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Why the Nuclear Energy Path is Suicidal
by Sailendra Nath Ghosh, India


Published 26 January 2008

Dr Manmohan Singh, our Prime Minister, was at his compromising worst
when he clubbed nuclear energy with the solar as the necessary energy
path. At the Indian Science Congress’ inaugural session on January 3
this year, he declared that the nuclear, the solar and clean coal
technologies, would have important contributions to make to the
country’s energy security. This is a stock phrase, riven by inner
contradictions, taught by the US power elite. It is fraught with
confusion and a potential for misdirection.

Nuclear energy is the poorest yielder in terms of investments and is
also the unsafest. Its every step bristles with radioactive hazards
while the solar and other forms of renewable energy are abundant
producers, non-polluting, free from hazards, and are far cheaper in
costs.

The following are the reasons why the nuclear path must not be trodden at all.

(i) Given a determined political will, all energy needs can be met by
renewable forms of energy plus clean coal-and the emerging hydrogen
production-cum-use technologies-within the next two and a half
decades, by which time natural gas will tend to decline in
availability. Investments in nuclear plants will pre-empt the
resources and starve the renewable energy projects.

(ii) France’s claim about the sustainability of nuclear power
production is wearing thin. No private company in any part of the
world is now willing to construct a nuclear power plant because of
its high cost and prospect of heavy loss. At the cost of the public
exchequer, governments can try to build it up, as France did. But
people’s resistance will make the setting up of this plant extremely
difficult. It is now public knowledge that Electricite de France had
to raise 33,000 million dollars as loans in the international market
and that it has not so far been able to repay anything except the
interest, despite its large income from arms sales.

(iii) It is immoral to build new nuclear power plants when humanity
does not as yet know how to dispose of the accumulated radioactive
wastes of the last few decades, which are becoming grave health
hazards. In certain cases, these wastes have been flowing to the
rivers and seas for years. Some are contaminating groundwater.

(iv) An approach that accepts mega plants in general, and the most
capital-intensive and most complex nuclear power plants in particular
(which are also non-adaptable to "step-up" and "step-down" measures),
is headed for centralist development. It promotes centralisation of
economic and political power and spurs the growth of dictatorial
tendencies, even within the structure of formal democracy. As against
this, reliance on renewable energy sources and clean coal
technologies can open up a vista of durable prosperity and genuine
democracy.

(v) Contrary to popular belief, nuclear power plants’ net output of
electricity is unimpressive. When the total output of power over 30
years of the plant’s life is weighed against the total expenditure of
energy during the different stages of its fuel preparation and
operation and surveillance of the decommissioned plant over thousands
of years thereafter, the net outcome appears small, not worth the
risks involved.

(vi) Even though the quantities of energy embedded in the atom are
massive, as explained by Einstein’s equation, E=mc2 (that is, the
energy content is equal to the mass lost in the fission of heavy atom
multiplied by the square of the speed of light), these are not
suitable for any benign use. On the basis of evidences, we can say
that if these are sought to be harnessed by man, these will only lead
to destruction, including self-destruction of man.

Of the six points listed above, the fist needs substantiation by a
wealth of data which are best left for a separate, full-length
article in a forthcoming issue. Points two and three are
self-explanatory and need no elaboration.

On-Site Integration of Renewable Forms of Energy For Every Home

POINT number four is supported by the premise which most people now
accept (but the state authorities wobble over) that decentralised
development brings out the best and most durable development and
universally shared prosperity.

In the sphere of energy, the agencies of the state give priority to
national electric grid, super-thermal power plants, mega dams etc.
despite their eco-destructive effects. Politicians have a liking for
glamorous mega projects which give them pride and also feed their
party funds. Empirical evidence shows that this approach keeps the
poorer people starved of the types of energy they need. The
alternative approach ought to be: on-site integration of all forms of
energy for energy sufficiency of every home in every village, under
the leadership of the gram sabha. The gram sabha’s attention will
naturally be towards renewable forms of energy-that is, direct solar
energy, wind energy, micro-hydels, biofuels etc. The responsibility
for coastal wind farms can be taken by zila parishads or State
governments. National authorities have to take the responsibility for
promoting all sophisticated technologies including the solar and
exploring the possibilities of harnessing power from the sea tides
and ocean currents.

Manufacture and use of solar cookers, solar collectors and
photovoltaics have not made much headway even though these have been
discussed for decades. Responsibility on, and power to, the people
for their own energy sufficiency will lead to a nationwide animated
campaign to harness the energy sources which have hitherto remained
largely untapped. Village-wise competitive cooperation will bring a
burst of creativity in both manufacture of the required instruments
and generation of energy.

The nuclear energy path blinds us to the need for on-site integration
of all forms of renewable energy.

Heightened Expectations but Poor Gains

NOW to point number five. Generations which have been reared on the
concept that the nuclear energy output is immeasurable will be aghast
at the statement that its outcome is unimpressive. Yet, that is the
finding of experts who undertook to apply the test. About thirty
years back, the present writer, along with Dr P.N. Tiwari, then the
Director of Nuclear Research Laboratory of the Indian Agricultural
Research Institute, and Prof R. Misra, India’s doyen of ecology,
happened to participate in a discussion with Dr Howard Oddum, an
internationally acclaimed energy expert from the University of
Florida. Prof Oddum said that, according to his team’s analysis, the
total expenditure of energy on uranium ore mining, purification,
enrichment, pelletisation, transportation of fuel rods, nuclear plant
operation, spent fuel reprocessing, and storage of wastes in the
yard, consumes three-seventh of the total energy output of 30 years
of the nuclear plant’s life. To this we will have to add the energy
that will need to be spent on surveillance of the decommissioned
plant and its surroundings and safe containment over thousands of
years.

He felt that this could as well consume the remaining four-sevenths of the plant’s
energy output. Of course, no country is providing for surveillance
for more than a couple of hundred years.

When Prof Oddum was saying this, another idea flashed across my mind.
If this is the situation in energy calculation, what about the losses
from the land spaces that will have to be given up for the cemeteries
of serial nuclear plants? There will be numerous cemeteries,
considering that a nuclear plant’s average life span is around 30
years!

Even if we suppose that in Oddum’s analysis, there was some
exaggeration of the amount of energy expenditure and considerable
underestimation of the cumulative output of, say, 45 years (which is
now considered possible as the plant’s life span), the outcome would
still be unimpressive.

In any case, available literature suggests that less than a mere one
per cent of the energy content of the fuel can be used before it has
to be removed from the reactor.

Considering that only one-thousandth part of the ores could be used
as material for the fuel preparation and that less than one per cent
of the energy content of the loaded fuel can be tapped, it must be
considered a very inefficient way of using resources.

Massive Quantities Alright but Not for Man’s Tapping

THIS is not exactly a novel plea. Lord Ernest Rutherford, the great
scientist who had made the basic studies for understanding the
structure of atom, had virtually come to saying this. He passionately
believed that these energies were safely contained in the innermost
part of the atom protected by strong electric repulsion between
positively charged nuclei: hence, those who believed that these could
be put to any practical use were just day-dreamers.

His contemporaries thought that he considered it impossible for man
to get over the barrier. But his objection seems to have been more
fundamental.

Edward Teller narrates an episode. Leo Szilard in the mid-1930s came
to persuade him to give up his opposition to exploiting atom for
energy purposes on the ground that science could some day find a way
to force the positively charged particles to meet each other by
crossing the barrier. Rutherford was so incensed that he threw
Szilard out of his office.

In the mid-1940s, interactive efforts by scientists of different
countries discovered that one building block of these very nuclei,
namely, neutron, could be separated from the nucleus and then made to
hit the nucleus. When a neutron hits the nucleus, more energy is
released than a million chemical reactions could produce. This led to
the making of the atom bomb, the weapon of mss destruction. Szilard
and men of his way of thinking might have rejoiced at this use of the
energy of the atom.

But experiences of the last six decades have proved that Lord
Rutherford would have been hundred per cent right if he had added
only one word, to say that these energies could not be put to any
use, benignly. Philosophically inclined scientists could even now
hail Lord Rutherford as the seer. Just as men came to realise in
recent times that Nature protests against man using the hydrocarbons
(coal and oil) stored underground in her deep vaults-this she does by
emitting pollutants in the atmosphere-scientist-philosophers like
Lord Rutherford could perceive quite early that Nature would protest
with greater vehemence when energies stored under greater protection
in the innermost recesses of atom are sought to be exploited by man.
Nature’s protest here is by way of spreading radioactivity all over
and poisoning the lives of plants and animals.

Since philosophy is no substitute for hard facts, we need to see how
the spread of radioactivity begins from the mining stage and occurs
at every step of the transactions with atom. Uranium, till recently
considered the heaviest element (and its uranium-235 isotope being
the most fissile, and u-238 being fertile), was the first element to
be tried for nuclear power generation.

Danger at the Mining and Milling Stage

URANIUM is usually found in low concentrations. One tonne of ore
usually produces only one kg of uranium, leaving 999 kg. as wastes.
These huge wastes from the ores spread radioactivity through the air
and downstream into the rivers, lakes and ground water. In the mill
(adjoining the mine) where the ores are pulverised, and mixed with
water and chemicals to make a kind of "yellow cakes", the
wastes-called "mill tailings"-present a huge nuclear waste problem.
In quantity, the wastes at the source are the largest; in terms of
routine and accidental radioactive releases, too, these are deadly.
Even though these are rejects, these retain about 85 per cent of
uranium’s radioactivity. Because of these tailings’ long-lived
radioactivity, these get morphed into isotopes of various other
elements-cum-radioactive metals which keep disintegrating. Of these,
thorium, again, disintegrates into radium-226 which breaks further
into radon-222. Thus, various channels for the spread of
radioactivity open up. Radon needs special mention. It being a gas,
drifts far away and gets inhaled into animals’ lungs to cause lung
cancer far and wide. No wonder that in Jadugoda (Jharkhand) and its
neighbouring areas, there is a high incidence of incurable diseases
among men and women of all age groups. Besides, there are high rates
of infertility, miscarriages, stillbirths and deformities of various
types.

Radioactivity Spread at Enrichment Stage

THE next stage is uranium enrichment. Although India has not built
any enrichment plant and does the enrichment on laboratory scale,
pressure may build up for setting up some such plants if several new
nuclear power plants are going to be launched.

It is a highly energy-intensive and expensive process. The uranium
enrichment centre at Oak Ridge consumes the entire output of two
atomic power plants of 1000 MW each. The enrichment process emits
greater radioactivity than the milling process and is harmful to the
populace of a wider area. During this process, a certain percentage
of uranium itself escapes into the atmosphere either as liquid or
gaseous substance. Particles of uranium, mixed with dust solubles,
polychlorinated biphenyles, heavy metals and other pollutants become
lethal on ingestion into human and other animal bodies. The
"enrichment tailings", too, are more radioactive than "milling
tailings" and need to be preserved with greater protective cover.

Peril at Post-enrichment Stage

AT the post-enrichment stage, uranium becomes the source of another
peril. It becomes the coveted object of the forces of terrorism. By
stealing some amounts of enriched uranium (to make bombs), by direct
attack on nuclear power plants, or by attacks on the cooling tanks of
the superheated fuel rods, the terrorists can create havoc. In
today’s condition, this is a distinct possibility. According to a
study by Brookehaven Laboratory, one such attack can cause the death
of 28,000 persons and destruction of 59,000 million dollar worth of
properties.

Then, the spread of reactivity from even a normally operating reactor
(furnace) is considerable. In order to prevent the reactor from
getting overheated, one-third of fuel rods has to be taken out of the
furnace every year and kept immersed in cool water. Since these rods
are extremely hot, the pool becomes the niche of transmuted elements
like Strontium-90, Iodine-131, Caesium-137 and Plutonium-239. These
are all deadly radioactive substances, Plutonium-239 topping all in
radioactivity and toxicity. Plutonium’s half-life is 24,000 years.
Its each milligram that escapes into the atmosphere keeps causing
death for thousands of years.

Dangers from Meltdown

AND if there is a meltdown of the reactor core, then, it means a
universal dissolution-like cataclysm in a large part of the world.
Despite many attempts at underestimating the Chernobyl (in Ukraine)
casualties, a report published in April 2006 by the World Information
Service on Energy revealed that it resulted in the death of 93,000
persons. The Vice-President of Ukraine’s National Commission for
Radioactive Protection has revealed that five lakh people have been
victims of radioactivity in his country alone. Among those who
participated in the clean-up operation, as many as 34,499 persons
died, and thyroid cancer and leukemia have become endemic. And the
rate of infant mortality went up to 30 per cent (from 20 per cent).
Reports from many countries of Europe revealed that their butter,
foods and fodder became contaminated.

The casualty figures from the USA’s Three-Mile Island meltdown remain
suppressed. Despite greater fortifications following these meltdowns,
it can be said that there can be no fail-safe arrangements against
human errors and/or technical faults. Accidents will happen if
nuclear power plants continue to be constructed. The horrors of
accidents in Breeder Reactors cannot even be imagined. The UK and the
USA and Japan abandoned their Breeder Reactors earlier. France, too,
has closed them. In the USA, there is now no commercial unit for
reprocessing of the spent fuel. The Department of Energy Studies,
Jadavpur University has information that a nuclear power plant in the
USA, built at the cost of 12 billion dollars, has been sold out for
just one dollar. Since 1978, there has been no order in the USA for
any new nuclear power plant. Even though the Bush Administration is
now trying to revive the order on the plea that it does not emit
greenhouse gases, no non-government company will undertake it nor
will people allow it. The journal, Forbes, says that the US
industries incurred a loss of 145,000 million dollars by their
nuclear plant ventures.

Conclusion

DESPITE all these evidences, there are people in our country who
continue to argue that with greater progress in technology, nuclear
power plants may one day be safe and that to bar them will be against
progress. They need to examine themselves what their stance will be
if a nuclear plant is going to be sited in their area. To the
lobbyists for nuclear power, we can just offer Lord Rutherford’s
implied version: the massive energies stored in the atom can be used
only to cause destruction. Nature designed it to maintain the earth’s
background radiation. By trying to exploit the minute atom in a mega
way, mankind can only destroy itself.

Sailendra Nath Ghosh

o o o o

South Asians Against Nukes,
January 28, 2008

Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 6, 26 January 2008


The author, who in the fifties was the Secretary of the Economic Unit
attached to the Central Committee of the undivided Communist Party of
India, is one of the country’s earliest environmentalists and a
social philosopher.


SOUTH ASIANS AGAINST NUKES (SAAN):
An informal information platform for activists and scholars concerned
about the dangers of Nuclearisation in South Asia


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