The Myths of Nuclear Power

Issue section: 

The renowned anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott has written a new book entitled Nuclear Power is Not the Answer. She spoke to Martin Empson about her work.

ME: The British government claims that nuclear power is a "carbon neutral" form of energy generation, and so does not contribute to global warming. Can you explain why, as you argue in your book, this isn't the case?

HC: Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the main gas responsible for global warming. This is released into the environment at each step of the nuclear fuel chain - uranium mining, the milling and crushing process, the construction of the massive concrete reactor, the eventual decommissioning of the reactor after 30 to 40 years of operation, and the storage and transportation of radioactive waste.

Most of the world's uranium is enriched by the US facility at Paducah, Kentucky. Here two 1,000 megawatt coalfired plants are used to generate the necessary electricity, producing large quantities of CO2. Also 93 percent of the US output of CFC-114 - a gas that destroys the ozone layer and is banned under the Montreal protocol - is released from leaky pipes at the Paducah plant. The CFC-114 gas also adds to global warming. It is 10,000 to 20,000 times more potent as a heat trapper than CO2.

Presently a 1,000 megawatt nuclear reactor produces 30 percent of the CO2 produced by a gasfired plant. Within decades, as the quality and concentration of the available uranium ore decline, it is estimated that a nuclear plant will produce the same total quantity of CO2 as a gasfired plant.

A number of environmental campaigners who had previously opposed nuclear power have become pro-nuclear. One of the claims that they have made is that new designs for nuclear power stations make accidents like the 1986 Chernobyl disaster impossible. How seriously should we take these claims about improved safety?

The new designs are, by orders of magnitude, much more dangerous than the existing plants. Furthermore, none of them have yet been built and operated on a commercial scale.

One design is the AP1000 nuclear plant designed by the Westinghouse company. It is considered to be a more economical type of reactor because the construction makes use of less concrete and steel.

Some people call this the "eggshell" reactor. It is more prone to a major accident or meltdown than many of the reactors used today.

A second design being pushed by the nuclear industry is known as the "pebble bed" reactor. This type of reactor continuously circulates millions of tennis ball sized graphite spheres. The nuclear fuel uranium-235 is embedded at 3.5 percent concentration in these spheres.

If for some reason the temperature of the reactor core went over 870 degrees centigrade, the graphite could ignite, releasing large quantities of radioactive material into the environment.

A third kind of reactor that is planned by the ever-enthusiastic nuclear industry is a "fast" reactor which uses plutonium rather than uranium-235 as its fuel. This reactor is cooled by liquid sodium, a highly reactive material, which if exposed to air will either ignite or explode.

If a crack developed in a metal cooling pipe, the reactor could lose its coolant, and the plutonium could reach its "critical mass" and cause a nuclear explosion, scattering tons of deadly plutonium to the four winds.

Plutonium is one of the most carcinogenic materials known. One millionth of a gram, if inhaled, can cause lung cancer. Because plutonium has a half life of 24,400, it remains deadly for millions of years.

These then are the new "safe" reactor designs put forward by the nuclear industry.

You claim that the nuclear industry can only produce power at competitive prices because of massive government subsidies. Why do you think that the US and British governments are so pronuclear?

I think that they are pronuclear for three reasons. First, most politicians are scientifically illiterate and believe what they are told by nuclear scientists and the nuclear industry.

Second, nuclear power is an offshoot of the nuclear weapons industry. It has an enormous legacy of power and support from the upper echelons of government, the military and the military-industrial complex.

Finally, nuclear power was originally conceived in the 1950s to assuage the guilt of nuclear weapons scientists after the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were attacked with atomic bombs. Many of these scientists knew about the enormous dangers of radioactive waste but they became wedded to nuclear power because of their guilt.

Given the threat of global warming, you argue it is urgent that we move away from fossil fuel energy sources such as gas, oil and coal, and use renewable energy instead. Do you think that this can be done in the timescale required?

Yes, the technology for all renewable sources of energy now known is readily available, and is cheaper by orders of magnitude than nuclear power.

This technology could be installed in most dwellings and industries in the world within a few years, depending upon the drive, knowledge and altruism of the politicians who are supposed to represent us.

Every cent or penny spent on the nuclear industry is stolen from the array of renewable energy forms that are now necessary to save our planet from global warming, and nuclear pollution of our air, food and water.

Politicians such as George Bush and Tony Blair are heavily influenced by the nuclear industry and the fossil fuel corporations. It seems unlikely that they will voluntarily switch energy production towards renewables in the way you are describing. Is there a movement capable of forcing them to act?

No, I do not believe that such a powerful movement exists at the grassroots, but this movement will arise if the true facts of the matter are placed before the public through the media. As the US president Thomas Jefferson once said, "An informed democracy will behave in a responsible fashion."

I believe that the media at this critical point in human history is actively determining the fate of the earth and most species that inhabit it.

Many writers concerned about climate change champion individual lifestyle changes, such as switching to electricity suppliers that use renewable sources, or buying a smaller car. Do you think that this is enough?

In my new book I make reference to a study called Synapse. This study shows that 28 percent of the electricity currently consumed by people in the US could be saved simply by conservation.

This is free, easy and terribly important. Turn off the lights, turn off the TVs, computers, and so on, at night, because these machines suck large amounts of electricity from the grid. Buy as small a car as you possibly can, or a hybrid which uses about one third of the amount of petrol of a normal car. Use public transport if you can.

Governments should be actively subsidising solar collectors on roofs of houses, all hot water systems should be converted to solar power, and hybrid cars should become ubiquitous - supported by government subsidies.

Instead of spending money on weapons to kill people, governments should accept the responsibility of saving the earth.

Helen Caldicott will be speaking in London on 24 October, 7pm. The event is jointly hosted by Bookmarks bookshop and CND. Phone Bookmarks, on 020 7637 1848 for information. Nuclear Power is Not the Answer is published by The New Press, £13.99.