Sunday, 20 September 2020

No Debate on Nuclear Power for Me


My Story:

I was introduced to nuclear physics through my grade two teacher. Not that she taught any physics but she had a huge atomic table that she pulled down like a window blind over written exam questions on the blackboard.


I was fascinated with by the entire concept of elements – that these were the tiny bits that made up the entire world. That all the objects I knew including things that I drank, could be literally boiled down to these 90 + elements. Later in grade 7 or 8, the numbers on the squares acquired meaning and I was further enthralled by atoms and the adding or subtracting protons and neutrons to an atoms. 


In high school I was a “brain”, by today’s terms, a geek or nerd. All it seemed to do is scare people off. To add to the social unacceptability, I read Azimov and Heinlein science fiction long before it was popular.


In an honours physics course in university, I found my place amongst other students who dreamt of interstellar travel and atomic power. One time when we were talking about nuclear power, our physics professor brought up the issue of nuclear waste. In 1962, we students (it was a small honours class) all thought he was a bit of a fuddy duddy. Clearly the smart people working on nuclear power waste would get waste figured out before it was too big of a problem. 


Besides raising the problem of nuclear waste, Dr. Kendal maintained that the building of nuclear power plants was largely for the production of nuclear bombs. As he and I realized that my career was not going to be in physics, I spent more time with him simply in order to understand enough to pass. I thought that he seemed overly cynical but agreed with his position about the use of nuclear bombs. At the end of the school year, he gave me a black and silver lapel pin with the CND symbol which later became the “peace symbol”.


I fell for the “electricity too cheap to monitor” and “taming of the atom” literature. I supported the idea of “reprocessing” and “recycling” that swept the 1960’s and early 1970’s. When I found out that both of these processes exacerbate the problem of nuclear waste, I felt betrayed, upset that the ideas and the industry that I supported could be so fraudulent. It was 1976 when I revised my support saying “if they find an answer to the waste, I might change my mind”. The more I read of the history and science of nuclear power, the more appalled I become that our generation has allowed the world to become so polluted. 


As I write this, I think of my brand new grandchild – and all the other brand new babies that I’ve been meeting. And I couldn’t help feeling angry – angry that this still needs to be said, that the nefarious nuclear industry has politicians in its thrall. For decades our governments have sunk billions of dollars into research, construction, and followed up with public commissions to decide what to do about nuclear power or its waste.


What it doesn’t have in its thrall are investors and the financial markets. In fact, they have not invested private money in any substantial amounts since 1973. Wall street will not back the building of new nuclear power plants, no matter what size they are, so the industry is approaching governments where MPs can spend taxpayer money and try to look like they are doing “something for the environment”.


I’ve debated, taught or spoken about parts of this topic over the years since becoming interested. While working as the Executive Director of Physicians for Global Survival (Canadian affiliate of International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War) what started as a series of information pamphlets became a book, From Hiroshima to Fukushima to You


There is a risk to swimming against the nuclear tide. The nuclear industry has such political power to withstand criticism that a new generation of politicians have been snowballed into supporting it. The nuclear business includes nuclear media control. 


John Gofman, born in 1918, became both a physician and a physicist. He was recruited to the Manhattan project and, working under Oppenheimer, he was the first person to separate plutonium. He went on to discover uranium-232, uranium-233 and protactinium-232 & -233.  When the Manhattan project closed and scientists moved elsewhere, Dr. Gofman returned to a faculty position at Berkeley, California. In 1963, he became head of the Biomedical Research Division for the Livermore National Laboratory. In that position he was constantly directed to find no fault with nuclear power. In 1969, after he discovered a connection between radiation, chromosomal abnormalities and cancer, he co-published a paper asserting that “even low dose radiation harmed humans”. 


He said, “I realized that the entire nuclear program was based on a fraud – namely that there is a ‘safe’ amount of radiation, a permissible dose that wouldn’t hurt anyone.” After his research funding dried up, John went on to discover the lipids HDL & LDL, and demonstrated their role in heart disease. For this feat, he was honoured in 2007 as the “Father of Clinical Lipidology”. 


When this incredible man died, discoverer of four elements and two biological molecules, the New York Times obituary called him a “nuclear gadfly”. 


I’m a rural family physician. I am a jack or jill of all trades and a master or mistress of many. I know what the nuclear industry thinks of me because I see it on social media. Some of the names are unprintable.


Is nuclear power “green”?


The nuclear power reactor itself emits no greenhouse gases when it is operating. To be “green” however would mean that it should have “little or no environmental impact”. There is more to nuclear power than the power plant. Nuclear power includes mining, refining, enrichment, transportation from mine to refinery, transportation from refinery to manufacturing site, from manufacturing to nuclear power reactor. The energy required for enrichment itself would power a small city and must be continual. The amount of CO2 produced during the pouring of concrete, the smelting of the steel and the transportation of all these products has been estimated to require twenty years of clean operating to payback. 


Although the definition of “green” doesn’t mention waste, I would contend that any source of energy which produces waste for which there is no storage, no recycling, and which exists for hundreds of thousands of years cannot be classified as “green”? Since it produces more waste than it produces energy, can it be called green? Advertising itself as green is fraudulent.


Can nuclear power address climate change? There are currently 440 nuclear power plants in operation in the world. At full capacity[1], they would supply about 4% of the world’s energy. 


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But nuclear, like hydro, produces only electrical energy.


Nuclear proponents often compare the CO2 footprint, health impacts and waste with coal. So let’s try to replace the electricity gained from coal with that from nuclear power. How many nuclear power plants do we need? To increase the 10% number to even 50% of electrical power, we need about 2200! If we can produce 50% of the world's electrical power with nuclear, we would still be less than 10% of the total energy used!


According to the World Nuclear Association, there are a total of 55 nuclear power plants under construction today. Since it takes an average of ten years to build a single NPP, we would be needing to be building these 2000 NPP now. Aside from the question of whether we have enough technicians, physicists, and atomic workers to do the job, do we have enough places in the world to build them? Regular nuclear power plants need a lot of space, must be situated beside bodies of water for coolants, and have a secure electrical source of their own. 


Of these 55, several should be given special attention: 

1.    The Shidaowan Chinese reactor is the first fourth generation gas-cooled reactor in the world – it is expected to go on-line as a demonstration, so it planned to have a low output of electricity. No one knows if it will really work. Canada put millions of dollars into two Maple reactors which cannot be operated. 

2.    One of the major expenses in building a reactor is the length of time required so the Finnish Olkiluoto 3, a third generation reactor, was sold to the government as a “fast build” to decrease the costs. It was originally expected to go on-line in 2008, four years after the soil was turned. It will not be ready for loading with fuel until 2022. 

3.    Barakah1 is being built in the UAE. One of the problems with nuclear power is proliferation of nuclear weapons. With its sun, wind and petroleum, I suspect that the only reason for the UAE to get a nuclear reactor is to produce nuclear weapons for the Arab world. 

4.    The Vogtle 3 is one of the only two US NPP in construction – it has been in construction for over ten years, was the cause of a Westinghouse bankruptcy, and still there are questions about its opening date. A news release from May 2020 stated that “it will be extremely challenging for the two Toshiba-Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear reactors to be completed by November 2021 (for Unit 3) and November 2022 (for Unit 4)”.


Besides the length of time required, nuclear power plants average in the billions of dollars each. Neither the waste nor the metal used in the construction of the power plant can be recycled; there is no way to neutralize or turn off the process of waste creation once the power has been turned on. The waste will continue for thousands of years after it leaves the nuclear power plant.



I have said that I would not debate nuclear power and this is why. It is not green and it simply cannot come on-line fast enough with enough power to make even a dent in CO2 emissions. Had we all the will in the world to support nuclear power, technology could not rise to the occasion and given the on-going waste problem, it shouldn’t even try.



[1] They are rarely working at full capacity and some, more than others, are shut down for repairs, refurbishing or recharging.