The debate surrounding the Temelin nuclear power plant in Southern Bohemia is a perfect example of the forest getting lost among the trees. We hear arguments back and forth about the safety of the hybrid technology – half Soviet, half Westinghouse – and about the amount of money the boondoggle has sucked in over the years. We hear about the latest Austrian protests and the energy sharing schemes designed to placate the Austrians.
Amid the sensationalism of the story and the many angles through which it is covered, it is easy to forget a few hard basic truths about nuclear energy: it isn’t safe, clean or energy efficient, regardless of the technology used or the energy needs of the country.
The idea that nuclear power is “clean” is especially nonsensical. Not only does it contaminate the planet with long-lived radioactive waste, it significantly contributes to global warming.
While it is often claimed that no fossil fuels are burned in producing nuclear power, the reality is that enormous quantities of fossil fuel are used to mine, mill and enrich the uranium needed to fuel a nuclear power plant, as well as to construct a nuclear reactor itself.
Indeed, according to the U. S. Department of Energy, an average nuclear power plant must operate for an average of 18 years before producing one net calorie of energy, largely because of the massive coal fired plants that enrich uranium. But that is not the end of fossil fuel use in nuclear power.
Dissembling a nuclear power plant like Temelin at the end of its 30 or 40 year operating life will require yet more vast quantities of energy. Taking apart, piece by radioactive piece, a reactor and its surrounding infrastructure is a massive operation: imagine the amount of petrol, diesel and electricity that would be used if the National Museum atop Wenceslas square were to be dismantled. That is the scale we are talking about.
Nor is nuclear power “safe. ” The byproducts are often invisible and odorless, and remain radioactive for centuries. They concentrate in the foodchain where they emulate the mineral calcium. Contaminated milk with Strontium 90 enters the body and concentrates in the bones and lactating breasts where it later causes cancer. Children are by far more susceptible to these affects than adults.
Plutonium, the most significant element in nuclear waste, is so carcinogenic that half a kilo evenly distributed could cause cancer in everyone on Earth. Lasting 500,000 years, it enters the body through the lungs and mimics iron in the body, migrating to the bones and liver, where it causes cancer.
It also crosses into the placenta and embryo, causing gross birth deformities. It also has a predilection for the testicles, and passes on genetic mutations through sperm that can last generations. An average nuclear weapon holds five kilos of plutonium.
SO FAR NUCLEAR POWER HAS GENERATED
OVER 1,000 TONS OF PLUTONIUM.
Does the Czech Republic, whose people have already experienced one nuclear power disaster, want to create more of this stuff? Don’t say it significantly reduces global warming, because it doesn’t. Don’t say it’s safe, because it isn’t. And don’t say there aren’t alternatives worth exploring and sacrificing for, because there are.
To learn more about nuclear energy, and what can be done to bring safe alternatives into use, visit www.greenpeace.org
Jonah Weiss is a Canadian environmental activist and author currently living in Prague.