Australia seems determined to lead the way to an unstable world which could result in two very different outcomes – global warming or nuclear winter. We burn and export coal in massive amounts producing more CO2 per capita than any other country and we are about to become one of the world’s major uranium exporters. Kevin Rudd remains wedded to the coal industry and the ALP now totally supports uranium mining.
Global warming is a condition that has recently brought great benefits to the nuclear industry.
The Nuclear Energy Institute in the US has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in a massive propaganda campaign to convince Americans, and indeed the world, that nuclear power is the answer to global warming, because it makes no greenhouse gases, it is clean, cheap and sustainable. These four claims are patently absurd.
Attractive ads touting such nonsense appear on regular occasions in the New Yorker, Scientific American, the Washington Post, and Capitol Hill publications such as Roll Call, Congress Daily AM and The Hill and on national public radio.
The truth is that very few people or organisations have calculated the true energetic cost of nuclear electricity which involves a massive industrial infrastructure including uranium mining and land reclamation, milling, uranium enrichment, reactor construction and decommissioning, cooling, transportation and ecologically safe storage of intensely radioactive waste, and ecologically safe storage of thousands of tons of waste over geological time frames.
As an illustration we will examine the energy output of the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle – mining, milling and enrichment. The back end from reactor construction to radioactive waste storage is also a high CO2 emitter.
Various studies show that CO2 emissions from the fossil fuel depend on the grade of the uranium ore – high grade ore requires less energy input than low grade ore.
The vast majority of the world’s uranium reserves are low-grade. Nuclear energy currently supplies 16 per cent of the world’s electricity production, and the high grade reserves will last only one or two decades if nuclear energy production were to be expanded, as the industry hopes.
At least 10 tonnes of low-grade ore containing less than 0.01 per cent uranium must be mined to obtain 1kg of yellowcake, entailing a huge increase in the fossil energy required for mining and milling. Consumption of fossil fuels to mine, mill and enrich low grade ore become so large that nuclear energy will emit comparable quantities of CO2 from an equivalent combined cycle gas-fired plant.
However, this is only the first industrial infrastructure involved in atomic electricity. After mining the uranium ore is crushed at a milling plant, and then exported as uranium oxide to Paducah Kentucky, where it is converted to uranium hexaFLUORIDE gas and forced through thousands of micro pore filters during which uranium 235, the fissionable isotope is enriched from 0.7 per cent to 3 per cent – an extremely energetic process. Two aged 1500 megawatt coal fired plants generate the electricity adding significantly to global warming. CFC gas (banned under the Montreal protocol) is used to cool hundreds of miles of pipes containing the uranium hexafluoride, and 93 per cent of the CFC 114 gas released in the US leaks from this facility. CFC is 10,000 to 20,000 times more potent as a global warmer than CO2.
The construction of a nuclear reactor is now estimated to be US$12 to 15 billion and is largely subsidised by US tax payers. All nuclear damage insurance is also covered by the US federal government to the tune of almost US$600 billion, as is the enrichment of uranium. The costs of long term radioactive waste storage or the multitude of medical diseases affecting future generations – cancer, leukemia and genetic disease induced by leaking waste have not yet been estimated.
It is obvious that nuclear power is neither cheap, green nor sustainable.
As well, the world is on the verge of uncontrolled nuclear weapons proliferation. Press reports last week indicated that Myanmar could possibly be a nuclear weapons state in the near future assisted by North Korea, North Korea seems determined to build more bombs and missile delivery systems, while Iran is proceeding apace enriching uranium for nuclear power and possibly for weapons.
Uranium enrichment facilities abound in many countries including China, Japan, Germany, Brazil, Britain, France, India, Pakistan and Israel. Under the strict conditions of the Nuclear Non proliferation Treaty, all nations have an inalienable right to create nuclear electricity but they must abstain from nuclear weapons production apart from the eight nuclear weapons states.
This does not sit well with non-nuclear nations, for to enter the portals of the nuclear club is power indeed.
At this time the US and Russia own 97 per cent of the global nuclear arsenal of 27,000 weapons, and thousands stand on hair trigger alert ready to be launched with a three-minute decision time by Obama or Medvedev. Hackers have recently entered the Pentagon system, computer errors abound, Russian early warning systems have decayed to almost non functional status, and humans make mistakes. A nuclear war between these superpowers would be over in about one hour.
Severe anxiety and uncertainty creates international instability. During the 9-11attack the Bush administration raised the country’s nuclear alert codes from defcon 6 to defcon 2, the highest state of alert before launching. A similar scenario could well be triggered by similar tensions engendered if a small country exploded a nuclear device on another.
The stark truth is that bomb fuel can be made by any country from enriched uranium or plutonium manufactured in reactors (250 kilos yearly, 5 kilos makes a bomb). Uranium and plutonium last virtually for ever, therefore a country that is deemed “stable” by the international community may become unstable or fascistic some years later. Global warming should be added to this global nuclear instability as millions starve, millions more become ecological refuges, droughts deplete water supplies and nations fight for survival.
Recent studies predict that a nuclear war fought with US and Russian arsenals would induce catastrophic changes in the global climate. Smoke would block 70 per cent of sunlight in the Northern Hemisphere and 35 per cent in the Southern Hemisphere and the resulting nuclear darkness would induce a global ice age. Temperatures would be colder than 18,000 years ago at the height of the last ice age. Most humans and large animals would starve and freeze to death in the dark.
Clearly, Australia has a huge responsibility at this pivotal time in history. Will we have the moral courage to rise up to ban uranium mining and become an energy superpower, internally self sufficient in sustainable energy while exporting wind, solar, geothermal technology to millions of people to our near north?
About the Author
Dr Helen Caldicott, has devoted the last 38 years to an international campaign to educate the public about the medical hazards of the nuclear age and the necessary changes in human behavior to stop environmental destruction. She is also the Founding President of the Physicians for Social Responsibility which, with other national groups won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. She is President of people for a Nuclear Free Australia and a member of the Spanish Scientific Committee advising the Spanish Prime Minister.