Monday, 4 April 2011

Paying the earth with nuclear power

The news of the explosions and leakages of radiation from nuclear plants in Japan has caused growing concern around the world. The devastation caused by the earthquake and Tsunami was bad enough without the whole thing being compounded by a man made disaster in the form of nuclear fallout. The leak of radiation offered once again a glimpse of how deadly dangerous the products of the nuclear industry are, no matter what justifications are made for their use. The events in Japan reminded me of a meeting some 15 years ago with a campaign group called the Stop Thorp Alliance Dundalk. At the meeting in Dundalk on St Patricks Day I heard about the devastation being caused in the Irish Sea by emissions from Sellafield in England. There were the stories of deformed fish being caught and Dundalk having five times the still birth rate of any other town in the EU. The protesters were taking a case against the Irish Government for not protecting their citizens from dangers posed by the plant. They were also pursuing the plant owners British Nuclear Fuels. Later, agreement was reached that emissions into the sea by the plant would be reduced. The Irish Government took up the call in 2001 for Sellafield to be shut down. It did not succeed in this aim but the clear anti-nuclear feeling among the Irish public was being reflected by the actions of the government. The nuclear industry has always been a precarious one. It has spent inordinate amounts of money on public relations in order to portray the industry as safe and efficient. The need for the PR offensive arose due to a growing lack of trust in the industry, due to accidents at home and abroad. At home, Windscale, which had a major fire in 1957, was renamed as Sellafield. The image though of nuclear power took its biggest hits from tragedies overseas, most notably Three Mile Island (1979) in the US and Chernobyl (1986). The effect of Three Mile Island was to see a real decline in the building of nuclear reactors in the US. Chernobyl represented the worst nuclear accident thus far, causing many countries to think again on the advisability of nuclear power. There is still a 35 kilometre uninhabited zone around the area to this day. After these accidents the nuclear industry was in decline, yet somewhat ironically it was the threat of global warming that revived the technology in the eyes of governments. Having been discredited as too dangerous and expensive to use as an energy source, nuclear came back when governments were looking for technologies that did not produce excessive carbon emissions. So it was that nuclear energy was reborn. The industry has also ofcourse always been umbilicaly linked with the military use of nuclear technology, namely in the bomb. As the Cold War thawed so the threat of destruction caused by nuclear war seemed to decline, though many argue today with more countries now members of the nuclear club – including India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel – that the world is a more dangerous place than when the US and USSR stood toe to toe. It is ironic that nuclear technology should have suddenly managed to reinvent itself in the form of a carbon free energy source as a way to save rather than destroy the world. Successive British governments have certainly been quick to argue for escalation, committing to a new generation of nuclear power stations as part of an overall strategy to cut carbon emissions. Ireland has not been so foolhardy, having seen from their side of the Irish Sea just how dangerous the technology can be. Dublin based environmental writer Father Sean McDonagh has argued against the use of nuclear power on green grounds. He questions whether nuclear energy really is a green alternative to fossil fuels. “Whilst it is true that very little fossil fuel is used to produce electricity in nuclear plants, an enormous quantity is needed at almost every phase of the nuclear process which begins with uranium mining,” says Father McDonagh. “Nuclear waste is carcinogenic and toxic and fossil fuels will be needed to transport and store nuclear waste for umpteen generations. At the end of their 30 or 40 years life-span, vast amounts of fossil fuel will be needed to decommission nuclear plants.” Britain and Ireland are surrounded by wind and seas, the reservoir for renewable technologies is immense, so why any government in these islands should be looking to nuclear options seems a total mystery. “If the money and research which has been poured into nuclear energy for the past 60 years was diverted to renewable forms of energy the human community would not be dependent on this dangerous technology,” said Father McDonagh, who speaks from experience having been part of a campaign in the Philippines in the mid 1980s to stop President Marcos building a nuclear plant on a fault line surrounded by four volcanoes. The campaign was successful which was fortunate given that one of the volcanoes Pinatubo erupted with devastating effects in 1992. The lessons to be drawn from the Japanese nuclear disaster are that this technology does not represent the answer to global warming. The potential damage of a nuclear accident of the type seen in Japan, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island far outweigh any benefit there may be in reducing carbon emissions. The residue of nuclear power will already be with us for centuries to come. The challenge for today is not only to rid the world of nuclear weapons but also decommission all nuclear technologies - the risks are too much for the earth to stand

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