and the necessary skills are not necessarily going to be available, we expect decommissioning to present headaches for generations to come.
By 2007, the UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair seemed to be hell bent on adding to his legacy by promoting the development of nuclear power generation. In September 2005, he made the following statement in his speech at the Labour Party Conference: "the G8 Agreement must be made to work so we develop together the technology that allows prosperous nations to adapt and emerging ones to grow sustainably; and that means an assessment of all options, including civil nuclear power." In the months that followed it became clear that he was proactively in favour of this technology. In 2007 the development was brought to a [temporary] halt by an official ruling that the government's so-called consultation on this issue was nothing but a misleading sham. Unbelievably he and his acolytes declared this to be matter of procedure and the outcome would be unaltered. Strange kind of consultation that is.
This means that nuclear power generation is back on the agenda; we think that is a sad prospect. We feel, strongly, that the UK presidency of the G8 throughout 2005 should have resulted in a strategy to do exactly the opposite and encourage the channelling of resources into developing and promoting other forms of renewable energy.
At about the same time as the conference, Sir Bernard Ingham (who was head of energy conservation in the Department of energy and later press secretary to Margaret Thatcher) is quoted in The Guardian on 5 October 2005 as having said: "After 50 years [of storing existing radioactive waste] the time has come to transfer the wastes in treated form .... to a longer term resting place. After [a further] 500 to 600 years the radioactivity will have decayed to the harmless level of uranium found naturally in the earth, though some of it will remain toxic for longer periods". Unbelievably this statement is part of his argument in favour of expanding nuclear energy.
Historically there have been four well known accidents which we note as follows:
Windscale, the world's first big nuclear accident occurred more than fifty years ago, in the days surrounding 10 October 1957, but first some comments on British Nuclear Fuels plc (BNFL). BNFL in the UK has a checkered history and we can find little to praise in its record, especially with respect to the Sellafield site. Sellafield was known as Windscale until 1981 and is situated in England in west Cumbria on the coast of the Irish Sea, close to the beautiful Lake District. A search reveals many criticisms of the BNFL operation, using emotive keywords like scandal, safety breaches, lowered safety standards, safety irregularities, falsification of data and so on. The criticisms stem from abroad as well as at home. For example Germany, Switzerland and Japan who receive plutonium products from BNFL, and Ireland, who (along with the Isle of Man) feel that the discharges into the North Irish Sea are causing dangerous marine pollution in their territory.
The political background to the Windscale disaster is that Britain had developed a nuclear weapon in 1952 which gave them an important position in international weaponry but in the mid 1950s the USA and the USSR had developed much more powerful thermo-nuclear devices (hydrogen bombs). In order for Britain to sit at 'the top table', so to speak, the British governments over the following years worked desperately to prove that their technology was sufficient to make a thermo-nuclear weapon. The breeding ground for weapon's grade nuclear material is the ostensibly peaceful nuclear reactor. Reactors use uranium and produce plutonium and can produce tritium (the radioactive isotope of hydrogen). It is this last element which was one of the keys needed to bridge the gap to thermo-nuclear and this was the setting back in the 1950s when the Windscale reactor was working hard to provide the raw materials under demands from our political masters. At this time Sir William Penney was the chief scientist in charge of research in nuclear developments. Amongst other things he modified the fuel cartridges using lithium magnesium to increase the yield of tritium. It seems quite likely that the modification was largely responsible for the disaster which followed. [Disclaimer: we are not nuclear scientists and our account may not be totally accurate but we believe that this account describes honestly the gist of what happened.]
The accident took place on 10 October 1957 when it was found that the reactor fuel together with the graphite moderator was on fire. The exhaust flowing up the chimney contained radioactive materials which obviously posed a threat to the surrounding countryside and its inhabitants. There were filters in the chimney, known as 'Cockcroft's Folly' because they were thought to be unnecessary but, in the event, no doubt contained some of the radioactive content.
Tom Tuohy (deputy manager) appears to have been the key worker on site and his actions were absolutely heroic. The fire was unprecedented and as Tom said "mankind had not faced anything like this before", and there was no known way of controlling it. Reports at the time are confusing and contradictory but Tom was there and doing it so we favour his account. He claims that he tried to put out the fire, working from the top of the reactor, with water despite knowing that it was an enormously risky tactic and could have produced an explosion with nuclear fallout. The water did not cause an explosion but neither did it quench the fire. His second attempt was to deprive the fuel of air. The airflow was normally present to keep the fuel relatively cool so that tactic was also dangerous. In fact turning off the fans and removing he airflow was immediately successful. During this episode inhabitants were told to take cover; children were especially at risk and milk in surrounding areas was destroyed to avoid ingestion. Records show that the fallout covered enormous areas of the country, spreading as far as SE England. How many people suffered as a direct result of the disaster will never be known. Theoretical estimates ranged from 0 to nearly 300 of fatal and non-fatal cancers, however, these figures did not take into account that a canister of polonium 210 (remember the murder of the Russian dissident Litvinenko in 2006?) was burned in the fire. Consequently, estimates allowing for the polonium point to much higher figures.
This accident was a severe embarrassment to the then UK Prime minister, H Macmillan, who was courting the US president, D Eisenhower, to get into a position of secret-sharing with the Americans. According to a report produced by Penney it seemed that there had been a fault caused by the technology used in the design of the cartridges. Such an admission would have undermined the faith of the USA and jeopardised the accord. So Macmillan ordered a complete cover-up and the report was withdrawn. Later, Macmillan issued a distorted version of Penney's report in a white paper and this came out at the same time as Britain exploded its first H-bomb. This act was compounded when Penney went on air to declare that the accident was caused primarily by the operators at the time (thus making it look like a minor operational matter). Of course the workers involved were rightly incensed when clearly they were heroes. By contrast, workers in a similar situation at Chernobyl (see below) were awarded medals for their bravery. A post script was added to the Windscale incident when the Americans came round to investigate what had happened and the managers at Windscale took full credit for the actions in controlling the fire. Tim Touhy was present at this investigation but was not allowed to speak and afterwards when asked for his comments said "What a shower of bastards". We could not agree more but would extend his evaluation right to the top.
Tuohy continued to work at Windscale through the sixties and into the seventies in senior positions. These included the UK Atomic Energy Authority, MD of British Nuclear Fuels Ltd and finally MD of Urenco (a tripartite from the UK, Holland and West Germany to develop and exploit a new technology). His forthright personality and activities made his style unacceptable and within about a year of managing Urenco, in 1973, he retired permanently from the industry aged 54. He died March 2008.
From our studies of nuclear accidents we believe that it is usual to find a cover-up operation follows and presumably some of these have been successful so there are probably more instances than we know about. Further where the facts do eventually emerge there are conspiracies to understate the number and seriousness of resulting casualties.
[Footnote: we used many sources to produce this summary but the main one was a BBC 2 documentary, "Windscale: Britain's Biggest Nuclear Disaster", 8 October 2007. Another reference was "Contaminated Evidence", Jean McSorley, Guardian, 10 October 2007.]
The second was the most serious commercial nuclear accident in the United States. It occurred in March 1979 at the station on Three Mile Island [see link to Pennsylvania State University]. During routine maintenance, water supplied to the generators was interrupted causing a safety system to operate. The operators mistakenly stopped the automatic system with devastating consequences. A significant part of the nuclear fuel melted and flowed into the lower parts of the core and reactor vessel. Such a possibility was known to be a very dangerous event and has been associated with the name "The China Syndrome" (later to become the title of a film which dramatised the incident). Large amounts of radioactive gases were released but fortunately, eventually emergency measures succeeded in taking control and cooling the core. The damage was severe but no injuries due to radiation are recorded. Following this accident a ten year cleanup plan was implemented and extensive records were generated. This experience has influenced the way that nuclear power is regarded (dangerous and unpopular) not only in the US but internationally.
The third was by far the most infamous nuclear accident of all and occurred in Chernobyl in Ukraine, member of the (former) Soviet Union on 26 April, 1986 [see link to Green Parties Worldwide]. An enormous explosion took place when operators who were testing one of the reactors at full capacity, switched off the safety system. Control was lost, steam pressure built up, the explosion occurred and large amounts of radioactive elements were discharged into the atmosphere (reported to be 190 tons of highly radioactive Uranium and Graphite). There was no immediate admission of the crisis by the Gorbachev administration and it was only acknowledged a few days later as a result of Swedish reports on increased radiation levels.
Many years later the widespread consequences are not fully appreciated but the extent of the dangers include poisoning of large areas of water and land in Ukraine and Belarus and significant contamination in Poland, Sweden and Norway. The spread of pollution was not limited to the atmosphere but was also spread via underground water to threaten nearby Kiev. Many parts of Europe were affected and we know that parts of the UK registered fallout [in Q4, 2009 it was noted that sheep farmers in North Wales still had to have their animals checked before moving them elsewhere]. We have seen it reported that possible radiation linked illnesses are statistically associated with the disaster worldwide. The widespread nature of the contamination and the difficulties in identifying with certainty that illnesses were caused by the Chernobyl fallout mean that the statistics cannot be accurate, but from our reading it seems that the number of casualties, in one way or another, must be several millions with maybe a third of these being children. Close to the site, thousands of workers died during the cleanup operation and tens of thousands were crippled.
The rest of the plant at Chernobyl continued to operate for more than 14 years.
As this summary is being written on 16 December 2000, the news comes through that the final Chernobyl reactor was closed down, but that is certainly not the end of this tragic saga. The damaged reactor is still posing a threat and may well cause a further catastrophe if it collapses, as is likely. What devastation will follow such a collapse will depend on the wind but Europe may be in grave danger.
Postscripts to Chernobyl:
The population of Belarus was the greatest loser in the aftermath (Ref: Internal Exposure, Eugene Cahill, 26 April, 2001). The fallout from the disaster has directly affected over nine million people in Belarus, Ukraine and western Russia; Belarus received 70% of the fallout. The radioactive exposure was 90 times greater than that released by the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The UN declared it the worst environmental catastrophe in history. In Belarus, thyroid cancer rates increased by 2,400% in the ensuing 15 years, a figure expected to continue to rise. There have been a 1,000% increase in suicides in the contaminated zones and a 250% increase in congenital birth deformities. About 99% of the land was contaminated and 90% of the children suffer from the after-effects of nuclear radiation. Apart from these horrific health problems Belarus is financially crippled. It has cost Belarus 25% of its annual national budget and it is estimated that by 2015 the fallout from the accident will have cost it $235 billion. Ironically, because of international law, Belarus received no compensation from Russia or Ukraine and is dependent on humanitarian aid, which is totally inadequate. If you would like to help The Chernobyl Children's Project, click here.
THe K2R4 project, Ukraine. We note that environmental groups were alarmed that two new reactors were to be built in Ukraine (at Khmelnitsky and Rovno, known as the K2R4 project) to replace the ones at Chernobyl. They felt that the operation of the new construction would still be in the hands of the same authorities who proved to be so lacking previously. It was argued that the reactors would not satisfy Western safety standards and that K2R4 would be uneconomic. It is also worth noting that the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) promised to provide funds to help complete the project and the European Commission approved even more by way of loans. There were conditions set which were not satisfied so the project was stalled. The project was redesigned and in 2004 EBRD and Euratom approved loans totalling $150 million although, in the process, both lenders breached their stated policies. In September 2005, the Ukrainian parliament ratified the K2/R4 grant agreement.
Continuing the saga in February 2008 we read about plans to cover the decaying 'sarcophagus' with yet another construction [Ref: "Entombing the tragedy", Askold Krushelnycky, Engineering and Technology, February 2008]. Donors had contributed to a fund to stabilize the sarcophagus and work should have been finished in 2003, however, unbelievable political chicanery and corruption has delayed the project and it is expected to be completed about ten years late. The planned new sarcophagus known as the 'New Safe Confinement (NSC)' is intended to cover the old one and leave space for remote machines and special teams to work within it to dismantle and safely store the dangerous material within the original structure. The project will use prefabricated sections to build a huge hemispherical, arched roof, resembling a massive Nissen hut, at a distance of about 180m from the reactor (to limit radiation danger) and then quickly draw it into position on rails. The scale of the NSC is truly massive measuring 150m long, 257m wide and 105m high and weighing about 20,000t. It has been described as the 'largest moveable structure in the history of mankind'. The NSC is designed to contain solid radioactive waste, not gases but notwithstanding it is to be hoped that they get on with it because the existing sarcophagus is very unstable and the outcome of further collapse is as unimaginable as the original disaster. Even so this is a temporary solution; with an expected life of 100 years it should be appreciated that the radioactivity in Chernobyl and a large surrounding area will be contaminated for tens of thousands of years.
The fourth and most recent accident was in Fukushima, Japan. The legacy of this is still unclear but as events unfold it seems that it could rival the Chernobyl accident in some ways. We shall be documenting this tragedy when we have enough solid information to produce a synopsis.
In summary we accept that nuclear power offers, potentially, the utopia of zero polluting emissions. However, this assumes that mistakes are not made in controlling the processes at all stages from mining to eventual disposal of the waste and decommissioning. Unfortunately, history indicates that such accidents are not only possible but certain to happen. Added to this we now have the spectre of terrorists who will take advantage of any opportunity to bring chaos and destruction to any country they feel deserves their wrath. The resulting consequences are so pernicious that it is to be hoped that nuclear power will not be developed as a major player in the provision of clean energy for the foreseeable future. There are going to be exceptions of course (maybe the under developed nations who feel they have little alternative) and there is no doubt that nuclear power and its legacy will still be around for countless generations to come. Sadly, in 2007, we noted that Tony Blair appeared to be inviting the G8 nations, and by inference the whole world, to develop nuclear power as an answer to global warming. Instead he should have been promoting the numerous, developed and developing, green technologies and divert some of the enormous nuclear budget to support their expansion. Unfortunately, in 2008 Blair's successor, Gordon Brown, followed in his footsteps. Subsequently David Cameron seemed dead set on developing Nuclear Power and his administration in Q1 2012 appeared to be embroiled in chicanery with the relevant (mainly foreign) power companies and the threat of broken promises on funding: we shall see!