01.07.2006

Bargaining with Life - by Adrian Glamorgan

The current upsurge of support for nuclear energy may exact a crippling cost, says Adrian Glamorgan.

I'm not sure how sensual it is riding a bike nude but that's what thousands of cyclists did last month in cities around the world, to protest at the car clogging of our cities. That aside, (and I didn't join them), the only real environment news happening over the last several weeks has been about nuclear energy. Those of us who have been campaigning for a nuclear-free Australia for more than 30 years cannot remember a time when the forces for nuclear power have been so organised. In less than a year, the pro-uranium lobby has managed to exhume plans from the late 1960s to build nuclear power plants in Australia and make it sound plausible, and even responsible, environmental behaviour. Curiously enough, this all comes at a time when the argument in favour of nuclear energy is at an all time low.

The nuclear lobby pricked up its ears when Kyoto and global warming became an issue. Anticipating wild claims, Dr Helen Caldicott in 2001 pointed out that a nuclear power plant must operate for 18 years before producing one net kilojoule of energy. For example, the enrichment of uranium has been regularly achieved in the United States through the use of several thousand megawatt coal-fired plants. That's right - before the first switch is thrown to initiate nuclear fission, coal has had to be burning for almost 20 years. Then give the nuclear plant 30 or 40 years and you have to decommission it. It's a difficult and sustained operation to decommission a nuclear plant, and if it's turned ugly, as it has at Chernobyl, then it keeps costing money, even after you've tried to turn the whole thing off. Then there's the nuclear waste, that gift to our future generations. Not even to mention the risk that nuclear plants become security risks, and thus attract a whole lot of militarised behaviour to keep us safe from the threats. Plenty of greenhouse gases at every stage. Still no electricity "too cheap to meter" as we were promised decades ago.

You know what? None of this is new. All that's changed is that the evidence has mounted. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Sellafield, Soulaine, Centre Stockage de la Manche (near Champagne region).... None of the nuclear safe promises have been kept. Nuclear power and the failure to deliver is a part of the nuclear cycle, not nude cycle. In the early 1980s when the government wanted to export uranium we were promised a magical "synroc" would soon be perfected that would enable us to trap nuclear waste for aeons. It was just around the corner; that's why we could export yellow cake. It's still around the corner. We export yellowcake. This year the government has agreed to export yellowcake to a country that won't sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: China may provide us with audited records of how they use our Aussie uranium for electricity, but that only frees up the Central Committee to use Chinese uranium for missiles. We are being naïve.

Last month the British government was astonished to discover that the cost of cleaning up Britain's nuclear facility stands at 90 billion pounds, much higher than the figures the government agency in charge of the task first admitted. On top of that 90 billion pounds is another 14 billion sterling to dismantle eight nuclear plants, and the expense of deep underground storage, up to another 20 billion pounds. That's a lot of schools, hospitals, assistance to Africa, medical research, university fees, conversion to organic farming, peace building in Northern Ireland...and now Australia might be dealing in for the game.

Make no mistake, this is not about economics. Anyone who goes near nuclear energy quickly learns how expensive it is. It's like burning radioactive $100 notes, while trying to stop the nuclear gases escaping. It's like trying to use a blow torch to warm a baby's bottle. It's like trying to explain why you would burden yourself with tens of thousands of years' liability, when you haven't established any demand for the 40 years of electricity. You have to look the other way at huge efficiencies from energy conservation and town planning. You have to ignore currently cost-effective wind energy technologies, solar power, and even gas fired station technology, all current, all workable, all viable. You have to work hard to make a case for nukes. That's why so many green commentators have been confident about any fair inquiry.

I've been close to a nuclear power station. It was from a bus in mid-Wales. I didn't know what lay ahead, but quite oddly, I sensed something doomful. Closer, it looked like a giant mausoleum. It was Trawsfynydd, a nuclear power plant that seemed to be more silent than death. Mine was a personal take. I don't expect to win any arguments over my reaction that day. But it gives me a clue about nuclear energy. Nuclear energy belongs to Pluto, god of the underworld, (and his radioactive plutonium is one of the most lethal substances known. Nuclear power plants produce it.) Mythically, uranium has been about our bargain with the Other Side. We can vaporise a hundred thousand souls before we hear the scream of a single human. We can bequeath our nuclear waste to a hundred thousand generations and not even think to apologise. We can promise scientific discoveries yet unborn, to solve the very real problem we are creating before our eyes. We can make 40 years of electricity.

In the Greek myth, Pluto dragged Persephone to the Underworld. Persephone was a naïve, silly girl when she plucked the flower, but being plunged barbarically into the Underworld made her wise up. Her marriage to Pluto was not sensual - quite the opposite. So we are warned. We may lean down to pluck a simple prize from the earth, but we may be reaching into the edge of darkness. At least, sensuality has within it the longing for life. May that longing for life be with you always.

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