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|It is 63 years since mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki ushered in the nuclear age. Today, faith in nuclear weapons is near universal and, absurdly, global security rests on the very substance that most threatens it. |
There are three kinds of countries in nuclear terms: the “Club,” the “Umbrella,” and outsiders. The “Club” is made up of superpowers who insist on their nuclear privilege and interpret the Non Proliferation Treaty (1968) as endorsing their monopoly while denying admission to outsiders. The “umbrella” states are those (Japan and Korea included) whose stance is nominally non-nuclear but which base their national defense on the protection of an ally‘s nuclear “umbrella.” The third group of countries shares the reasoning that there can be no security without nuclear weapons, and, inevitably, their attempts to secure such security destabilize an inherently instable system.
As global society becomes accustomed, even de-sensitized, to nuclear weapons, its attention focuses on the new, and in a sense equally terrifying, threat of global warming and climate catastrophe, and the world leaders who yesterday gave us plutonium-based security today offer plutonium-based survival. Nuclear energy, the byproduct of the search for the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, will be our salvation; we will enjoy nuclear “renaissance.” According to President George W. Bush, nuclear energy is “clean” and “renewable” and nuclear plants “are the best solution to making sure we have economic growth and at the same time [are] good stewards of the environment.”
Levels of nuclear dependence in electricity supply vary greatly across the world, with a global average around 16 per cent. In the UK, US, Japan, South Korea, and France, it is 18, 19, 30, 40, and 78 per cent respectively. Although the industry has been in the doldrums for decades, following the near catastrophes of Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986, the Bush administration now insists that technology has advanced to the point of being able to guarantee virtual safety.
In February 2006, Washington announced a Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), a kind of nuclear energy “coalition of the willing” to control the production, processing, storage, sale, and subsequent disposal of nuclear materials and offer facilities to the rest of the world on a lease basis, side-stepping the existing UN-centred international control framework. Though presented in terms of a solution to global warming and dwindling energy reserves, it was also a formula for solving the mounting, and apparently insoluble, problem of nuclear wastes by recycling them (though ten times more expensive and more risky than storing them). The call for world-wide expansion of the nuclear industry spelled reversal of three decades of anti-proliferation policy.
However, just to maintain the existing nuclear contribution to world energy needs it would be necessary to commission about 80 new reactors over the next ten years and a further 200 in the decade after that. According to Greenpeace, even if the world’s current 429 reactors were to be doubled by 2030, carbon dioxide emissions would only be cut by by 5 per cent and greenhouse gases by 3 per cent. To make a real difference would require thousands upon thousands of new reactors. Gearing up for that would require decades. The GNEP agenda also includes a technology known as ABR (Advanced Breeder Reactor) but the ABR exists only as a theoretical proposition, whose commercial development is at best decades in the future. Overall, the GNEP belittles cost, technical feasibility, and risk.
It also neglects the fact that this system to be spread around the earth can only barely be made to function in the most advanced industrial countries. Finland, commencing construction in 2002 of Olkiluoto-3, Europe‘s first nuclear plant since Chernobyl, has experienced engineering problems significant enough to delay its completion by two years (to 2011) and greatly raise its cost. Sweden’s Forsmark 3 reactor is said in 2006 to have gone within half an hour of meltdown. In Japan in July 2007 the world‘s biggest reactor, at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa in Niigata, was struck by an earthquake 6.8 times stronger than was allowed for by the design and it was found to have been constructed directly atop a fault line. Despite its long record of nuclear engineering and its technical sophistication, even Japan has made disastrous miscalculations and its nuclear record includes serious design failures, data falsification and fabrication, cover-ups, and the failure to report criticality incidents and emergency shut-downs. The rest of the world would have to do much better, but can it?
No state, however, is more enthusiastic about embracing the nuclear option than Japan. It is committed not only to stepping up its nuclear power dependence (from 30 to 40 per cent of electric supply) but to attaining the full nuclear cycle - enrichment, generation, reprocessing, and waste disposal. METI (Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry)’s New National Energy Policy of 2006 declares the goal of having Japan become a “nuclear state” (genshiryoku rikkoku).
Already Japan possesses more than 45 tons of plutonium - 750 times the 60-odd kgs that North Korea might or might not possess and about one fifth of global stocks. Ignoring pleas from the Director-General of the IAEA to desist from enrichment and reprocessing works, it is about to commence full commercial processing of plutonium at Rokkasho in Northern Japan, reducing annually 800 tons of reactor wastes to five more tons of plutonium, or 500 nuclear weapons-worth. This plant has cost around 20 billion dollars to construct and is expected to cost around 180 billion dollars over 40 years of its use, thus becoming one of the most expensive industrial facilities ever built. Every day, it will discharge into the adjacent sea and sky wastes equivalent in volume to one year‘s worth of a nuclear reactor.
Japan has also long pursued the goal of a fast-breeder reactor. It began to construct the Monju prototype (at Tsuruga in Fukui) in 1985, but had to suspend work in 1995 following a major accident and cover-up, and is not expected to resume test operations until October 2008. No electricity can be expected until 2030, if indeed ever.
The wastes from Japan’s growing nuclear complex must be stored. Plutonium (Pu239) has a half-life of 24,000 years and depleted uranium a half-life of 4.5 billion years. To accommodate such substances, gradually, the country’s northern and eastern districts around the Rokkasho plants are being transformed into a vast, poisonous complex, over which generation after generation, fvirtually for ever, a heavy, militarized guard must be maintained.
Once nuclear victim Japan thus seems well recovered from its nuclear ”allergy.“ From September 2008 it also welcomes the American nuclear aircraft-carrier George Washington to take up ”home-port“ station in the port city of Yokosuka, within a few dozen kilometers of the capital.
South Korea follows Japan in the embrace of the nuclear. It already surpasses it in terms of current and projected level of electricity generation (now 30 per cent, with plans to double to 60 per cent by 2035), and the two countries also gear up to compete for the lucrative reactor export market. Yet the Korean public appears more concerned over possible tainted beef than over their country‘s steadily deepening nuclear commitment.
Much about the ”renaissance“ of the nuclear industry is chimerical. Nuclear power takes much longer than any renewable response to global warming, involves significantly increased greenhouse gas emissions during its construction, mining, protection and disposal phases, is accompanied by unquantifiable risk (proliferation, terrorism, accident), and its wastes remain toxic for millennia. The future nuclear state can only be centralized, heavily policed, and non-, if not anti-democratic. The nuclear reactor is as false a response to global warming as the nuclear weapon has long been to global security.