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Risks ignored as Obama leads nuclear charge

President Obama fired the starting pistol for a rush to nuclear power in the US when he announced this week that his government will offer $8.3billion in loan guarantees for two nuclear reactors to be built in Georgia. This puts the US in line with other big powers, where the stampede to build a new generation of nuclear power stations is on.

China has 14 reactors under construction and 35 more planned. India has six under construction and 23 planned. Even Russia, where you would think the safety lesson might have been learned after Chernobyl, has eight under construction and eight more planned. And of course, New Labour recently gave the go-ahead for 10 new plants in the UK.

The result of the expansion programme will be a massive increase in uranium mining, with new operations already being opened up in Namibia and Kazakhstan, which has tripled its uranium output over the past four years and will soon overtake Canada as the world’s biggest producer. Just as with oil, the easy stuff is taken first and then dirtier processes employed to get at the harder to reach ore.

There is no recognition on the part of governments or the nuclear industry of the extensive health and environmental risks at every stage of the nuclear life cycle. As the American organisation Physicians for Social Responsibility says, uranium mining exposes miners and their communities to high levels of carcinogenic radon gas:

The effects have been so devastating in the United States that the Navajo Nation, upon whose lands sit one of the largest uranium reserves in the world, has outright banned the practice, even as they struggle with crushing poverty. Radio nuclides routinely released in nuclear reactor operations have been linked to developmental problems, birth defects, reproductive problems, cardiovascular disease, leukemia and other cancers. Epidemiological studies of children living near nuclear reactors show a positive association between leukemia and proximity to nuclear reactors.

We have experience of that in the UK with the identified clusters of childhood leukemia found around Sellafield in Cumbria in the 1980s. There is no safe way of disposing of waste, which also carries significant health risks, particularly associated with leaching into water supplies.

A scandal exposed this week shows the blatant disregard for human health of the nuclear industry. The French newspaper Liberation published photographs of what appears to be nuclear waste from French EDF reactors simply lying in the open, on the ground in a Siberian town to which access is forbidden.

EDF energy, part-owned by the French state and the world’s biggest nuclear operator, admits it is exporting waste to Russia and that only 13% of what it sends comes back reprocessed. What happens to the rest? No comment. EDF is the likely candidate for constructing new plants in Britain.

The question governments can’t answer is why they are doing it? The idea that nuclear is clean and green, and a contribution to reduced carbon emissions is rubbish. The result of extracting the uranium and the billions of tons of cement needed to build all these huge plants will be massive CO2 emissions. It is unlikely any future savings in emissions would offset this early surge over the whole life of a reactor.

A study by the Rocky Mountain Institute, which campaigns for rational use of the world’s resources, says that if every dollar spent on nuclear power were invested instead in energy efficiency measures, it would produce seven times greater reduction in carbon emissions.

But the corporations are not going to get profits from energy efficiency – and people using less fuel means smaller profits for them. The shadow governments of the corporations are pulling the strings for energy planning. For an alternative way to meet energy needs see our Manifesto of Revolutionary solutions.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
18 February 2010

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