20 June 07
The Sunday Age
A Doctor’s Nuclear Terror
Our participation in the ‘war on terror’ causes me mild anxiety, but I am truly terrified by the prospect of a full scale nuclear industry in Australia. That’s what we’ll get if the present federal government is re-elected, judging by recent statements from John Howard and Resources Minister Macfarlane. Given the known involvement of big business and a positive report from a hand-picked committee – headed, of course, by the PM’s favourite nuclear physicist – be assured that progress to that dreadful end is proceeding apace, if quietly. We the punters are the objects of a mighty PR scam currently being run by the industry, talking up the prospects of their lucrative faustian bargain and talking down the alternatives.
Nuclear power is not the answer to global warming. It’s anything but that, and will compound the already dire situation we are facing. The electricity generated is not ‘clean and green’ as the industry claims, since huge amounts of fossil fuels are needed to mine and refine the uranium, to construct the massive concrete reactors, and to transport & store the toxic radioactive waste. Large amounts of the now banned CFCs, 10-20,000 times more efficient at trapping atmospheric heat than CO2 and potent destroyers of the ozone layer, are emitted during uranium enrichment. The supply of uranium is very limited, and as the grade of available uranium ore declines even more fossil fuel will be required to extract it.
Even smoothly running nuclear reactors routinely emit hundreds of thousands of curies of radioactive gases and other toxic elements into the environment annually. Thousands of tons of intensely radioactive waste are accumulating in the cooling pools beside hundreds of reactors throughout the world; they must inevitably contaminate the environment and human food chains, leading to epidemics of cancer, leukaemia and genetic disease for countless generations to come. There is still no safe way to store radioactive waste, especially for the mind-blowing time scales involved – hundreds of thousands of years; orders of magnitude greater than the possible duration of any civilization. Plutonium, just one by-product of nuclear reactors, remains radioactive for half a million years and is the fuel for nuclear bombs. If inhaled, less than one millionth of a gram will cause lung cancer. Once inside the body it selectively triggers leukaemia and cancers of bone, liver and testicle, and it is highly teratogenic. 2kg of plutonium will make an effective atomic bomb, and there are now hundreds of tons of it lying around the world, some of it relatively unguarded.
Nuclear power is exorbitantly expensive and notoriously unreliable. Wall St is most reluctant to re-initiate any nuclear investment (after the tragic meltdowns of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island), despite massive US Government subsidies. Chernobyl is a medical and economic catastrophe that will plague much of Russia, Belarus, the Ukraine and Europe for the rest of time. In Britain 28 years later and 1500 miles from the accident, 382 farms containing 226,500 sheep are severely restricted because levels of Cesium 137 in the meat are too high. In Belarus from 1986-2001, 8358 cases of thyroid cancer occurred, with more than 1000 in children and adolescents, something previously unheard of. Information on the spread of radiation after Three Mile Island has been suppressed, but 145,000 people packed up and fled, jamming the highways. Local physicians fled with their families, leaving their hospital patients to fend for themselves.
Nuclear power plants are obvious targets for terrorists, inviting assault by plane, truck bomb, armed attack or covert control room intrusion. In England soon after 9/11, Greenpeace commissioned studies to examine the results of an aerial attack on the Sellafield nuclear complex. To their horror, they discovered that 3.5 million people could be killed, and sat on these reports for a year, uncertain whether to release them; one scenario described a radioactive fireball a mile high. It would take only a four minute diversion from regular jumbo jet flight paths, and twenty five times as much radiation as emitted from Chernobyl would be released.
The good news is that in 2004, worldwide renewable energy sources (excluding hydroelectricity from large dams) added 509 times the capacity contributed by nuclear power. They already dwarf the annual growth of nuclear power generation – by 2010 they should add 177 times more capacity than nuclear power provides. For a very well-researched and lucid account of the alarming facts behind current attempts to revive this until recently moribund industry, read Dr Helen Caldicott’s little book “Nuclear Power is Not the Answer to Global Warming, or anything else.”
Not for nothing is uranium called ‘the metal of menace’. It’s bad enough that we push the stuff; must we have it rammed down our throats by troglodyte politicians in thrall to the big end of town? At times one yearns for leadership; our present leaders have been lamentably slow in facing up to climate change. At others, their rush to make appalling decisions is breathtaking. It is no small irony that having for years denied climate change, John Howard now uses it to justify going nuclear. Facing a watershed election, we should all consider carefully the unending terror of a nuclear industry in this country.
Dr Rod Anderson, Sandringham