Nuclear Power: A Toxic Waste Future, No Greenhouse Solution

Canberra Times p19 24 November 2005

By Tilman Ruff

OVER the past year there has been a rising chorus calling for expansion of nuclear power, including in Australia, as a supposed solution to climate change; and for dramatic scaling up of uranium mining in Australia. These moves are gravely misguided and concerning. Decisions and actions in relation to nuclear matters have lasting consequences for the entire world.

Some making these calls are motivated by concern about global warming, unquestionably a major threat to the wellbeing of humanity and the biosphere. Some seem to have lurched with bewildering speed from denial of the scale, importance and in some cases even the existence of the problem; to equally self-serving panic.

Others are mesmerised by short-term dollars. For the nuclear industry, there is naked self-interest and a degree of desperation that global warming might provide a last reprieve for a failed technology, which has survived thus far only with massive state subsidies.

However, the solutions we urgently need to the growing crisis of global warming will not be found in a technology which results in the enormous problems of nuclear accidents, potential attacks on nuclear facilities, radiological or "dirty" bombs, radioactive waste, and nuclear weapons proliferation; feeding the continuing threat of nuclear annihilation. As if that weren't enough, nuclear power cannot provide a sustainable solution to climate change.

Australia has about 40 per cent of the world's known recoverable deposits of uranium. No absolute guarantees are possible that exported Australian uranium will not be used in the development of nuclear weapons. Nuclear accounting can, in any case, only be virtual. At the very least, exporting Australian uranium could free up other supplies for use in weapons programs.

The problem of nuclear waste is intractable; a burden irresponsibly imposed on countless future generations. Not a single nation has in place a satisfactory plan to deal with the tens of tonnes of high-level radioactive waste produced by each nuclear power plant every year, or the larger quantities of low- and intermediate-level waste. No safeguards can reliably deal with radioactive wastes over their lifetimes of up to hundreds of thousands of years, well beyond the longevity of any human institution.

Security of nuclear facilities, weapons and fissile materials has been shown to be inadequate, especially in Russia, with multiple interceptions of smuggled nuclear materials, some involving material sufficient for a nuclear weapon.

Serious accidents continue to occur at nuclear facilities -- the most recent a massive 83,000-litre leak of highly radioactive dissolved spent nuclear fuel at the Sellafield reprocessing plant in Britain over an eight-month period up till April this year.

Yet even if it were safe, nuclear power cannot do the necessary job of slashing greenhouse gas emissions. It requires substantial fossil fuel inputs, would take decades to massively expand, and could never contribute more than the one third of human energy use which is in the form of electricity. What is more, it is not sustainable. Like fossil fuels, uranium is a non-renewable resource. Doubling global nuclear energy production by 2050 could be expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by just 5 per cent -- less than one 12th of the minimum reduction required to stabilise climate. According to World Nuclear Association data updated in March 2005, if all current electricity generation were nuclear, known recoverable uranium reserves would be exhausted in about nine years. At best nuclear power could provide only a stop-gap measure, while leaving a lasting legacy of unacceptable risk.

Jumping out of the climate change frying pan into the fire of increased nuclear danger is swapping one set of serious problems for another, while setting back and making more difficult the work of getting on with real solutions to climate change.

Australia could lead the world in developing, implementing and marketing energy efficient and sustainable energy technologies and processes. We are in a very privileged position in terms of wealth, technical and industrial capacity, and benign, renewable energy resources - including solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, hydro and tidal. To neglect these opportunities by investing in a dangerous, failed technology demonstrates a tragic lack of leadership and vision.

The Federal Government, all political parties and all Australians should reject any role for nuclear power in Australia, phase out uranium mining, and develop and implement the sustainable solutions by:

Improving energy efficiency.

Managing energy demand.

Massively investing in benign, renewable energy technologies.

We owe ourselves and future generations nothing less.

Tilman Ruff is president of the Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia)

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