The hit HBO series Chernobyl portrays in chilling detail the horror of a serious nuclear accident and the scale of the destruction it can unleash. Predictably, the series has provoked a backlash from the nuclear lobby, which has sought to downplay the seriousness of the accident and spruik the potential of nuclear power as a “clean, green” alternative to fossil fuels.
Melbourne Herald Sun columnist and Sky News host Andrew Bolt has led the charge in Australia, questioning the results of research by the World Health Organisation and others about the scale of the Chernobyl casualties. According to the ABC’s Media Watch, in the first half of June more than a dozen articles in support of Australia developing nuclear power were published in the Murdoch press alone.
Bolt and Co. have some powerful backers. Writing at RenewEconomy, Jim Green points out that nuclear power has become something of a political talisman for those on the far right, with figures such as Clive Palmer, Tony Abbott, Cory Bernardi, Barnaby Joyce, Mark Latham, Jim Molan, Craig Kelly, Eric Abetz and David Leyonhjelm all expressing their support.
On one level, as Green argues, nuclear power is just another front in the broader “culture wars”, and as such is likely to remain marginal to the debate about Australia’s energy policy. But when you add the likes of the Minerals Council of Australia, the Business Council of Australia, the Institute of Public Affairs and conservative radio host Alan Jones – all strong advocates of nuclear power, and all closely linked to the recently re-elected Coalition government – the pro-nuclear club suddenly seems like a force to be reckoned with.
There is strong pressure coming from within the Coalition’s ranks to overturn the current ban on nuclear power. A group from Queensland, led by MP Keith Pitt and senator James McGrath, is pushing for a feasibility study of nuclear power in Australia, and environment minister Sussan Ley has said she’s open to reviewing the ban.
And nuclear power isn’t as unpopular as you might think. Recent polling by Essential found that 44 percent of Australians support it, an increase of 4 percent from their last survey in November 2015, while 40 percent oppose it (tellingly, however, only 28 percent report being “comfortable living close to a nuclear power plant”).
With any luck, the popularity of Chernobyl will help inoculate more people against the arguments of the nuclear lobby. But there can be no doubt that the push to develop nuclear power in Australia will continue. And there can equally be no doubt that nuclear power, far from being a clean, green alternative to fossil fuels, is an inherently dangerous and destructive technology that Australia, and the world, can do without.
The nuclear industry is like a crucible in which all the most destructive and irrational elements of capitalism have been melded into a single deadly alloy. It’s not just nuclear power itself that’s the source of the danger. It’s the whole nuclear cycle – from the mining of uranium, to the use of that uranium in nuclear power stations, the production of radioactive waste and, most threateningly, the production of nuclear weapons.
The first stage of the cycle – the mining of uranium, the fuel used in nuclear power stations – is particularly relevant to Australia, home to an estimated 31 percent of the world’s known uranium reserves.
Uranium mining requires huge volumes of water – an obvious problem in arid Australia – and produces large quantities of toxic “tailings” which threaten the surrounding environment and people.
The historical record speaks for itself. According to the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, over the 38 years of operation of the Northern Territory’s Ranger mine, there have been around 200 leaks, spills or other breaches of the mine’s operating licence. In 2013, the collapse of a leach tank resulted in a spill of about 1 million litres of radioactive waste over the mine site.
Australian business heads and governments have long had an eye on further uranium mines. The anti-nuclear movements of the 1970s and early 1980s, as well as the later campaign against the proposed Jabiluka uranium mine (see article in this issue), kept this aspiration in check. In recent years, however, state and federal governments have renewed the push.
The South Australian government is supporting a proposal by BHP to expand massively the operations of its existing Olympic Dam mine – which contains the largest single uranium deposit in the world. And the day before the last election was called, the federal government abruptly announced its approval of a new uranium mine in Western Australia.
The next stage in the nuclear cycle is the use of enriched uranium in nuclear power plants. Supporters of nuclear power claim it’s the safest form of power generation. But this factors in only the most immediate and direct impacts. Take Chernobyl, for example. Andrew Bolt’s claim that fewer than 100 people died is based on the (by far) most conservative assessment – which focusses almost exclusively on deaths from radiation sickness in the first few months after the disaster – and massively downplays the long term increase in the rate of cancer among radiation-exposed populations.
A 2006 report by Greenpeace – involving 52 scientists using demographic data and cancer statistics from Belarus, Ukraine and Russia – found that total Chernobyl-related deaths are likely to reach into the hundreds of thousands.
And unlike other sorts of accidents, nuclear accidents have long-term effects, poisoning the earth and human health for decades afterwards and resulting in mass evacuations, with many people unable ever to return to their homes.
Beyond the risk of accidents, there are many other downsides to nuclear power. One particularly relevant factor for Australia is that nuclear reactors require massive amounts of water. A typical US reactor, for example, consumes 114 million litres of water an hour. To put this in perspective, total residential water consumption in Melbourne, a city of 4.8 million people, in 2018 was around 32 million litres an hour.
The need for water means that reactors must be located close to rivers, lakes, dams or the ocean. In Australia, this would inevitably mean reactors would need to be built in or near densely populated areas.
Another downside to nuclear power is the cost and time involved in constructing new reactors. As Peter Farley of Engineers Australia wrote in RenewEconomy earlier this year, “The 2,200 MW Plant Vogtle [a new nuclear plant in the US] is costing US$25 billion plus financing costs, insurance and long term waste storage ... For the full cost of US$30 billion, we could build 7,000 MW of wind, 7,000 MW of tracking solar, 10,000 MW of rooftop solar, 5,000 MW of pumped hydro and 5,000 MW of batteries”.
International financial advisory firm Lazard’s 2018 Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis found that nuclear power was significantly more expensive than gas, coal, or renewable energy sources like solar and wind. For new nuclear, it estimated the cost at US$112-189 per megawatt hour. The cost of power generation from coal was US$60-143. Wind and utility-scale solar were significantly cheaper, at US$29-56 and US$36-46 respectively.
The world’s 450 or so operative nuclear reactors produce only around 11 percent of the electricity supply. Any significant increase in this proportion would require a massive program of construction – on the order of 1,000 new plants over the next decade.
According to the most generous estimates, the cost of constructing a single new nuclear reactor is between US$5 and $10 billion (and the necessary decommissioning of the average reactor now costs an estimated US$500 million). So for the construction of 1,000, we would be looking at up to US$10 trillion. In addition, there is related infrastructure such as new uranium mines, enrichment and transportation facilities, waste storage facilities and so on. But if there are trillions of dollars available for nuclear, why not use that money to fund a global shift to a combination of wind, solar, tidal and other renewable sources that could much more cheaply and sustainably provide for the world’s energy needs?
The next stage in the destructive nuclear cycle concerns what happens with the tens of thousands of tonnes of radioactive waste produced by the nuclear industry annually. This waste remains extremely harmful for, on some scientific estimates, more than a million years. Safe storage over such an immense time frame is difficult, to say the least.
The record of leaks at storage sites over just a few decades highlights the problem. In 2008 a German nuclear waste disposal facility buried deep in a disused salt mine was found to have been leaking radioactive waste for more than two decades. The 126,000 barrels of waste at the facility currently lie jumbled in piles under now radioactive water. The German government has been unable to remove the waste or decontaminate the site.
More recently, in February 2014, one of the world’s three so-called “deep nuclear repositories”, in the US state of New Mexico, had to be shut down after a drum containing radioactive material burst open – contaminating not only the underground tunnel in which it was stored, but, via the ventilation system, the air outside the facility. Thirteen workers subsequently tested positive for radiation exposure.
No wonder, then, that those advocating the construction of a nuclear waste dump in regional South Australia have found it so difficult to convince local communities of the benefits. Perhaps, if the business leaders and politicians who support the plan are so keen on a dump, they should volunteer to have it built near where they live.
So why would anyone in their right mind think nuclear power is a good idea? To answer this, you have to consider the final stage in the cycle – the production of nuclear weapons. This has always been a prime consideration for nuclear proponents, including in Australia. Once you’ve got the technology for nuclear power, you’re only a short step away from producing nuclear weapons.
In fact, historically it was nuclear weapons that came first – nuclear power was an afterthought. The first nuclear reactor in the US was built solely to produce the plutonium required for the manufacture of bombs. It was only later that the potential to profit from the generation of electricity from fission led to the development of a nuclear power industry.
The current push to develop Australia’s nuclear industry has to be understood in this context. With tensions increasing between the US and China, sections of Australia’s foreign policy establishment are increasingly pushing for the development of an independent nuclear “deterrent”. This would mean that Australia could project its power across the region free from its current reliance on the cover provided by the US nuclear umbrella.
Such a project would take many years. But the first step would be the development of a nuclear power industry. This is why nuclear proponents are unlikely to be dissuaded by arguments based on unfavourable cost comparisons with other sources of energy like wind or solar. The point of nuclear power, for the capitalist ruling class, isn’t a cheap and “green” source of energy – whatever its proponents might say. It’s to lay the basis for nuclear weapons – an objective the government doesn’t need much persuading to support.
However hard you might try, you won’t be able to reprocess wind turbines or solar panels into weapons that can wipe out entire cities. And this, for the likes of Tony Abbott and other nuclear proponents, is a big mark against them.
All this, of course, is mad. In fact, it’s very much in line with the logic of “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) that prevailed during the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, and which brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation on numerous occasions. Albert Einstein once said, “I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones”. This warning is yet to be heeded.
While there are fewer active nuclear warheads in the world today than in the days of MAD, the estimated 15,000 bombs that do exist are more than enough to wipe out all human civilisation. And the members of the world’s “nuclear club” are busy modernising their arsenals. The US government, for example, plans to spend around US$500 billion on its nuclear weapons program over the next decade.
And far from being about “deterrence”, the US military is itching to use them. In June, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff briefly released on the internet a document titled “Nuclear Weapons: Planning and Targeting” before deleting it a few days later. It argued that “using nuclear weapons could create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability” – ominous words for anyone living in Iran or any other country in the US military’s sights.
From any rational perspective, nuclear makes no sense. But just as it made sense to the Stalinist rulers of the USSR in the 1980s, it makes sense to the big energy companies and capitalist states that control the world’s most powerful states today. Australia is one of them, so we shouldn’t be surprised the industry is making a comeback here amongst business heads and politicians who foresee not only the potential for windfall profits from every stage of the nuclear cycle, but also the capacity to develop the ultimate weapon of mass destruction to boost their power on the world stage.
The era of “mutually assured destruction” is not over. The underlying competitive dynamics that brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War are very much with us today.