Nuclear power

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Temps de lecture : 5 minutes  

nuclear power plant Yann Arthus-Bertrand
Nuclear technologies make it possible to produce large amounts of energy for very little money whilst emitting virtually no greenhouse gases. But they also pose many problems linked to accident risks, waste management, proliferation and real costs. They have therefore understandably faced fierce opposition. Despite the importance of the debates and what is at stake, the big decisions as well as the main sectors often remain beyond the control of civil society.

At one time, nuclear power was pushed aside due to negative public opinion and high investment costs but in the past few years it has seen a revival. 36 reactors are being built and there are projects for a hundred others. In 2008, 439 reactors are in working order and they produce electricity that accounts for 6.3 % of the world’s energy. In France, nuclear power provides about 75% of the country’s electricity.

Fierce opposition

To start with, the opposition to nuclear power was about its military use following the bombings in Japan. The unprecedented extent of the destruction was obvious whilst the invisible contamination had long-term effects on the population. In 1971, Greenpeace’s first action was to campaign against American nuclear trials in Amchitka in Alaska to stop tests being carried out on this site.

Opposition then spread to nuclear projects like Superphenix in France. Certain regions refused the installation of nuclear activities and this federated associations and contributed to the creation of political ecology. In Germany, opposition to nuclear power helped the rapid political development of the Green party which finally managed to achieve the cessation of nuclear activity in 2000.

Accidents

As the accidents in Three Miles Island in the United States and Chernobyl in Belarus have shown, zero risk does not exist, even where nuclear power is concerned. Even if no-one was harmed during the first incident and it only affected the nuclear power station, it marked American public opinion and brought the American nuclear program to a standstill. Conversely, Chernobyl had very serious effects on the region and the population. Twenty years later, the number of people affected is still subject to debate. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates that 4000 people in total will die from the fallout of the disaster but organisations challenge this figure which does not take many of the victims amongst the 600 000 liquidators who were sent to put out the fire and build the sarcophagus into account.

The Chernobyl disaster was caused by a series of human errors. It showed that nuclear installations need competent staff, maintenance and constant supervision. The disaster also showed to what extent the authorities could hide the truth from the population: the Ukrainian government delayed telling the population about the disaster and in France, the authorities claimed that the radioactive cloud had not gone beyond the border.

To this day, incidents still occur in nuclear power plants. Some are more serious than others. They must, in theory, be declared to the authorities: to the French Nuclear Safety Authority (Agence de Sûreté Nucléaire) in France and to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at an international level.

Since the September 11 attacks, the terrorist threat has once again called into question the safety of nuclear power plants and the control of radioactive materials which could be used in such attacks.

Waste

Nuclear activities produce radioactive waste which continues being radioactive for years and even for hundreds of thousands of years. Yet, for the moment, no solution has been found to treat it: the only option is to stock it in areas which have been selected for this purpose.

The cost of nuclear power

The cost of nuclear energy is the subject of many debates. Today, nuclear electricity is provided at a lower cost than other energy. However, those against nuclear energy consider that several factors are not taken into account in this price and that it is therefore underestimated.

They point out that the State often provides the large research and development budgets needed to develop this technology, sometimes for military purposes. These budgets should be put back into the price. It is also impossible to calculate the cost of waste storage for periods of time which exceed Man’s and civilisations’ lifespans.

They add that if the enormous amounts of money that are spent on nuclear power were invested in renewable energies, considerable technological advances would be made (or could have been made). This would also mean a significant decrease in costs and an increase in the amount of available power.

The end of a nuclear facility’s life

French power plants were meant to function for about thirty years; most of them have reached this time limit. In France, EDF wants to keep using them for at least ten more years. This would make it possible to limit investments whilst maintaining the low KWh price. The continued use of these plants raises several problems including the wear and tear of equipment, competence deficiencies and finally, safety issues. It must be noted that the cost of demolishing nuclear power plants is such that it is economically advantageous to extend the period of time for which they can be used.

Proliferation

One of the main dangers of nuclear technology is nuclear proliferation. This is the uncontrolled spread of technologies for military purposes. States which have nuclear military technology have undertaken not to transfer it, and, in return, favour the development of civil nuclear power. This is what is stipulated in the 1978 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. However, there are tensions between the international community and certain countries (Iran, North Korea …) which try to access nuclear power for civil and even military purposes. For these countries, non-proliferation can be perceived as an infringement on their sovereignty.

Global warming

It is often said that the advantage of nuclear power is that it produces energy without releasing any CO2 into the atmosphere. This is not exactly true as the greenhouse gases emitted to build the infrastructures, transport the nuclear fuels and extract them must be taken into account. However, the carbon count of nuclear power remains very low compared to that of fossil fuels.

Global warming issues have made famous but controversial environmentalist such as James Lovelock and Patrick Moore defend nuclear technology. They also stress the fact that nuclear power produces constant energy which does not depend on the vagaries of weather. James Lovelock has gone even further by showing that radioactive contamination can be an opportunity for biodiversity.[Debate]

The state of uranium stocks

Nuclear power requires uranium to produce electricity. It is therefore by no means a renewable energy as uranium stocks are limited. According the IAEA, existing stocks are enough to fuel all the nuclear reactors in the world for another century and new deposits could be discovered. But this does not take into account the fact that the number of nuclear reactors could increase. Moreover, 40 % of the nuclear fuel used in nuclear power plants currently comes from civil and retired military stocks. However, the nuclear reactors of the future (so-called 4th generation reactors) could use more abundant fuels.

It should be noted that extracting uranium can be as dangerous for the miners as it can be for the environment. Like many precious substances, uranium can also be a source of conflicts. This is the case in Niger where the government and the Tuaregs are fighting over this resource. [see War and Environment]

Nuclear power and democracy

Considering what is at stake in nuclear energy and the opposition it generates, it seems necessary that the population be involved in making the choices. Some countries have consulted their populations; Italy and Sweden did so through referendums. However, in France, it was the State which decided to resort to nuclear power. There was no democratic consultation.

Today, those who are against nuclear power still highlight the sector’s lack of transparency. Some areas are even Top Secret.

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