Is the balance of energy policy right?

David Thorpe
News Editor at EAEM
http://www.eaem.co.uk/

Post date: Tuesday, 12th April 2011

As the level of the Fukushima accident is raised to the most severe (the "experts" said this would not happen at the start of the crisis), the truth has begun to emerge about the radiation danger and awful treatment of workers at the nuclear plant in this excellent investigative piece in the New York Times.

Take this for example: "Current and former workers said, radiation levels would be so high that workers would take turns approaching a valve just to open it, turning it for a few seconds before a supervisor with a stopwatch ordered the job to be handed off to the next person. Similar work would be required at the Fukushima Daiichi plant now, where the three reactors in operation at the time of the earthquake shut down automatically, workers say."

The recent spat between George Monbiot and Helen Caldicott about the dangers of radiation is at a relatively trivial level.Monbiot is essentially arguing that nuclear power is safer than coal. But just because nuclear power has yielded fewer deaths than coal it does not necessarily follow that we should support nuclear.

If we burned live human bodies in incinerators as a biomass fuel - for the sake of argument - we could claim that coal was safer than this. It wouldn't entitle us to say that we should burn coal for power if there are safer alternatives!

The real question is: if a Fukushima or Chernobyl incident - however awful - is a local one, compared to global warming, which is by definition global in its effects, does this justify using nuclear power?

In other words is it right to accept a smaller harm to stave off a larger one?

The reason why this seems difficult to evaluate is the relative maturity of other, renewable, technologies, and the mental roadblock the political majority seems to accept over the true potential of energy efficiency.

Here at Energy and Environmental Management we regularly describe examples of these, and best practice case studies; there are many more.

At a climate change networking event last night I talked to Peter Davies, head of the Climate Change Commission for Wales. He pointed out that in 1992 the first wind farms appeared on Welsh hills. Now, 20 years later, the Chinese are churning out hundreds of turbines a week, ten times their size.

It's taken 20 years for the technology to reach mass, mainstream application. If there had been a real sense (wartime) of urgency, this time could have been halved.

Marine current turbines and other marine technologies, anaerobic digestion, short-rotation coppice biomass, algal biofuel production, dye-sensitised PV, solar thermal electric plants, mass rollout of energy efficient cars and products, hydrogen storage, phase change materials, smart meters and the smart grid, eco-retrofitting buildings, solar water heating, heat pumps, offshore wind and so on - the list is developing all the time - collectively can produce/save all the energy we need. Several studies have illustrated the appropriate scenarios.

Currently, official thinking says this can't happen till around 2060 - too late to save us from a minimum three degree rise without nuclear power and carbon capture and storage.

My belief - and I am far from being alone - is that both the new generation of nuclear power stations and CCS are currently technically and economically unproven at a mass scale - they're about at the same level of development as solar thermal electric plants and marine current turbines respectively.

If the R&D money that is/would be going into these technologies instead were to be channelled into the safer renewable technologies and into energy efficiency, we could accelerate development and bring forward the 2060 date by 20 years.

This world would be far safer - no oil and gas disasters, no coal and uranium mines, no more Fukushimas - and create far more employment, not to mention it could begin to reduce atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.

Germany, Europe's most successful economy, has just announced it may do just this.

A draft plan by the environment and economy ministries sent to Dow Jones Newswires today, says that it may abandon nuclear power and boost renewables, beginning with a €5 billion programme to increase offshore wind power that will be launched this spring, financed by the KfW state development bank.

"After the catastrophe in Japan, we will ... accelerate the fundamental conversion of our energy supply," says the draft.

If Germany can do this, to the economic and environmental benefit of its neighbours as well as itself, it falls to every other nation on earth to give very good reasons why they should not follow suit.

5

IF you only knew how governments and industries manage to hide the effects of "normal" releases of radioactivity! And its not just radioativity, they also have ways with hiding other toxic materials, from putting it into your food to dumping it into the waters and air. All nuclear facilties release some radioactivity as part of their normal operations, and it increases as the nuclear “ power” plants age. Nine Mile Point, Indian Point to name a few NY reactors. They release radioactivity in the direction that would be considered upwind of the plant whenever possible by holding some back til the wind is favorable. This allows the stats to show that illness, particularly cancers, , death and infant mortality, mobidity, and retardation are not significantly greater downwind of the plant than upwind! Fukushima background contamination will set the next standard for backgorund radiation for the world until the next hit. The first background average that was used as a standard for "normal background" was after Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and after all the nuclear tests in the fifties! Currently the "normal" background includes the remains from Chernobyl accident and the many releases from US and Russian military projects. Add to it other countries bomb testing and nuclear releases and you get the picture.
I wonder what is stopping them from just burying it Chernobyl-style at this point? Do they think there is too much fuel there and that it will eventually heat up too much and burst through the tomb? It just doesn't seem like there is anything there worth saving at this time, so why do they keep trying these half-measures (dropping water from helicopters, water cannons, etc.)? Is it pride? Trying to save face? They don't want to admit that this is just another Chernobyl? I hope they aren't putting the lives of the workers at stake for monetary or superficial reasons.
The amount of fuel may dwarf Chernobyl, but what, really, is its potential to cause harm? That is the question ... Any commercial reactor probably has enough fuel to potentially kill everyone on the planet -- if the fuel were distributed widely enough. Just as a common kitchen knife could slit 10 000 throats; the potential is there, but what is the chance of this actually happening? The important question to ask right now is: If the risk of widespread contamination is so low, why are such extraordinary measures being taken to cool the reactor cores and spent fuel pools? Are worker's lives being risked for nothing (or just economics)? Or is the risk actually great enough to justify such heroics?
That means that Fukushima has nearly 10 times more nuclear fuel than Chernobyl. It also means that a single spent fuel pool - at reactor 4, which has lost all of its water and thus faces a release of its radioactive material - has 75% as much nuclear fuel as at all of Chernobyl. However, the real numbers are even worse. Specifically, Tepco very recently transferred many more radioactive spent fuel rods into the storage pools. According to Associated Press, there were - at the time of the earthquake and tsunami - 3,400 tons of fuel in seven spent fuel pools plus 877 tons of active fuel in the cores of the reactors. That totals 4,277 tons of nuclear fuel at Fukushima. Which means that there is almost 24 times more nuclear fuel at Fukushima than Chernobyl.
The Daiichi complex in Fukushima, Japan ... had a total of 1760 metric tons of fresh and used nuclear fuel on site last year, according to a presentation by its owners, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco). The most damaged Daiichi reactor, number 3, contains about 90 tons of fuel, and the storage pool above reactor 4, which the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC's) Gregory Jaczko reported yesterday had lost its cooling water, contains 135 tons of spent fuel. The amount of fuel lost in the core melt at Three Mile Island in 1979 was about 30 tons; the Chernobyl reactors had about 180 tons when the accident occurred in 1986.

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