2 May 2013, Vol. 11, No. 9
Costs, risks, and myths of nuclear power
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF
During cluster III debates at NPT meetings, most states focus on the “inalienable right” to develop nuclear energy for “peaceful uses”. This right is granted by article IV of the Treaty. But as Austria’s delegation emphasized yesterday, article IV “also entails the option NOT to use nuclear power.” Recognizing that all countries have the right to determine their energy mixes does not mean we cannot talk about the inherent dangers, overwhelming costs, and environmental hazards of nuclear power. In fact, these elements must be discussed to ensure that citizens of all countries understand the facts about their energy options. We should also recognize the irony of including a right to nuclear energy in a treaty designed to prevent the proliferation of and eliminate nuclear weapons.
Nuclear power, Ambassador Kmentt of Austria said, can never be 100% safe. He argued that the long-term effects and responsibilities related to the nuclear fuel cycle prevent nuclear power from contributing to sustainable development or combating climate change. In addition, nuclear power “poses an additional risk in times of natural or human-made crises,” and suffers from a variety of safety, security, and proliferation problems.
The disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power station in Japan clearly demonstrated the risks of relying on nuclear energy. The March 2011 tsunami and earthquake led to explosions, meltdowns, and the release of radioactive materials. Six months after the disaster, WILPF Japan member Kozue Akibayashi wrote about the frustrations of dealing with the disaster’s aftermath. “It is a hard fact to acknowledge,” she explained, “but we now live in a radiation-contaminated country. It is such a heavy truth that the nuclear power plants of our country have emitted and are still releasing radiation into the environment. It continues to pose risks to those living now and generations to come.”
During the cluster III segment, many delegations welcomed the renewed attention to nuclear safety standards in the wake of the Fukushima catastrophe. Efforts to increase safety—and liability—are indeed important. The renewed attention to nuclear safety has also illuminated some of the broader political and economic challenges of nuclear power.
The nuclear power industry’s primary motive for operation is profit. Increasing profit is often best achieved in ways that are not consistent with designing or operating equipment for the lowest risk. Profit is also less likely to be achieved by honestly exploring alternative sources of energy that might necessitate initial investments, or that might not be eligible for the same government (i.e. taxpayer-funded) subsidies as nuclear is in many countries. Indeed, tax-payers shoulder the burden for nuclear energy costs—not just for the construction of reactors but also for insurance, new safety and security measures, and more. And of course, they also end up having to pay for the costs of environmental clean-up and health care after disasters. Meanwhile, investments in nuclear energy tend to prevent investments in designing economically efficient, need-oriented, and environmentally sound sources of energy. Scientists and activists alike have noted that nuclear power, which produces energy “in large, expensive, centralized facilities” is not useful “for solving the energy needs of the vast majority of [the world’s] population, much less so in a way that offers any net environmental gains.”
Aside from economic, environmental, humanitarian, and safety challenges, nuclear energy also poses a challenge for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. The right to nuclear energy was part of the NPT bargain to ensure against proliferation of nuclear weapons. But it is ironic that a treaty designed to prevent the spread of and eliminate nuclear weapons contains a provision that increases proliferation opportunities. China, France, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, United Kingdom, and United States all used nuclear reactors to create the materials for their nuclear weapons. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and India acquired nuclear weapons through so-called “peaceful” civilian nuclear programmes.
Even with the development of “proliferation-resistant” technologies, the risk of vertical and horizontal proliferation remains. The connection between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons also leads to situations of regional and international tensions, threats, and conflict. And, getting back to Ambassador Kmentt’s point, nuclear power is dangerous in and of itself.
“The nuclear crisis we are going through was caused by human errors and was a result of poor policies,” wrote Ms. Akibayashi in 2011. “It is one of the hardest lessons we have learned, and the lesson needs to be shared widely so that [this] crisis will not be repeated.” She asked several questions: What is nuclear safety? How will the safety and the livelihoods of people be ensured with regard to nuclear power? Is ensuring safety possible? “These are not rhetorical questions but real ones,” she emphasized. “We need to have clearer answers to these questions, not in the future, but now.”