Solar power gains strength as moratoriums on nuclear power stations are passed across Europe
Fukushima: as the smoke continues to billow from reactors at the crippled nuclear power plant, many nations across the world are reconsidering their nuclear options. The disastrous fallout at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant has resulted in the contamination of land, sea and air and the release of 11, 500 tons of radioactive water into the ocean. Italy stands alone as the only Group of Eight nation that has no nuclear power. In 2008, the Italian government signed a deal to build nuclear reactors which would be operational by 2020; Fukushima changed that.
The contamination levels in all areas, aside from the 20km no-entry zone surrounding the Fukushima plant, are said to be at levels below limits set for surface radiation. However, nuclear specialist Helen Caldicott claims that the epic nuclear fallout at Fukushima will cause a major medical catastrophe. External radiation, says Caldicott, may be below recommended levels and is harmless to humans and animals. However, when this radiation is internalized through inhalation, skin absorption or ingestion, the consequences are dire. Radioactive elements are absorbed by animals and plants and passed through the food chain to humans. This radiation is insidious; causing mutation in cells until the carrier contracts leukemia after five years, or cancer a decade after initial exposure. Too remote are these consequences to join the dots back to the original radiation. The EPA states that up to 25% of people exposed to the Fukushima radiation will develop cancer.
Reports like this one have prompted the Italian government to impose a year-long moratorium on nuclear development. The picturesque Italian town of Montalto di Castro is home to the shell of an old nuclear power station. The power station was abandoned after the Chernobyl nuclear incident prompted a similar moratorium in 1987. The skeletal remains of the power plant act as a reminder to the residents of the possibility of a nuclear future. The current moratorium has not appeased residents of Montalto. Deciding to take fate into their own hands, they have approved plans for one of Europe’s largest photovoltaic farms in the hopes that providing renewable sources of energy will put the kibosh on government nuclear ambitions. Solar technology has improved dramatically over recent months, surpassing nuclear as the cheapest way to produce energy.
Italians are not alone in their aversion to all things nuclear. Germany’s Chancellor Merkel, a former proponent of nuclear power, announced a three month moratorium on nuclear development and ordered the temporary closure of the seven oldest nuclear plants in order for security checks to be carried out. The plants are scheduled to be phased out in favour or renewable energy sources by 2030. Switzerland followed suit by suspending plans to build three new nuclear power stations.
The remaining European countries have been reticent to join the fray, agreeing only to test 143 nuclear plants to ensure safety. Europe has, of late, relied heavily on nuclear power to end its dependence on fossil fuels and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. However, as popular opinions sour, anti-nuclear protests are springing up and putting pressure on their governments to seek other means of powering Europe.
Nuclear power is a hell of a way to boil water. -Einstein
The devastation of the Japanese earthquake and the massive loss of life is a tragedy of such epic proportions that it is hard to assimilate the true magnitude of human suffering. The nuclear threat posed by the damage to Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant promises to escalate the already desperate situation. Gaping holes in statements released by the government do little to quell the fears of the Japanese people. With traces of radiation discovered as far afield as California, British Columbia and Iceland, the fear has spread and the very future of nuclear power plants is being called into question.
At this precarious time in the evolution of nuclear energy, it seems incongruous, insensitive even for hearings by the Ontario Power Generation (OPG) on the future of the Darlington nuclear plant to proceed. The hearings were orchestrated to entertain concerns about the two new nuclear reactors planned for the Darlington nuclear facility and the refurbishment of ten reactors at the Darlington and Bruce Power stations. The project will cement the province’s reliance on nuclear power for the next 20 years. The proposed refurbishments were originally estimated to cost $6 billion, but have since ballooned to a mind-blowing $33 billion dollars; a sum that will double hydro bills by the time the project is complete. A number of NGOs and citizens have voiced their opposition to the project. Green Peace protestors chained themselves to tables in an attempt to delay proceedings until a full investigation into the disaster at Fukushima in Japan could be conducted. A Greenpeace spokesman, Shawn-Patrick Stencil said that the protestors wished to prevent the hearings as they were only being held to legitimate the process.
Their argument that opposition to nuclear power is not heard by local government holds weight. When the Canadian Safety Commission gave permission for 64 decommissioned steam generators to be transported through the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence waterway to Sweden, massive protests ensued. Mayors from cities en-route and tribal chiefs opposed the initial shipment of 16 generators. The commission heard protests, but gave the green light despite the fact that no environmental assessment had been carried out.
Do the NGOs have a point? Are incidents like Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima unlikely or is nuclear power unsafe? Wade Allison, a nuclear and medical physicist from the University of Oxford, joins the ever-growing horde of proponents of nuclear power whose litany of assurances sounds remarkably like those issued by the Japanese government. The consensus is that the radiation, as a result of the Fukushima disaster, is not in levels that pose a danger to the public. This contradicts actions by the Japanese and American governments, who recently banned foodstuffs from the affected area and advised parents that the Tokyo water supply was not safe for consumption by minors. Allison argues that the fallout from Fukushima is only 1% that of Chernobyl. He says the acceptable rates of exposure are set too low at 1 mSv per year when a British person is already exposed to 2.7 mSv per year and that a cancer patient is exposed to 20 000 mSv to combat tumours. He suggests that the cells of cancer patients are able to regenerate and that this proves the body’s resistance to radiation. He also stated that no one died at Three Mile Island and that only 28 people succumbed at Chernobyl with a further 15 cases of childhood thyroid cancer which could have been prevented had the children been given iodine tablets.
Helen Caldicott, an outspoken opponent of nuclear energy, cites a New York Academy of Science study which places the death toll of Chernobyl at over a million. Radiation is insidious and may take years or decades to appear as cancer, birth defects and diseases that are difficult to tie to the original exposure. She agrees with experts that claim that surface radiation is low and is akin to radiation experienced during an X-ray. However, this radiation is absorbed into plant and water ecosystems and, consequently, by the animals that live in these systems. These are ingested by humans with disastrous consequences; “A very very tiny amount can mutate a single regulatory gene in a single cell to give you Leukemia in five years, or cancer 15 years later.” said Caldicott. Mutations in ovaries and testes result in birth defects and genetic diseases, thereby passing the legacy of exposure to future generations.
Caldicott appeared at the Darlington hearings with stern warnings about the safety of nuclear power. She claimed that small amounts of radiation leech from nuclear plants increasing background radiation in the air and water around them. She also pointed out that nuclear power is touted as ‘clean’, but the mining and enrichment of uranium is a wasteful process that produces a plethora of greenhouse gases.
Safety is not the only argument against nuclear power in Ontario. A recent study by NC WARN showed that the cost of solar energy has dropped to less than 15₵/ kWh while nuclear power costs 20₵/kWh. This does not take into account the cost of refurbishment and construction of nuclear facilities in the province. This makes the actions of the McGuinty government and its stalwart support of the nuclear programme even more baffling. Solar has proven to be reliable and clean and no one has ever died of solar fallout.