Clean: but is it green?

Vermont’s thirty eight year old Yankee Nuclear Reaction is scheduled to be shut down in 2012. The main cause of concern is the leaking of tritium which is linked to cancer.

The life expectancy of nuclear power plants is forty years. Seventy five percent of all current nuclear power plants are in the second half of their expected life span.

After a plant is decommissioned there are a series of steps that must be taken including “removal and disposal of all radioactive components and materials, and cleanups of any radioactivity that may remain in the buildings and on the site.”

Machinery breakdown in the differing reactor designs is the major cause of nuclear insurance losses. Loses due to fire most frequently occur around six years of age.

The Convention on Nuclear Safety was adopted in 1994. “Its aim is to legally commit participating States operating land-based nuclear power plants to maintain a high level of safety by setting international benchmarks to which States would subscribe.”

Beyond the design of nuclear power plants and their landscape surrounds is the question of the disposal of nuclear waste.
How confident are designers, engineers and geologists of the long term safety of nuclear waste storage strategies?

8 thoughts on “Clean: but is it green?

  1. Tom Turner

    I listened to a debate about the future of nuclear energy between Damon Moglen, director of Climate and Energy for Friends of the Earth; and William Tucker, the author of Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Energy Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America’s Energy Odyssey. Tucker argued that since all America’s reactors were privately funded, this proved that nuclear power was financially viable. He was not able to respond to the criticism that the generation companies have not been willing to take the risk for a good while or to the point that full life-cycle costing (including decomissioning and long-term disposal of wastes) has not been done. I therefore remain sceptical about the financial arguments, while agreeing that if oil cost $200/barrel then the sums would look different.
    The debate should also be raised to a higher level, because scientists are kidding themselves, and us, if they think science can answer all, or any, of the fundamental ethical questions. If, as is most definitely the case, people have a deep-seated FEAR of radiation, then it must be taken into account. Economists could do some cost-benefit calculations to put shadow prices on these fears. Is it right for nuclear engineers to make recommendations for society based on science? Yes. But is it right for society to base its decisions on these calculations? No.

  2. Christine

    The Moscow Times has attempted to contextualize the radiation exposure likely “in the event of a fire in the zirconium cladding of fuel rods in a spent fuel pool.” [ ]

    There seems to be an important difference between short term emergency exposure (ARS) and long term environmental exposure (CRS) – perhaps through radiation entering the food chain.
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    The fears of radiation in Japan may be exacerbated beyond the very real physical consequences because of social and economic situation of the Hibakusha within Japanese society.

    Fashion designer Issey Miyake “as a seven year-old, he witnessed and survived the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945”. Perhaps he would be the ideal person to speak to the nation in this context?

  3. Christine Post author

    The nuclear energy issue is broader than a cost/benefit debate. In sustainability terms the social and environmental costs also need to be considered.

    A german article on the debate says:

    “One study conducted by Greenpeace shows that nuclear power has cost German taxpayers more than 200 billion euros in government subsidies since the 1950s.

    Greenpeace activist Tobias Riedl says that pales in comparison with the price future generations will have to pay.”

    Tom you have suggested that a full life cycle costing has not been included. This is the argument Greenpeace puts forward also.

    “If you consider that highly radioactive waste needs to be stored safely for a million years, then it’s obviously difficult to calculate the total costs which will become applicable in the future,” Riedl told Deutsche Welle.

    But one thing is clear: it’s going to be expensive, and the general public will have to bear the costs.”

    I doubt whether energy cost parity could be considered unless the long term disposal and storage costs of nuclear were factored against the long term climate implications of continued oil dependence. Perhaps the precautionary principle should apply to both analyses?

  4. Tom Turner

    There are of course no easy answers and the situation is greatly complicated by the mendacity of the power generators and the ‘nameless dread’ of the public with regard to radiation damage. The most hopeful path to a solution is the apparant co-coperation between western and eastern researchers and industrialists, (eg investments by American companies in Chinese research and manufacturing facilities) to investigate renewable energy. It would be good if governments could agree on a 1% levy on all energy usage to invest in research. Meanwhile, the only thing urban designers can contribute is ideas for more sustainable cities: recyling, urban agriculture, off-grid housing, human-powered transport, public drinking fountains which make bottled water unnecessary etc

  5. Christine

    In the context of a nuclear accident with potential radiation exposure all the options you suggest would be beneficial excepting urban agriculture and public drinking fountains which would both present health risks in these circumstances.

  6. Tom Turner

    We have had a lot of nuclear experts, who fear their business will be washed away by Fukushima, saying that the health problems at Chernobyl were caused by bad management, and that if the Russians had monitored radiation levels and taken iodine tablets then the health hazards would have been very much reduced.


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