The resurgence of nuclear power?
We haven't heard an awful lot about nuclear power lately. Does that mean it's a technology whose time has come and gone? Not likely. There remains the possibility that nuclear power could make a comeback through the backdoor, courtesy of the so-called 'joint implementation' mechanism of the Kyoto climate protocol. Joint implementation is intended to allow developed countries to offset obligatory cuts in emissions by promoting the use of nuclear power in former Soviet and Eastern European countries.
However, one positive outcome of the failed climate talks in The Hague last year was, according to journalist Oliver Tickell writing in The Independent, 'that nuclear power was dealt a firm (if not decisive) "no" and is now unlikely to qualify' as an emissions reduction policy under the Kyoto Protocol. That remains to be seen, given that the nuclear industry has considerable lobbying resources.
Indeed, other than the industry itself, there are those who stubbornly claim that the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions is justification for continuing - or even expanding - the super-costly nuclear industry. Ian Fells, Professor of Energy Conversion at Newcastle University, is one notable example from academia: 'I regard [Prime Minister] Blair's target of a 20 per cent cut [in greenhouse gas emissions] by 2010 as really heroic. It will not be achieved without nuclear power.' The nuclear industry believes that 'climate change is the best friend we have had in the past 40 years'.
However, even using conventional economic analyses that ignore environmental and social costs, nuclear power generation is uneconomic. It is therefore not surprising that in 1997, British Energy, a privatised company operating Britain's 7 advanced gas-cooled reactors and the pressurised-water reactor at Sizewell B in Suffolk, was railroaded by the stock market into stating it would build no more nuclear plants. By 2020, if current UK government policy is maintained, there will be just a handful of nuclear reactors - though still a handful too many - operating in Britain. Despite a past of massive state subsidy, guaranteed markets, debt write-off and insurance cover, Britain's nuclear industry is slowly dying, and rightfully so.
In the US, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) has been responsible for spending vast sums of taxpayers' money on nuclear power. According to environmentalist Steven Gorelick, government funds were used to commission the first full-scale nuclear reactor because the AEC did not believe that private industry would make the necessary huge investment in nuclear power research. Afterwards, in order to 'further spur private industry's participation in nuclear power development', the government provided funding and other assistance, but industry designed, constructed and owned the reactors. Gorelick reports that, 'US government aid to the nuclear industry has continued unabated, with almost $1 billion budgeted for nuclear power research and development in 1992, and with additional expenditures hidden in military budgets every year'.
In 1976, the UK Royal Commission Report on Nuclear Power and the Environment stated that 'it would be irresponsible and morally wrong to commit future generations to the consequences of fission power on a massive scale unless it has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that at least one method exists for the safe isolation of these wastes for the indefinite future'. A quarter of a century later, the failure to find 'safe' methods of disposing of radioactive waste should mean that the nuclear industry is shut down and that 'existing nuclear waste must be stored above ground where [it] can be managed, monitored and retrieved if necessary, rather than dumped where environmental contamination is inevitable'.
Towards the end of 1999, it was revealed that personnel at a demonstration facility run by British Nuclear Fuels Limited in Sellafield, Cumbria, had falsified safety data relating to fuel pellets of mixed plutonium and uranium oxide (MOX). Some of the pellets had already been shipped to Japan to be used in its nuclear power programme. The Japanese government was horrified and called a halt to further imports of the reprocessed fuel. British ministers were embarrassed and apologised profusely to the Japanese, while claiming that safety had not been breached.
Then, in February 2000, the UK government's own Nuclear Installations Inspectorate released three damning reports. These covered the poor management and lack of effective inspection at Sellafield, problems surrounding the storage of high level radioactive waste on the site and BNFL's falsification of safety data for the MOX fuel sent to Japan. Tampering with safety records appeared to have been going on since 1996. Pete Roche, a Greenpeace nuclear campaigner said: 'These reports are a shocking expose of Sellafield's plutonium business. This is a company that is dealing with one of the most hazardous materials known to mankind and they have been shown to be guilty of lax management and falsifying records.'
The German nuclear company PruessenElektra, the country's second largest electricity generator, responded to the crisis by switching off its nuclear reactor and removing fuel rods which it had obtained from the Sellafield plant. At the end of February, 2000, BNFL's chief executive resigned. In March, the German environment minister, Juergen Trittin, said that Germany would ban imports of plutonium fuel (MOX) from Britain until it was satisfied with Sellafield's safety standards as 'a good first step to ending Britain's plutonium trade for good.' Meanwhile, Switzerland announced that it wished to end the reprocessing of its nuclear fuel at Sellafield. Calls increased for the facility to be shut down or to be limited to, as Friends of the Earth put it, 'cleaning-up and managing the nuclear legacy, both in the UK and around the world.'
At the end of last year, BNFL's responses to government recommendations following the scandalous falsification of safety records at Sellafield were accepted by the Health and Safety Executive's Nuclear Installations Inspectorate. BNFL's chief executive, Norman Askew, responded: 'This is excellent news for the company', adding that it opened the way to the eventual commissioning of a fully operational MOX plant at Sellafield. Environment Minister Michael Meacher is currently considering the future of the plant.
However, in the latest twist, the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate reported in February 2001 that, in fact, BNFL had so far failed to fully implement 25 of the 28 Sellafield site safety recommendations the NII made last year. Full completion would take until the end of 2002. "When it comes to safety and the environment, Sellafield is a disaster zone," said Greenpeace spokesperson, Dr Helen Wallace, "Dangerous near-misses and dodgy practices continue unabated."
Nuclear power, like major fossil fuel use, forms no part of a sustainable energy portfolio. The difficulty, as with so many other issues directly affected by economic globalisation, is the corporate-led drive for expansion, which requires more energy, more resources, more customers. The concern of big business, aided by governments keen for investment, is to achieve 'sustained growth', where 'market liberalisation drives technology, competition and efficiency' in an 'uncertain world of global markets'.
Large corporations are desperate to keep a tight control on technological developments in order to protect profit margins. According to Dr John Mills, Director of Corporate Affairs of Shell UK: 'To reduce risk, it is essential that Shell Š is present in every major market and in every major energy technology Š We believe [that] this approach could provide opportunities for smaller firms who enter into relationships with us. We will be looking for ways of establishing links that help us keep an eye on developments and allow us to invest at the appropriate stage.'
Being 'present in every major market' for a large corporation like Shell means keeping a watchful eye out for technological breakthrough wherever it may occur - inside or outside its own sphere of operations - and then stepping in to influence, or even take control of, its future direction by snapping up the company. If citizens around the world continue to acquiesce in this process, whereby corporations and governments centralise power unto themselves, then the means of energy generation - together with the other forces of globalisation - will continue to harm local people and environments around the planet.
David Cromwell is a scientist and writer based in Southampton. His first book, 'Private Planet' will be published in the UK later this year.