The recent nuclear disaster in Fukushima demonstrated once again the problems inherent in nuclear power. The disaster was clearly further aggravated by the private company’s poor safety standards, lack of communication and slow response, proving that big business profits are considered more important than the impact on the lives of ordinary people and the environment.
Over the last few years the multi-billion dollar nuclear industry has worked overtime to rebrand nuclear power as a clean, green solution to climate change. Now, after Fukushima, public perception of nuclear power has no doubt plummeted.
In the immediate aftermath and under pressure of public opinion and mass demonstrations, many countries have agreed to wind down their nuclear energy programs to some degree. Governments clearly believe that low-level radiation is potentially dangerous, typified by the 20 kilometre evacuation zone around the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, widespread restrictions on food and water consumption, and the growing number of countries imposing restrictions on the importation of food from Japan.
Yet the Fukushima failure is neither the first nor the worse nuclear disaster the world has witnessed. In Japan alone, there have been a number of serious accidents, including fatal accidents, at nuclear facilities in the past decade. On this basis, how has the nuclear industry managed to survive?
Just like after the Chenobyl disaster, big business will again attempt to resurrect nuclear power. While misinformation has been a constant in the nuclear industry since its inception (with some nuclear lobbyists still arguing that radiation is ‘good for you’) one of their greatest successes has been popularising the idea that the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster were not so serious after all.
Has the Chernobyl disaster been overstated?
It has now been 25 years since the catastrophe in Chernobyl when, on April 26, 1986, reactor number four of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded.
The disaster made it apparent that there is a danger greater than nuclear weapons hidden within nuclear power. Radioactive emissions from the Chernobyl reactor were more than a hundredfold the radioactive contamination of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The fallout was not only huge, but widespread. More than 40% of Europe (including Austria, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Romania, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, France, Greece, Iceland, Slovenia) and wide territories in Asia (including Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Emirates, China), North Africa, and North America were contaminated by the Chernobyl fallout.
It is estimated that around 3 billion people inhabit regions contaminated with radioactive particles from Chernobyl.
In Germany and Poland millions of litres of milk were discarded, and as far away as North America people were warned to not use rainwater for drinking for some time due to atmospheric contamination. In France, a hunter shot a hog that was “glowing green”, leading authorities to discover an entire mountain area that was radioactive.
What this shows is that no person in any country can be assured that he/she can be protected from radioactive contamination. One nuclear reactor can pollute large parts of an entire hemisphere.
Instead of addressing the very real problems caused by Chenobyl, and conducting a thorough investigation into the extent and effects of contamination, apologists of nuclear power began a blackout on data concerning the amount of radioactive emissions, the doses of radiation, and the increased rates of illness and disease among those effected. This has led to difficulty in reaching a full and accurate assessment of the damage.
Ongoing effects of Chernobyl
Decades after the disaster, an estimated 5 million people still live with dangerous levels of radioactive contamination in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia.
To this day, more than 22% of Belarus farmland is heavily contaminated. Chernobyl radioactive particles continue to contaminate more than 25% of Ukraine. The 1,300 square kilometer radioactive reserve near the Chernobyl power plant is forever excluded from any economic activity owing to contamination expected to last hundreds of thousands of years.
What is most often disputed about the consequences of the Chenobyl disaster is the number of deaths it caused.
For the first three years after the disaster the USSR enforced a policy of official secrecy and the falsification of records. For these years it is almost impossible to know exactly how many people died from radiation poisoning.
The situation of the hundreds of thousands of people directly involved in the ‘clean-up’ (often called the “liquidators”) is indicative. During this time it was officially forbidden to associate the illnesses and diseases they were suffering from with radiation poisoning.
Prior to 1985 more than 80% of children in the Chernobyl territories of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia were considered healthy; today fewer than 20% are well. In the heavily contaminated areas some have reported it difficult to find even one healthy child, rates of illness have increased for all age groups and the frequency of disease has increased several times since the disaster.
Despite clear evidence of dramatic and ongoing effects, the pro-nuclear lobby continues to deny the seriousness of the Chernobyl disaster. Their denial includes undermining medical and biological studies, developing their own misleading ‘studies’, setting up bogus research bodies and ignoring thousands of research works and data collections written in Slavic languages.
Under pressure from the nuclear lobby, governments and officials have diverted scientific personnel away from studying the problems caused by Chernobyl.
Of the credible research that does exist, some suggest that the consequences of Chernobyl have not decreased over time, but, in fact, are increasing and will continue to do so into the future. It is argued that over the next several future generations the health of people and of nature will continue to be adversely impacted by the nuclear disaster.
Conservative estimates so far suggest 9,000 have died and a further 200,000 people have illnesses caused by radioactive contamination from Chernobyl. Others say the real figures are ten fold.
Distorting the facts
The industry’s domination of the public debate around nuclear energy is clearly evident in Australia. In 2006 the Australian government commissioned the Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy Review, which was unbelievably blatant in its distortion.
The panel included no health professionals, no environmental experts and no leaders in the field of weapons proliferation. Not surprisingly the report expressed no serious concerns in any of these areas.
Within the report a table titled “Fatal accidents in the worldwide energy sector, 1969 –2000” indicated a total of 31 deaths associated with nuclear reactor accidents during that period. A tiny footnote added that “These figures do not include latent or delayed deaths such as those caused by air pollution from fires, chemical exposure or radiation exposure that might occur following an industrial accident.” One commentator pointed out that the tobacco industry could similarly claim that the number of deaths attributed to cigarette smoking equals the number of people who die in house fires caused by people smoking in bed, with a footnote stating that there may be some risk of cancer and heart disease also.
The nuclear industry has proven just as skilled at diverting attention away from other dangerous aspects of nuclear power generation, such as nuclear waste.
Nuclear waste – problem solved?
The problem of nuclear waste has generally been presented by the industry as resolved. This is in no way true. Not one single country has in place a proven, viable, permanent nuclear waste management plan.
Rather, some of the methods employed in dumping nuclear waste have been frightening.
At the Maxey Flats nuclear waste dump in Kentucky, U.S.A., industry consultants estimated that plutonium buried there would take 24,000 years to migrate one half inch. After just 10 years plutonium was detected 2 miles away.
Australians have no reason to expect any higher standards of nuclear waste management here, if the “clean-up” of the Maralinga nuclear test site is anything to go by. Maralinga was a British nuclear weapons test site in South Australia, where local Indigenous people, Australian servicemen and even British troops were treated as guinea pigs.
Despite government claims that the 1967 Maralinga clean-up was “world’s best practice”, Alan Parkinson, author of “Maralinga: Australia’s Nuclear Waste Cover-up”, says the actual approach to dealing with plutonium was “just put a hole in the ground, throw it in.”
By the 1980s Australian servicemen and local Indigenous populations were suffering blindness, sores and illnesses such as cancer. A second clean-up had to be conducted again in 2000, costing $108 million.
Land rights or a nuclear waste dump?
The experience of Maralinga is as relevant today as ever, with Parliament debating the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill (NRWMB) this month. The ALP bill would give sweeping powers to override state and territory laws and to bypass federal laws. The bill would give the minister powers to override the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and the Aboriginal Heritage Protection Act 1984.
This legislation, if passed, will be used to build a radioactive waste dump on contested Aboriginal Land at Muckaty, in the Northern Territory. The Muckaty dump is planned to contain the nuclear waste from the Lucas Heights reactor, the most radioactive waste produced in Australia.
In exchange for dumping radioactive waste on their traditional lands, the Warlmampa Traditional Owners have been offered new roads, housing and education opportunities. The fact that the government is attempting to compensate the local population with services they should be providing anyway, shows how deeply marginalized and dispossessed Indigenous people remain to this day.
Rural Indigenous populations have long been victims of the nuclear industry. The Ranger uranium mine in the Northern Territory has been in operation since 1981. During the ‘negotiating process’ the Mirarr Traditional Owners were told their opposition “shall not be allowed to prevail”.
Ranger is located in an excised area amongst Kakadu’s extensive wetlands. In the 1998-99 wet season, high uranium concentrations was found in water discharged into the Coonjimba and Magela Creeks. Contaminated water was released into the creeks for three subsequent seasons before the problem was addressed. In 2004, 150 workers were exposed to drinking water containing uranium levels 400 times greater than the Australian safety standard.
The Beverly Uranium Mine in South Australia has also caused havoc on the local population. It is an acid in-situ leach mine, where the liquid radioactive waste — containing radioactive particles, heavy metals and acid — is simply dumped into the groundwater, causing untold ecological damage.
Local Indigenous campaigner Mr Artie Wilton said “The Beverley Mine must be stopped, dead stopped. We protest at the treatment of our people being forced into an unfair process of negotiation. We protest because our land is being damaged against our wishes. We protest because Native Title legislation is not helping our country. We protest because the State Government and the Mining Industry refuse to listen to our concerns. We protest because it is our right and our responsibility to look after this country.” One of the peaceful protests he was referencing brutally ended, with an 11 year old girl being pepper sprayed by police.
In 1997-2002 a push by the federal government and mining industry to build the Jabiluka uranium mine in the Northern Territory (also on traditional Mirarr land) was defeated by a determined mass movement. However, the Jabiluka deposit is large and lucrative and the mining industry will continue to exert pressure for mining to commence.
The social cost of mining uranium
Australia holds around 35% of the world’s uranium reserves, yet uranium accounts for far less than 1% of Australia’s export revenue. The industry makes an even smaller contribution to employment in Australia, employing much less than 0.1% of the population.
Ending uranium mining would have no significant negative effect on employment or the economy, but be a huge relief on communities and taxpayers who bear the brunt of the long-lasting, negative consequences created by the nuclear industry.
Australia’s uranium exports have resulted in the production of over 114 tonnes of reactor grade plutonium – enough to build 11,000 nuclear weapons.
Much of Australia’s uranium is sold to nuclear weapons states, some of whom have refused to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, blocked progress on a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, have a history of secret nuclear weapons research, and stockpile plutonium.
Despite government rhetoric, non-proliferation commitments are always subordinated to big business profits. Even South Australian Premier Mike Rann recognises this, stating in 1982 that “Again and again, it has been demonstrated here and overseas that when problems over safeguards prove difficult, commercial considerations will come first.” Rann himself is now a head cheerleader for uranium mining.
One of the greatest lies of the nuclear power industry is the consistent denial of the links between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. The Australian government repeatedly states that plutonium produced in a power reactor cannot be used for weapons. Even Hans Blix, former Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency admits “plutonium of any isotopic composition …[is] capable of use in a nuclear explosive device.”
There remain more than 20,000 nuclear weapons across the globe. The U.S.A and Russia keep around 2,000 nuclear weapons on ‘high-alert status’ ready to be launched in minutes.
In Australia, the government’s $74 billion Future Fund is investing Australian taxpayers’ money in foreign companies that make components for nuclear weapons. The fund has $135.4 million invested in 15 companies involved in the design, production and maintenance of nuclear weapons for the United States, Britain, France and India.
The twelve nuclear bomb tests conducted in Australia continue to have negative effects on populations and the environment. Residual radiation from these explosions remains, contaminating water, plants and animals. Survivors are still fighting for recognition of their diseases.
A solution to climate change?
Arguably the two greatest threats to human existence are climate change and nuclear war. To pose nuclear power as the solution to the former only exacerbates the latter. Fatal risks are posed at every level of the nuclear industry; from uranium mining to nuclear power to atomic weaponry to radioactive waste.
Aside from all the significant dangers associated with nuclear power, it is simply too costly, too slow, and too greenhouse intensive (when the whole production process is taken into account) to play any productive role in the move to a carbon neutral society.
At the same time, real solutions to climate change, in the form of already existing renewable energy technology, make any debate on the potential role of nuclear power irrelevant and disorientating.
The 2006 Switkowski report found that building six nuclear power reactors would reduce Australia’s overall emissions by just 4% if they replaced coal or 2% if they replaced gas. It also established that doubling global nuclear power output by 2050 at the expense of coal would reduce greenhouse emissions by as little as 3.1%. This would require the building of around 850 nuclear reactors with only a tiny reduction in emissions to gain. At the same time, these reactors would create more than 1 million tonnes of nuclear waste.
A much greener, saner and more effective response to climate change is the fast and efficient shift to renewable energy. However, on the basis of capitalism it will remain in competition with the multi-billion dollar coal, gas and nuclear energy industries, and continue to lose out. We can’t wait for renewables to become commercially profitable.
The profit driven system of capitalism cannot ensure a solution to climate change. We have to fight for massive public investment into renewable energy, under the democratic control of workers and the community. Only this approach will ensure decisions are made in the interests of ordinary people and the environment, rather than profit motives of big business, like the nuclear industry.
By Mel Gregson