Goodbye to nuclear energy

Goodbye to nuclear energy

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By Paco Puche

Climate change and the end of cheap oil had come in handy for supporters of the nuclear power option. This article shows that it is not clean, it does emit CO2, it is immeasurably expensive, dangerous and militaristic, and it involves very high risks to health and the environment.

Of course, humanity is at the most fateful crossroads in its history - Georgescu-Roegen, 1977

Even if the country succeeds in controlling the plant, the public will be emotionally wary of nuclear power forever - Kosuke Takahashi, 2011 (Tokyo-based journalist)

Climate change and the end of cheap oil had come in handy for supporters of the nuclear power option. A new era of nuclear renaissance was already heralding.

But Fukushima has come to spoil the party for the pronuclear.

If comparative CO2 emissions and costs are debated on paper, security is manifested in facts that cannot be discussed.

That the costs are not lower, in the case of the nuclear kilowatt with respect to solar or wind, is shown by the fact that in the US, for example, since 1973 no license had been requested to build a new nuclear power plant until not long ago. . In the Europe of 25 there are now 17 fewer plants than in 1990, and worldwide only 23 more (5% increase in twelve years)

That CO2 emissions are higher than those defended by pronuclear cells, is evidenced by taking into account the entire life cycle of a plant: from cradle to cradle.

The life cycle of nuclear energy and its waste

The nuclear energy that is used to produce electricity, what it does is heat water to high temperatures that, converted into steam, drives a turbine, which generates electricity in an alternator. Fuel is a substance called uranium, which is found in certain rocks, and which has the property of easily disintegrating, emitting a lot of energy, which is what heats water.

From natural uranium to the uranium rods of the nuclear reactor, a series of steps have to be taken that are described in the following graph:

The order of magnitude of everything that moves in uranium mining is well reflected in the following figures: 156 tons of rock, contribute a ton of uranium ore from which a kilo of uranium is obtained; and of that kilo only 0.7% is U235, which is what is needed in the power plants: that is, for 7 grams of U235 you have to remove a thousand kilos of mineral and 156 tons of rocks!

All these steps and the tasks of installing the power plants, dismantling them at the end of their useful life, storing the parts that remain with radioactivity and all the waste result in a lot of consumption of fossil fuels and the emission of greenhouse gases. This makes many authors argue, with proven solvency, that taking into account the entire life cycle of the power plants - and if the minerals are low in metal content - nuclear power plants produce more greenhouse gases than a combined cycle power plant (one). Nuclear energy is not the solution to curb climate change as its defenders argue.

Likewise, the investment in a nuclear power plant is more than € 2000 per kW of capacity and for wind power it is only € 900 / kW. The nuclear industry is, financially speaking, a real ruin that can only be sustained by subsidies and favorable laws (long duration, few responsibilities in case of accident, military use, etc.)

If we take into account that a reactor of one thousand megawatts (which is the average size) produces about 33 tons of waste per year, which emits radioactivity that can last from a few seconds to thousands of years, the storage and care of them increases enormously the costs of this energy, so they cannot be taken into account when comparing them with that of other sources. How much is a person's salary worth for hundreds of thousands of years? Still, without counting these costs, you need other grants and privileges. Nuclear power is immeasurably expensive.

From civil to military use there is only one step

A nuclear power plant with a thousand MW of power produces as a waste between 200 and 300 kg of plutonium each year, and if it has reprocessing capacity, between 20 and 30 atomic bombs can be obtained. Calculating around the world, in 2006, some 230 tonnes of civilian plutonium reserves, we account for twice the content of the 30,000 existing nuclear warheads. When it is said that nuclear energy is linked to military uses, these figures give a good account of it. And its clean character is called into question.

We have seen that for every kilo of natural uranium that is extracted from the mines, only 0.7% of U235 is obtained, which is needed by reactors as fuel. What happens with the remaining 99.3%? What is a different class of uranium with a higher atomic weight, the isotope U238

This U238 is the one that is transformed into plutonium from which atomic bombs are obtained. U238 emits highly energetic alpha particles that can cause serious health problems when they enter our body and as it has a half-life of about 4.5 billion years (in that time it is reduced to half its mass), it is a source of Eternal radiations.

These large quantities of U238, apart from producing plutonium, are used in other military uses: to make antitank howitzers that have great penetrability and are highly flammable, as is now done in Libya where bombs with “depleted” uranium warheads are dropped, which is how this type of uranium isotope is commonly called.

U235, that of reactors, has a half-life of 713 million years. Another eternal source of pollution.

Like any other mineral contained in the earth's crust, it has a limited stock, which is estimated to take less than 50 years at the current rate of extraction. If we take into account that it only represents 2% of all the world's primary energy, it is an impossible alternative to the oil and gas shortage that lies ahead.

Risks of nuclear power plants for health and the environment

Living beings have coevolved with a natural background radiation from the cosmos and the formation of the Earth. As time has passed, the radioactivity of the planet has decreased due to the physical laws of radioactive decay. Thus bacteria are much less radiosensitive than mammals, for example.

But since 1942, the increasing industrial, military, scientific and medical use of atomic energy is strongly increasing the level of exposure suffered by human populations to radiation and this contamination increasingly affects public health. "There is remarkable scientific evidence of the multiple risks to health and the environment associated with the hundreds of nuclear accidents and incidents that occurred over more than fifty years that have caused thousands of victims and affected people" (2)

Exposure to radiation can be external or internal. In the first case, the source is outside the body, in the second it has been ingested or inhaled and operates as long as it remains inside, depending on its biological half-life. Thus, plutonium 239 has a half-life in the lung of 300 days, in the lymph nodes of 1,500 and 82 years in the liver (half-life is the time that half of the radionuclide is eliminated). The good news is that more than 95% of the uranium that enters the body is eliminated (3). The bad news is that it accumulates in the body and acts in a similar way to calcium, depositing itself in the bones and producing internal radiation that can lead to pathological and even lethal consequences.

These characteristics of radiation: to spread widely in space and time, to be cumulative, to spread through food chains and water and to cause serious health problems (various cancers, mutations, teratogenesis, formation of free radicals, etc.), make them especially dangerous for living beings, which also have no easy means of detecting their presence, nor a way to preserve themselves other than by moving away from the source of emission, which cannot be the case if they have it incorporated.

The Future of an Illusion

From the energy promised in the 1950s, which would not even need a meter because of its abundance, we have passed to an energy that is immeasurably expensive, dangerous and militaristic. When it comes to nuclear power, everything is huge, including the fear it raises.

As for the safety of the power plants, the same thing has happened as with the myth of abundance, that there are continual unforeseen situations that give rise to accidents, which affect millions of people, for tens of years. Another incredible myth.

If before Fukushima, only 12% of Europeans were in favor of this kind of energy, from now on "the public will be wary of nuclear energy forever."

The question that must be asked now is how long it will take to dismantle the 450 nuclear power stations that are scattered in 31 countries, before it is too late.

The coming fight will be to shorten the life of the still existing plants.

The military denuclearization will be more complicated, as foreseen in the Treaty on the Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, of June 12, 1968, of the UN General Assembly, which in its article VI established that "each Party to the Treaty undertakes to celebrate negotiations in good faith on effective measures regarding the cessation of the near-date nuclear arms race and nuclear disarmament and on a general and complete disarmament treaty under strict international control ”. For that we have to return to the path of radical pacifism.

Paco puche - Librero and Ecologist - Spain - April 2011


(1) Rodríguez Farré, E. and López Arnal, S. (2008), Almost everything you want to know about the effects of nuclear energy on health and the environment, El Viejo Topo, p. 135

(2) Ibidem, p. 248

(3) Cirera, A., Benach, J., and Rodríguez Farré, E. (2007), ¿Atoms of trust? Impact of nuclear energy on health and the environment, Los Libros de la Catarata, p.47

Video: Goodbye to Nuclear Power Plants Rally (June 2022).


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