In the Soviet Union a scientist is blinded/By the resumption of nuclear testing and he is reminded/That Dr Robert Oppenheimer’s optimism fell/At the first hurdle

That was long, but I really love that line. It’s also a song he changes up a lot when playing live.

Anyway. This again is nil on economics. I feel bad. The Environmental Economics guys have all sorts of links, and here I am dumping nuclear waste with overfishing. They also have more readers, though. And advertising. So

Today’s Independent (the good newspaper with the, er, off-putting front pages – actually that’s unfair I catch trains every day with people who wave the Daily News and New York Post happily about) has a nuclear clusterfuck kind of story (they are not alone):

A decaying Russian nuclear dump inside the Arctic Circle is threatening to catch fire or explode, turning it into a “dirty bomb” that could impact the whole of northern Europe, including the British Isles.

Experts are warning that sea water and intense cold are corroding a storage facility at Andreeva Bay, on the Kola Peninsula near Murmansk. It contains more than 20,000 discarded fuel rods from nuclear submarines and some nuclear-powered icebreakers.

Goody gumdrops, what? The deal with the tanks:

7,000 nuclear fuel rods are stored in each tank. Each rod hangs separately, encased in a metal tube to prevent any uncontrolled reaction.

Seawater enters through cracks in the tank and erodes the rods, causing them to fall into the salt water that has collected in the tube.

Hydrogen is released when the rods corrode. A spark from another falling rod could ignite this highly explosive gas, setting off an “uncontrolled explosion”.

This, for me, is one (or even both) of the two reasons why nuclear power cannot be countenanced. Certainly our government are favourable. John Howard likes them, the Blair government (or whatever it is) likes them. That the Bush administration is a fan should go without saying. Also we have the most of it, I believe.

Even the likes of Wired magazine and the EPA for what they’re worth these days) have a fondness for nuclear energy. So green it glows! (can you believe I lost my job at that Madison Avenue firm?). Hell even Greenpeace is more-or-less on board.

In operation, nuclear energy is considered the cleanest. That’s when operating (properly). The two problems are:

(i) what to do with all the shit that comes out the other end of nuclear power plants (waste, not weapons. Weaponised heavy water or Depleted Uranium aren’t even a factor – nor is the fact that we will never manage to sustain nuclear power with no nuclear weapons. Isn’t that the same pipe-dream we are trying to pin on Iran, so we can bomb them for it?), and

(ii) just how risky it is that one’s power plant could literally ‘go nuclear’.

Point (i), first. I shall draw upon – who else – Monbiot for this one. He has repeatedly and routinely debunked the single great myth about nuclear energy: it is not carbon-free. It still burns a fuel – uranium. Think that comes for free? Ask the Mirrar people about Jabiluka. It’s not as bad as coal – but then it’s a smaller industry, so far.

At the same time, coal-powered energy is used to clean up after nuclear power has been generated (I have read somewhere about a nuclear plant keeping two coal-powered stations running to clean up the waste, but I forget where it was. If you remember, let me know).

In one of his articles, Monbiot properly refers to the rank stupidity of embracing new nuclear power plants when we’ve yet to figure out what to do with the waste from the old ones, or how to decommission the things. You will find, if you look into any comparisons favouring nuclear energy, that they do not consider these issues in a manner that makes for a fair comparison. They do come from all sides, though (check out the briefing papers from the Australian Uranium Association).

I’ve little doubt, all told, that atomic energy (I’ve heard we use ‘nuclear’ energy instead of ‘atomic’ as a marketing ploy – both words give me nightmares. In fact I’ve had mushroom-clouded nightmares exactly akin to the scenes from Battlestar Galactica (the new one – I looked for screen-caps, without success). They scare the hell out of me) is probably cheaper than coal. I would hardly deny that uranium delivers a lot more energy, pound-for-pound, than coal or gas or oil. But the argument that nuclear energy is carbon-free simply because it is at a single point during the production energy is as brainless as using the words ‘clean coal’ in any sentence that doesn’t begin with “There’s no such thing as…”

The follow-up is point (ii), safety. Matt Bivens, a fellow who used to write for the Nation, covered this quite a bit, and it relates to the Arctic circle story. We, that is our governments, are unbelievably cavalier about the threats that nuclear processing and waste present. Both benign (i.e. just by being uranium, plutonium, etc.) and ..not benign (terrorism).

Matt Bivens actually put me on to the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation – just my peacenik speed. I really wish he still wrote his column.

Did you know how many times terrorists had threatened nuclear plants were ‘next’ for the US? A couple, apparently. Including after each of the World Trade Centre attacks.

Then there’s plain old ordinary safety. Again, the American approach to nuclear plant safety leaves a lot to be desired. Everything from floating paint chips to trouble pumping cooling water. Back then a Nuclear Regulatory Council-commissioned report put the risk of a nuclear disaster at a plant at 1 in 3 by 2007. Fortunately those odds didn’t pay off. Although it isn’t 2008 yet. The NRC didn’t argue with the conclusions – they sent the report back for more work.

“Upon receiving the August 2002 report from Los Alamos Laboratories, the NRC, based on the significance of the conclusions reached, requested that a second report be prepared,” one that “removed some conservatism from the original risk analysis.” No, it didn’t just pull out the bad news: The second report looked at mitigating actions and technologies, “such as standard operator action to recover from the accident,” and “appropriate consideration of general design criteria related to leak-before-break technology.”

So the NRC got a shocking report from Los Alamos National labs, and sent it back. It told the Los Alamos team to plug in new assumptions and to consider the concept of “leak-before-break technology”–the idea that equipment is carefully monitored in a nuclear plant, so a pipe that starts to leak a bit will sound alarms long before it bursts, leaving time to head off potential problems.

Bivens also points out the bathtub curve:

bathtub curve hazard function (from wikipedia)

This is an engineering short-hand. It basically says the risk of failure is greatest at the beginning (when things that are broken become apparent) and the end (when things that weren’t broken start to break) of the useful life of something. The point being that safety precautions assumed away are in fact more important now than the days of 3 Mile Island, Brown’s Ferry and Chernobyl.

Brits, I refer you to almost any newspaper. Most recently, Dounreay. Being England, the problem identified very quickly is privatisation of nuclear plant operation and management. I know I want corners being cut at nuclear power plants in order to make a few extra quid – don’t you?

For the Americans, refer to an article by Bivens back in 2001,

David Orrik, a former US Navy Seal, until recently ran a program that tested the security at civilian nuclear plants by organizing mock attacks against them. His exercises don’t sound terribly ambitious–they pit a small team, moving on foot, against a nuclear plant security force that would be warned six months in advance of the test. Even so, half of all plants tested failed–and in at least one case, Orrik’s men were able to simulate enough sabotage to cause a core melt. And remember, these tests did not simulate, say, the Osama bin Laden truck bombs so successful in demolishing US embassies in Africa in 1998.

The nuclear industry did not enjoy failing, and did not enjoy shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars to prepare for Orrik’s tests–or to install security upgrades as the penalty for not passing. So it began to lean on the NRC to gut the program. This fall, the NRC is doing just that–phasing out Orrik’s program in favor of one in which nuclear power plants will carry out “self-assessments.” An NRC spokesman could not say if that plan would now be scrapped, and neither could Orrik. Asked on Friday if NRC was considering any dramatic new security measures, Orrik said he had “no sense at all” what would happen next. “I’m curious myself–will it be a sea change? Or business as usual?”

Speaking of cost, Americans: ever heard of the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act? It does just what you think it does. If something goes BOOM! or even LEAK! (not quite the same, is it?) near, or say, on you, this act says your home insurance policy won’t cover it. It also says that the industry won’t cover it. This leaves of course the government. That is, you.

And this is the same, mostly, all over. Tax subsidies for construction, operation, routine government bail-outs for the British, typically due to the cost of waste treatment causing plants to make a loss. And despite the Australian Uranium Association’s own briefing paper telling us that, because of the higher yield from Uranium, the effect of price fluctuations would be very small, it looks like that market can crunch, too. And one day might.

So that’s two issues in one. The principle issue is extant nuclear plants, and extant nuclear waste. Sandwiched in there was why I think these issues make the greatest arguments against extending the folly.

I’ll leave you with pictures from the International Nuclear Safety Centre.  That is to say, we all talk big about the necessity of nuclear power, but when one looks like being built in our town…

Australians not living near Lucas Heights, use the Anti-Nuclear Alliance of Western Australia. Hey, see if you can spot your house from here:

nuclear plants map

US map

UK map

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