Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Nuclear Power and Centralised Energy Production

Only a decade ago the nuclear energy industry was dead in the water. The high costs of building and decommissioning nuclear power stations, the impossible task of safely disposing of nuclear waste, and the human and environmental catastrophes of Chernobyl, Tokaimura and Three Mile Island (among many others) made nuclear energy a highly undesirable form of electricity production. A number of European countries made plans to phase out nuclear power altogether.

But recently, in a stroke of strategic genius, the nuclear industry have constructed for themselves a lifeline out of climate change. Within the framework of the international climate negotiations, ruthless lobbyists are pushing nuclear energy as a low-carbon climate solution. Over the past four years they have sucessfully forced nuclear energy back onto the European energy policy agenda in what has been branded a 'nuclear renaissance.'

At the end of 2005 EU parliamentarians signed a "Statement on Climate Change and Nuclear Energy," initiated by Foratom (the European Atomic Forum, an association for the nuclear energy industry in Europe). "Nuclear energy should play an increasingly key role in the worldwide fight against climate change and remain a pillar of EU energy and environment policy," the paper said. "We're firmly convinced that the increased use of nuclear energy -- the biggest single component in the fight against climate change – is essential."

But nuclear energy is neither efficient nor effective in cutting CO2 emissions; is not a renewable energy source, and it is equal to, if not worse than, fossil fuel energy in the devastation it wreaks from mining through to waste disposal and decommissioning.

Taking into account all the steps needed to produce electricity in a power station, the reality is that nuclear energy production creates large amounts of CO2, from uranium mining, enrichment and transport across the globe, the construction and decommissioning of facilities and the processing, transport and storage of radioactive wastes. All these consume huge amounts of carbon-based energy such as oil and coal. Even a massive, four-fold expansion of nuclear power by 2050 would provide only a 4% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Nuclear power plants themselves release unknown quantities of greenhouse gases more powerful than carbon dioxide – such as the ozone-depleting chloro- and hydro-fluorocarbons,as well as sulphur hexafluoride. Emissions from nuclear will grow over time as the depletion of uranium sources will increase the amount of energy needed to mine the same amount of useful uranium. Furthermore, a growing number of studies tell us that if we were to outright replace all fossil-fuel generated electricity with nuclear, there would be enough economically viable uranium to fuel reactors for only three to four years.

But it's not only about greenhouse gases. Like coal and oil, uranium is extraced from the lands of indigenous peoples across the world; the uranium mining, nuclear power and nuclear weapons industries are resposible for human rights abuses and displacement of indigenous communities in Southern Australia, Arizona, New Mexico, India, China and across Africa. The indigenous people whose land and communities are destroyed are also the same people who have been employed in the process, unaware of the biological hazards of working with radioactive materials. At the end of 2006 indigenous peoples from around the world, victims of uranium mining, nuclear testing, and nuclear dumping, issued a global ban on uranium mining on native lands.

Profiting from nuclear waste

Depleted Uranium (DU) is nuclear waste left over after enrichment activities for the nuclear power industry. DU is expensive and hazardous to store, so it is sold at a very low cost to arms manufacturers. Both industries profit greatly from the deal.

Each kilo of reactor-ready enriched uranium produced leaves behind seven kilos of DU. DU is a chemically toxic heavy metal and is radioactive, releasing alpha, beta and gamma radiation. It is used in armour-piercing munitions because of its very high density – 1.7 times that of lead – and as armour in battle tanks, in Tomahawk cruise missiles and in some types of landmines.

Estimates of DU munitions expended run to 280 tonnes in the Gulf War of 1991 by US and UK forces and 14 tonnes in the Balkans in the latter half of the 1990s by NATO. There was further large-scale use in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and also in Afghanistan in 2001. Use of depleted uranium in armaments leaves behind toxic and radioactive wastes that contaminate the land and water for years after the war is over, poisoning the people and ecosystems who are left to survive there.

Maintaining a centralised energy infrastructure

For some people, there is little to be gained from repeating familiar arguments about the costs, carbon-intensity, capacity and risks of nuclear energy. These arguments are already widely known.

But another crucial aspect of the argument against nuclear energy that is often ignored – and one reason why this dangerous technology has been enthusiastically adopted by governments in preference to localised renewable energies – is that it is simply a convenient replacement for centralised, industry-owned, technocratic and highly profitable energy production, at a time when fossil fuels are fast becoming socially unacceptable.

Modern societies have created elaborate socio-technical systems that link production, distribution, and consumption in coherent patterns. The current energy regime is characterized by large, complex, centralized, and hierarchically managed systems that position 'energy users' as 'energy consumers,' purchasing from an energy system whose internal structure is of no particular public concern. Centralised power production serves to centralise political and economic power, disconnects communities from responsibility and control over energy and creates a vast, wasteful system. Currently, almost all discussions about the future of low-carbon energy make the basic assumption of centralized generation by large-scale systems.

Even wind power is promoted with images of massive wind-farms. Geothermal, nuclear, hydropower, hydrogen and bioenergy, the main low-carbon systems, are all large-scale projects based upon a centralized production system. But the development of such energy systems, promoted as climate-change solutions, change only the inputs to the system, continuing the social and political characteristics and the political economy of our current fossil-fuelled infrastructure, strengthening authoritarian and capitalist social relationships. Any discussion of our social relationship to the production and consumption of energy is sidelined or altogether ignored. If we are to recover democracy, a key element must be democratizing power production.

International negotiations

Through a post-Kyoto climate agreement, to be signed at COP15 in December 2009, the nuclear industry hopes to get credit for something it cannot deliver: clean, cheap and safe energy production. Inclusion in the 'flexible' mechanisms (Clean Development Mechanism and Joint Implementation) will allow rich nations to build power stations in other countries and get pollution credits for reducing carbon emissions.

For ten years the nuclear industry has tirelessly lobbied for nuclear power stations to be included in the CDM. Now they are setting their sights on the Joint Implementation (JI) mechanism. If successful, this would mean companies receiving carbon credits for building nuclear power stations across Southern 'developing economies' and in Central and Eastern European 'economies in transition'.

Those pushing for nuclear to be included in the CDM claim that they want to share these progressive technologies with countries across the world, and that governments should be free to decide for themselves which technologies are sustainable and which are not. Some Southern countries support the nuclear option, with its promise of subsidized capacity, but others fear nuclear power carbon credits will favor high-growth projects over smaller sustainable projects. The nuclear lobby has recognised that an emphasis on renewables will deter investment in nuclear energy, and conversely a policy emphasis on nuclear energy, with the attendant government subsidies, will mean reduced investment in renewables.

The nuclear industry has over the past ten years hijacked the climate change discourse to successfully pressure governments into a new round of nuclear power plants across Europe. Many member states, including Britain, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Sweden and Switzerland are now planning or in the process of constructing new nuclear plants or extending their existing ones. Sweden has lifted a 30-year ban on new nuclear, more than 20 years after banning nuclear energy Italy has signed an agreement with France for at least four nuclear plants, and debates on "new builds" are under way in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Hungary.

Such centralised, large-scale and privatised energy production is exactly opposite to the reduction and localisation of energy production that is evidently necessary to tackle climate change. Nuclear energy represents only a simple switch of inputs from fossil-fuels to uranium, side-stepping any challenge to the current social, political and economic organisation of energy production and consumption and the relationships and power dynamics that such organisation creates and enforces. It also happens to be expensive, dangerous, carbon-intensive, finite and its waste is a cheap and convenient raw material for depleted uranium weapons of war.