N- Power: Green or Ghastly?
by Sandhya Jain on 07 Jun 2011 7 Comments

The real crisis of Japan’s earthquake-tsunami-driven disaster at Fukushima concerns the disposal of radioactive, partially melted, uranium fuel rods, before the six reactors can be decommissioned. Some rods contain plutonium (one millionth of a gram, inhaled, can cause cancer; each reactor has 250 kg. of plutonium). Over 7 tons of nuclear debris (spent rods and fissile fuel inside the reactors) need a permanent storage site before the facility can be entombed under concrete, Chernobyl-style.


Tokyo now admits the rods cannot be kept in Japan because the new waste storage centers at Honshu stand on unsuitable land. The Fukushima complex be entombed as it is, because the landfill cannot support the weight of the fuel rods, reactors and cooling water. The massive earthquakes that often hit the area will erode the foundations and push radioactive wastewater into the Pacific Ocean, and irretrievably into the food chain. This is the incorrigible truth about N-energy – it is neither clean nor green nor cost effective. In fact, there is little difference in lethality between N-weapons and N-energy.


Currently, Japan and America are secretly negotiating with Mongolia, a poor country between Russia, China and Kazakhstan, to quietly accept the radioactive waste and bury it somewhere, for $12 billion, according to Yoichi Shimatsu, former editor, Japan Times Weekly. This $12 billion spread over the half-life of uranium, 700 million years, is $17 per annum, and does not cover the cost of the requisite cooling system.


The reason for the haste and secrecy is that under the Non-Proliferation Treaty which Japan signed in 1970, Washington specified that the used fuel from Japanese reactors would be shipped to the US for storage or reprocessing to ensure that Japan did not develop an atomic bomb. But Washington could not pick up the waste because of public protests against the planned Yucca Mountain storage facility. America’s n-energy industry has already amassed over 60,000 tons of spent fuel (not counting waste from military and research reactors), so Fukushima rods are not a priority.


Areva, the French nuclear firm keen to install a 10,000 MW n-power plant in Jaitapur, Maharashtra, has joined hands with the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) to find a N-dumping site. They have contacted Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia. But Beijing dares not take the risk as Fukushima has triggered phobias among the people about N-contamination through food and drink. Australia and Canada, which supply uranium ore to Japan, have refused to accept responsibility for storage of N-waste under the legal principle of industrial recovery.


The naked truth about nuclear power is that in the absence of truly safe disposal mechanisms, N-energy lacks technological viability. There is a case for de-licensing N-plants and de-recognizing the industry. When municipal authorities do not allow a house to be built without appropriate toilet and kitchen plumbing, how can growing piles of N-wastes be allowed?


Why has the International Atomic Energy Commission, which agitates if a nation with a legal N-energy programme is diverting uranium to military purposes, not insisted that the industry resolve the issue of N-waste disposal? The US alone has 200,000 metric tons of N-waste at 453 civilian nuclear-energy plants worldwide, but no permanent storage site!


Only Berlin has drawn the right lessons from Fukushima and moved towards total nuclear exit, with all N-plants to shut down by 2022. In India, the Congress-led coalition at Mumbai and New Delhi remains committed to expansion of N-power, despite rising local opposition in Maharashtra, Gujarat, and other sites of proposed N-plants. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh chose the occasion of the visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to insist on pushing ahead with N-energy. Dr Singh should know that the global safety standards he endorses have already been exposed – live - at Fukushima.


Interestingly, Dr Helen Caldicott, founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility, at a press conference in Montreal on 12 May 2011, lambasted a report on Chernobyl by the New York Academy of Sciences as “one of the most monstrous cover-ups in the history of medicine”. She said almost a million people have died due to Chernobyl, despite the claims of the World Health Organisation and International Atomic Energy Agency.


Japan is far worse than Chernobyl, with six nuclear reactors at risk. In 1976, engineers Gregory C. Minor, Richard B. Hubbard, and Dale G. Bridenbaugh, who helped design these Mark I GE reactors, resigned because they were dangerous. Yet Japan built Fukushima on an earthquake fault. Though the reactors partially withstood the earthquake, the external electricity supply was cut off; this caused dangerous heating to the cooling water in the six reactors and caused the rods to melt, as at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. 


The emergency diesel generators were destroyed by the tsunami, so there was no way to keep the water circulating in the reactors. Then, there were the cooling pools on the roofs of the reactors.  Every year, about 30 tons of the most radioactive rods are removed; each 12 ft x 0.5 inch. These spent fuel rods are so thermally hot that they need continuous cooling; Fukushima saw the breakdown of cooling.


Then, hydrogen explosions have blown off the roof of the building and exposed the cooling pool. Two of these pools are dry, which means the rods are covered with a material called zirconium which, when exposed to air, ignites. Two cooling pools are thus burning. Even otherwise, the cooling pools have several times the radiation of the reactor core, and each reactor core has radiation equivalent to a thousand Hiroshima-sized bombs. This is truly “diabolical energy”, avers Dr Caldicott. Albert Einstein rightly called nuclear power a hell of a way to boil water. Because that is exactly what it does - boil water through the massive heat, turn it into steam, and turn a turbine which generates electricity.  


Finally, there is the issue of the poisoning of the world’s air, water and populations, through weapons with depleted uranium (from spent fuel rods). America has used DU weapons in Iraq, Afghanistan, even Pakistan, and now Libya. In Fallujah, 80 percent babies are born grossly deformed, without brains, single eyes, no arms; doctors now advise women not to have babies. Childhood cancer has increased 12 times. This is an undeclared nuclear war. The uranium will last more than 4.5 billion years; will humankind outlive this grim lethality?


The author is Editor, www.vijayvaani.com 

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