10 May 2012, No. 8
Editorial: The only peaceful use is no use
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF
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Wednesday’s plenary focused on the so-called “peaceful uses” of nuclear energy. Most delegations espoused the alleged virtues of nuclear power, arguing that it is necessary for combating climate change, meeting rising energy demands, and even achieving the Millennium Development Goals. A surprisingly few number of delegations referenced the disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station, even though it occurred only a little over a year ago. Most states called for increased safety, security, and non-proliferation measures around nuclear power programmes, but only a few delegations highlighted the risks of the nuclear fuel cycle and nuclear power generation.
Some delegations were dismissive of increasing concerns over nuclear safety. The US delegation acknowledged that Fukushima “affected public perceptions of the safety of nuclear power,” but argued that “the basic factors that led to an increased interest in nuclear power before that incident have not changed.” Likewise, the Japanese delegation said that the disaster at Fukushima “has dealt a serious blow to the Japanese perception regarding nuclear safety,” but reassured the room that the government of Japan “is determined to raise the safety standards of its nuclear power facilities to the highest level worldwide, and is reinforcing its nuclear safety regulations in a fundamental manner.”
However, as the delegation of Austria argued, “nuclear power can never be 100% safe.” In a civil society study on the implications of the Fukushima disaster published by Reaching Critical Will in September 2011, Costs, risks, and myths of nuclear power, M.V. Ramana of the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University argues that the key question about nuclear power “is not whether it can be safe, but whether it will be safe—across countries, across many facilities operated by a variety of organizations with multiple priorities, including cost-cutting and profit-making, and using multiple technologies, each with this own vulnerabilities.” He concludes that the answer is negative and that “catastrophic accidents are inevitable with nuclear power.”
Even many countries that acknowledged the safety risks of nuclear power argued that it is a necessary response to climate change and to facilitate development. However, as the delegation of Austria argued, “given the long-term effects and responsibilities connected to the nuclear fuel cycle, nuclear power does not contribute to sustainable development. Indeed, it poses an additional risk in times of natural or man [sic]-made crises. And finally, given the combination of safety, security and proliferation concerns, nuclear power is not a viable avenue to confront other global challenges such as climate change.”
Jürgen Scheffran, head of the research group on climate change and security at the KlimaCampus of Hamburg University argues in Costs, risks, myths of nuclear power that nuclear energy is not carbon-free if the whole lifecycle of electricity production is taken into consideration; and that nuclear energy cannot replace in a reasonable timeframe the large amounts of fossil fuel currently consumed. He argues, “Even a drastic increase in nuclear energy could not compensate for the current growth in energy consumption; it would come too late for preventing climate change and lead to an enormous increase in plutonium stocks.”
Countries truly seeking to invest in the prevention of climate change, argue energy experts Antony Froggatt and Mycle Schneider in Costs, risks, and myths, should spend their money on the options “that provide the largest emission reductions the fastest. Nuclear power is not only one of the most expensive but also the slowest option.”
This has been increasingly recognized, with several governments such as Germany and Switzerland announcing phase-outs of nuclear power in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster. In May 2011, Austria, Greece, Ireland, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, and Portugal issued a declaration arguing that nuclear power is not compatible with the concept of sustainable development and called for energy conservation and a switch to renewable sources of energy worldwide. A few additional countries reiterated during the cluster three segment their decision not to use nuclear energy for power generation, including New Zealand and Norway.
None of these countries dispute the right to nuclear energy enshrined in the NPT but instead emphasize that choosing to NOT develop nuclear power programmes is one way to exercise this right. While the “right” to nuclear energy is part of the core bargain of the NPT, however, it is actually at odds with the other objectives of the Treaty. A treaty aimed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons should have prohibited the research of nuclear weapon technology, outlawed the production and stockpiling of enriched uranium, and established a programme for the phase-out, rather than promotion, of nuclear power. Indeed, the proliferation risks of nuclear power are high. China, France, Israel, India, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom built their nuclear weapons programmes on an infrastructure developed supposedly for nuclear energy.
The authors of Costs, risks, and myths argue that nuclear power “is the most expensive and dangerous way to boil water to turn a turbine. Nuclear power contains the inherent potential for catastrophe. There is no such thing as a safe nuclear reactor. All aspects of the nuclear fuel chain, from mining uranium ore to dropping an atomic bomb to storing radioactive waste, are devastating for the earth and all species living upon it.” As Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami argued in June 2011, “Nuclear power plants, which were supposed to be efficient, instead offer of us a vision of hell.”