Cameron Wigmore, Green Party Member: July 2007

July 18, 2007

Nuclear Energy Not Needed Not Wanted

I thought I was done for now with posts on nuclear energy, but before I move on to other subjects on my blog, here are a few more recent news stories and some more thoughts on the subject. I don't have much to add here. I think these stories and the information at the links below speak for themselves.

Japanese nuclear leak bigger than first reported
cbc news July 18, 2007

A leak of radioactive water from a Japanese nuclear power plant was 50 per cent larger than first reported...

...The tremor initially triggered a small fire at an electrical transformer in the sprawling plant. It was announced 12 hours later that the quake also caused a leak of water containing radioactive material.

The company also said a small amount of the radioactive materials cobalt-60 and chromium-51 had been emitted into the atmosphere from an exhaust stack...

More about this here, here and here.

Strangely, there are some serious problems with the nuclear energy industry in Germany occurring at about the same time.

German Mishaps Put Nuclear Power under Scrutiny
Spiegel Online July 16 '07

The company at first said it was just a small fire. But the blaze at Vattenfall's Krümmel reactor has since become a political wildfire. Now, Germany's pro-nuclear energy politicians have gone into hiding.


Nuclear power has received a tremendous boost since climate change has made Germans suddenly fearful about the future. Regional politicians like Oettinger, Roland Koch of Hesse and Edmund Stoiber of Bavaria, as well as CDU General Secretary Ronald Pofalla, have become increasingly vocal proponents of extending the shelf life of nuclear power plants. But during the last two weeks or so, amid thick clouds of smoke enveloping a nuclear power plant in Krümmel and reports of technical failures, human error and corporate incompetence, opponents of nuclear power see their arguments gaining credence once again. Suddenly the Social Democrats, especially Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel, see themselves justified in taking the position that nuclear energy is a "risky technology." "German nuclear power plants are the safest worldwide," Gabriel said acerbically last week, "aside from the occasional explosion or fire."


The reason for the change in thinking is clear. Whereas most of the some 130 reactor incidents reported annually in Germany are minor and go unnoticed, smoke pouring out of a transformer as happened in Krümmel tends to attract attention. It took the fire department hours to extinguish the blaze. Even worse, the plant operator's claim that a fire in the transformer had no effect on the reactor itself proved to be a lie.

In short, the incident has made it clear that nuclear energy is by no means the modern, well-organized high-tech sector portrayed until recently by politicians and industry advocates. Indeed, the frequency of problems occurring at Germany's aging reactors is on the rise. Just as old cars will eventually succumb to rust, the country's nuclear power plants, built in the 1970s and 80s, are undergoing a natural aging process.

The problems are complicated by maintenance and supervision issues among aging and unmotivated employees. A dangerously lackadaisical attitude has taken hold that is making Germany's nuclear power plants increasingly unsafe. Most incidents to date have proven to be relatively minor, and yet each new incident becomes yet another link in a chain of problems with the potential to end in a serious accident.


Vattenfall has now come under increased scrutiny. "We are taking a careful look at what's happening in Germany," says Peter Rickwood, a spokesman of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). After an incident at the Forsmark nuclear power plant in Sweden last year, in which two backup generators broke down and the reactor had to be operated "flying blind" for 20 minutes, Vattenfall submitted a report to the IAEA that clearly glossed over the seriousness of the situation. The same pattern seems to have emerged in the Krümmel incident, as well as at the Brunsbüttel plant, where the reactor was temporarily shut down because of a "network problem." In both cases Vattenfall's report assigns the lowest problem classification -- "N" for normal -- to the incidents.

This blatant effort to downplay problems at the reactors has even led to ill will against Vattenfall management among employees. "Our people working in the nuclear power plant are not permitted to say anything, but they are furious," says Uwe Martens, the managing director of the Hamburg branch of the services union Ver.di. Indeed, Thomauske chose to blame others at the lower end of the hierarchy for the Krümmel incident. According to Thomauske, a "misunderstanding" between the reactor manager and the shift manager led to the inadvertent opening of valves. Another unanswered question is why up to 25 people were congregated in the reactor's operating room at the time of the accident.


Some of these problems are attributable to constant repairs at the plants, repairs that are also long overdue at German nuclear power plants. In a 55-page report, Germany's Reactor Safety Commission (RSC), which advises Gabriel's environment ministry, writes about "containing the aging processes" and that some age-related problems are only being discovered by chance. According to the RSC, these problems are difficult to correct, partly because "suppliers and manufacturers are no longer in business."

The 31-year-old Neckarwestheim I reactor -- along with the Biblis A reactor, Germany's oldest reactor still in operation -- is one of a group of nuclear dinosaurs where problems have become the rule rather than the exception. When a fire broke out in a major incident in October 2005, the reactor had to be shut down manually. The state environment ministry in Stuttgart had imposed a €25,000 fine on the plant's operator shortly before the incident. It had taken the operator, EnBW, about 20 days to discover a leak of radioactively contaminated water into the Neckar River, and another nine days to report the problem.

More on this story here & here.

The following are some bits of information relevant to my recent discussions with some nuclear energy advocates. Some pro-nuclear lobbyists prefer to avoid issues of social justice relating to DU weapons and Canada's role. Others have argued that we simply 'need nuclear energy', which is a false statement, unless we collectively avoid renewable technologies and efficiency/conservation measures, and we assume that our consumption rates will increase evermore unsustainably. Other nuclear advocates have tried to say that nuclear energy is cheap and safe, but both points are relative, meaning we have to decide for ourselves if continued government subsidies of taxpayer dollars and frequent accidents qualify as 'cheap' or 'safe'. Don't believe the hype if you're told that nuclear is a solution to climate change. One can easily dig up articles and studies on why nuclear is not a solution to climate change.

If the stories in this post leave you wanting more, please see my previous posts on nuclear energy.

An interesting article by Tom Adams (executive director of Energy Probe) carried in the Globe & Mail July 16 '07 called The Nuclear Shield states that "acts of gross negligence by suppliers of nuclear goods and services – the kind of mistakes that might cause nuclear reactors to explode – will no longer be protected from liability under a proposed law that passed first reading in the House of Commons last month."

This story goes on to state the following:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's new law will also provide more time for victims of radiation poisoning to claim compensation. Under existing law, any cancers that turn up more than 10 years after an accident cannot be compensated; the new version would give victims 30 years. However, research on survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki shows radiation-induced cancers even 60 years after their exposure.

Mr. Harper's generosity with nuclear accident victims knows other bounds, too. When the original Nuclear Liability Act was passed in 1970, damage compensation was limited to $75-million – about $415-million in today's currency. The new liability limit is $650-million. But in the 1970s, Canada's nuclear neighbourhoods had many fewer inhabitants. For example, Pickering, which now hosts six working reactors and two retired ones, had a population of 24,800 when its municipal boundaries were set in 1974. It was 94,700 last year. Each Pickering resident's liability coverage has shrunk to about 40 per cent of what it was in 1974 – if their community was contaminated by an accident, the new liability limit would be exhausted after paying out 10 cents per dollar of dwelling value, leaving no coverage for household contents, commercial property, disruption, lost income, injuries or death.

Nor would nuclear neighbours get any help from their own insurance, since all homeowner's and renter's policies contain a nuclear exclusion clause. There is no disagreement among professional risk experts on this one issue – the insurance and nuclear industries agree that the risk of a reactor accident is just too scary to bear without special protection.

Will CANDU Do? by Paul Webster Published in the September 2006 issue

According to a recent article, the Tar Sands will Need 20 Candu Nuclear Plants in Northern Alberta.
Wayne Henuset, head of Energy Alberta, could not be reached for comment.

Nuclear reactor a rerun, according to research team Whitecourt Star May 16/2007
(I find this story interesting because
Wayne Henuset, President of Energy Alberta, tries to defend his choice to pursue a CANDU nuclear reactor.)

Here's an interesting exploration of the economics of CANDU reactors from Wikipedia, a site where information is usually fairly reliable but always deserves a further fact checking.

More about CANDU reactors from the Energy Probe site.

Here's a long list of problems with CANDU reactors and nuclear energy.

An article, archived in The Canadian Encyclopedia from Maclean's magazine, called CANDU Flawed shows a snapshot of problems from ten years ago.

Harper embraces the nuclear future ( May '07)

REALITY CHECK: Robert Sheppard
Is a Candu really the answer for Alberta's oilsands?
( January 11, 2007)
Check out the comments after the article.

Towards a Nuclear-Free Canada (Sierra Club of Canada)

All Levels of Radiation Confirmed to Cause Cancer (Sierra Club of Canada)

Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility

OUR DEADLY SECRET: Tracing Saskatchewan's Role in the Proliferation of Nuclear WMD By Jim Harding, Ph.D.

Canada's Role in Depleted Uranium (DU) Weapons worldwide

Depleted Uranium and Canada's Role

US Forces' Use of Depleted Uranium Weapons is 'Illegal'

July 2, 2007

Fossil Fuel Free in 20 Years

Prospects for renewable power are promising. But it means nothing if the public interest is drowned by corporate power...
George Monbiot Tuesday July 3, 2007 The Guardian

Before I get to the comment piece by George Monbiot, I'd like to reflect on my last few posts about energy.

Lately I've been under attack on my blog from a few pro-nuclear folks. They have been trying unsuccessfully to argue that we need nuclear energy, and that it's a good idea. In the end they've all been unable to argue against the many reasons why nuclear is a bad idea, they continually quote biased studies that rely on assumptions that energy demands will definitely rise (not true, if we embark on aggressive conservation and efficiency measures) and there's no other way to meet them, which is also untrue, since along with conservation, renewables can meet our demands.

We can meet energy demands by reducing consumption and enforcing energy conservation, while significantly ramping up renewable energies.

The problems with using nuclear energy include a lack of long term focus on conservation, threat of terrorist attacks, no acceptable solution to long term radioactive waste storage, providing materials for depleted uranium weapons, not a solution to climate change, unsustainable (especially without ample fossil fuels to provide energy for construction, maintenance, decommissioning and allowing for proper future storage for nuclear waste), and the extreme cost to taxpayers in form of industry subsidies.

Please see my previous posts on energy and nuclear power for more reference documents, studies, articles and discussion comments.

Now for the Monbiot comment piece published today in the Guardian online. Here's a different link to this article, along with a few quotes below.

Reading a scientific paper on the train this weekend, I found, to my amazement, that my hands were shaking. This has never happened to me before, but nor have I ever read anything like it. Published by a team led by James Hansen at Nasa, it suggests that the grim reports issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change could be absurdly optimistic...

...Unaware of the causes of our good fortune, blissfully detached from their likely termination, we drift into catastrophe.

Or we are led there. A good source tells me that the British government is well aware that its target for cutting carbon emissions - 60% by 2050 - is too little too late, but that it will go no further for one reason: it fears losing the support of the Confederation of British Industry. Why this body is allowed to keep holding a gun to our heads has never been explained, but Gordon Brown has just appointed Digby Jones, its former director-general, as a minister in the department responsible for energy policy. I don't remember voting for him. There could be no clearer signal that the public interest is being drowned by corporate power...

...Until recently I guessed that the maximum contribution from renewables would be something like 50%: beyond that point the difficulties of storing electricity and balancing the grid could become overwhelming. But three papers now suggest that we could go much further.

Last year, the German government published a study of the effects of linking the electricity networks of all the countries in Europe and connecting them to north Africa and Iceland with high-voltage direct-current cables. This would open up a much greater variety of renewable power sources. Every country in the network would then be able to rely on stable and predictable supplies from elsewhere: hydroelectricity in Scandinavia and the Alps, geothermal energy in Iceland and vast solar thermal farms in the Sahara. By spreading the demand across a much wider network, it suggests that 80% of Europe's electricity could be produced from renewable power without any greater risk of blackouts or flickers.

At about the same time, Mark Barrett, of University College London, published a preliminary study looking mainly at ways of altering the pattern of demand for electricity to match the variable supply from wind and waves and tidal power. At about twice the current price, he found that we might be able to produce as much as 95% of our electricity from renewable sources without causing interruptions in the power supply.

Now a new study by the Centre for Alternative Technology takes this even further. It is due to be published next week, but I have been allowed a preview. It is remarkable in two respects: it suggests that by 2027 we could produce 100% of our electricity without the use of fossil fuels or nuclear power, and that we could do so while almost tripling its supply: our heating systems (using electricity to drive heat pumps) and our transport systems could be mostly powered by it...

This is exciting to me, as it reaffirms my own position that we can and must meet our energy needs through a combination of conservation & efficiency measures, as well as renewable technologies, with no fossil fuels or nuclear power, and the effect to our lifestyles would be minimal.

Now when I say 'minimal', what I mean is that a big chunk of the responsibility sits with our government to provide energy efficiency incentives, rebates, and to have the political will to remove taxpayer subsidies from oil & gas and nuclear energy industries and invest them instead in renewable energies. Still, much of the responsibility sits with the citizens, and we must be diligent in our personal efforts to use energy wisely. The really good news is that it saves us money when we use less energy, so in the end it's a win for our wallets too.

More from Monbiot on energy related matters:

Thanks, But We Still Don’t Need It - July 11, 2006 - Some of the arguments against nuclear power are no longer valid, but it remains the wrong technology.

Two Kinds of Mass Death - September 7, 2004 - The argument for nuclear power has strengthened, but it’s still not good enough.

What if the Oil Runs Out? - May 29, 2007 - Though the government is planning a massive expansion of transport networks, it has never considered this question.

A Lethal Solution - Posted March 27, 2007 - We need a five-year freeze on biofuels, before they wreck the planet.