Nothing clean and green about nuclear power
By Benjamin K. Sovacool, For The Straits Times
THE unfolding situation with the Fukushima No. 1 and Fukushima No. 2 plants in Japan has underscored the grave safety concerns with nuclear power, which has never had a laudable environmental record.
South-east Asian planners, including those in Singapore, often forget the serious environmental impact associated with other parts of the nuclear fuel cycle, especially those relating to uranium mining and climate change.
For example, the uranium needed to fuel all reactors, including those in Japan, is mined in three different ways: underground mining, open-pit mining and in-situ leaching. Each is hazardous, and bad for people and the environment.
Underground mining extracts uranium much like other minerals such as copper, gold and silver, and involves digging narrow shafts deep into the earth.
Open-pit mining, the most prevalent type, is similar to strip mining for coal, where upper layers of rock are removed so that machines can extract uranium.
Uranium miners perform in-situ leaching by pumping acid or alkaline liquid solutions into the areas surrounding uranium deposits.
In Australia, the third-largest producer of uranium, a detailed investigation of the environmental impact from the Rum Jungle mine found that it discharged acidic liquid wastes directly into creeks that flowed into the Finniss River.
The Roxby Downs mine has polluted the Arabunna people's traditional land with 80 million tonnes of annual dumped tailings, in addition to the mine's daily extraction of 30 million litres of water from the Great Artesian Basin. The Ranger mine has seen 120 documented leaks, spills and breaches of its tailings waste, which has seeped into waterways and contaminated the Kakuda wetlands. The Beverley mine has been fined for dumping liquid radioactive waste into groundwater.
In China, the country's largest uranium mine, No. 792, is reputed to dump untreated radioactive water directly into the Bailong River, a tributary of the Yangtze.
In India, researchers from the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai found that underground uranium mines at Bhatin, Narwapahar and Turamdih, along with the uranium enrichment plant at Jaduguda, discharged mine water and mill tailings contaminated with radionuclides such as radon and residual uranium, radium and other pollutants directly into local water supplies.
Such examples have not been chosen selectively, with scores of serious documented incidents also at uranium mines in Brazil, Canada, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, South Africa, Tajikistan, the United States, Uzbekistan and a slew of African states - virtually every major country where it is produced.
Even climate change, an issue the nuclear industry has been quick to rally around, does not bode favourably for new nuclear plants. Reprocessing and enriching uranium require a substantial amount of electricity, often generated by fossil fuel-fired power plants. Uranium milling, mining, leaching, plant construction and decommissioning all produce substantial amounts of greenhouse gases.
When one takes into account the carbon-equivalent emissions associated with the entire nuclear life cycle, nuclear plants contribute significantly to climate change - and will contribute even more as stockpiles of high-grade uranium are depleted.
An assessment of 103 life-cycle studies of greenhouse gas-equivalent emissions for nuclear power plants found that the average carbon dioxide emissions over the typical lifetime of a plant are about 66g for every kilowatt hour (kwh), or the equivalent of about 183 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2005.
If the global nuclear industry were taxed at a rate of US$24 (S$31) per tonne for the carbon-equivalent emissions associated with its life cycle, the cost of nuclear power would increase by about US$4.4 billion per year.
A secondary impact is that by producing large amounts of heat, nuclear power plants contribute directly to global warming by increasing the temperature of water bodies and localised atmospheres around each facility.
The carbon-equivalent emissions of the nuclear life cycle will only get worse, not better, because, over time, reprocessed fuel is depleted, necessitating a shift to fresh ore, and reactors must utilise lower-quality ores as higher-quality ones are depleted.
The Oxford Research Group projects that because of this inevitable shift to lower-quality uranium ore, if the percentage of world nuclear capacity remains what it is today, by 2050, nuclear power would generate as much carbon dioxide per kwh as comparable natural gas-fired power stations.
These two factors - the environmental degradation with uranium mining, and the associated greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear power facilities - mean that regardless of whatever happens in Japan, nuclear power is in no way clean, green or carbon-free.
The writer is an assistant professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
Mar 17, 2011
By Bruce Gale, Senior Writer
ONE of the most far-reaching effects of last week's earthquake in Japan will almost certainly be the way in which the damage to Japan's nuclear power plants from the resultant tsunami forces Asian nations to rethink their energy strategies.
Using nuclear power plants to produce electricity has always been controversial in East and South-east Asia.
The region's proximity to major geological fault lines - making many countries vulnerable to devastating earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions - is just one reason. Another is the corruption and lax enforcement of safety regulations that regularly feature in news reports about disasters such as airline accidents.
Simply put, many Asians do not trust their governments to do the right thing. If a country as well-run and technologically sophisticated as Japan cannot ensure its nuclear plants are safe, what hope is there that things will be different in countries where technical expertise is limited and corruption is almost a way of life?
In the months preceding the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan, many Asian governments, including oil producers such as Indonesia and Malaysia, had announced plans to construct nuclear power plants. The idea was to ensure a more balanced energy supply by reducing dependence on increasingly expensive oil- and coal-fired plants.
Environmentalist groups have long opposed such moves, and have occasionally forced governments to alter their plans. But protesters have not been influential enough to change the general direction of government policy.
In the space of a few days, however, all that has changed. On Monday, the Taiwanese legislature passed a motion calling for an immediate halt to construction of the island's fourth nuclear power plant, with lawmakers demanding that it be redesigned to withstand a 9.0 magnitude earthquake.
And in Thailand, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva announced that the government was reconsidering plans for five nuclear power plants under its 20-year development programme.
In the Philippines, where opposition to nuclear power has historically been among the strongest in the region, plans to rehabilitate the controversial Bataan power plant will almost certainly be postponed. The Philippines built the facility during the Marcos dictatorship, but the plant was never commissioned. President Corazon Aquino mothballed it, acceding to the demands of critics who argued that the facility's location in an earthquake zone raised serious questions about its safety.
Malaysia is not known for devastating earthquakes. Even so, opposition to official plans to build nuclear power plants in that country has also grown strongly in the past few days.
Across the region, officials responsible for implementing nuclear energy plans are holding out against a growing tide of public criticism, insisting that nuclear power can be made safe.
But convincing Asian populations is not going to be easy, particularly in the wake of reports of near panic in Tokyo as radiation levels rise. In Japan's Fukushima prefecture, the layers of redundancy in the plant's electricity supply and cooling systems clearly were not sufficient. Diesel generators designed to kick in when the plant lost grid electricity due to the earthquake were washed away by the tsunami. And back-up batteries were unable to power the water pumps needed to keep the reactor cool.
Nuclear power proponents counter by noting that the Japanese plant was 40 years old, and the newer designs would have prevented such developments.
Public distrust of governments, however, runs deep in many Asian nations. Last month, when Bangka Belitung governor Eko Maulana Ali announced that the Indonesian province, which lies north-east of South Sumatra, had selected sites on two geologically 'safe' islands for nuclear power plants, postings on The Jakarta Post website that reported the news were almost uniformly negative.
An earlier proposal to construct a nuclear power plant at Muria, Central Java, had been abandoned after protests from residents expressing concern about the impact of earthquakes and volcanoes.
One reader, who called himself Brahma Putra, was particularly unimpressed: 'Imagine the concrete casing cracking because someone used inferior cement and pocketed the change. But what really sends shivers down the spine is thinking what will they do with the nuclear waste.'
These issues are not directly relevant to the disaster in Japan. But by raising awareness of the inherent risks of nuclear power and the need for elaborate safety measures, they may provide a clue to the future of Asia's energy industry.
As plans for nuclear power plants across the region are postponed or cancelled, coal- and oil-fired power plants will inevitably take up the slack. Renewable energy - notably wind, thermal and solar power - may also get more official attention, even if the resulting impact on total energy output remains minimal.
Meanwhile, nuclear power is likely to develop fastest and with the least popular resistance in countries where populations have greater trust in the ability of governments to ensure that such facilities remain safe.