Nuclear Fallout

Japan's earthquake, tsunami and nuclear radiation tragedy strengthens case for renewable energy
In the aftermath of Japan's horrific earthquake and tsunami - and on the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl - Adrian Glamorgan puts the case for alternatives to nuclear power.

As I write, only a few days after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, a second nuclear plant has had its cooling system fail, with awful consequences likely. Radiation must be spewing out. Already 200,000 people have been evacuated from a 20km exclusion zone. Potassium iodide pills are being distributed to help minimise thyroid cancer. Four workers have been injured.

Those alive in the plants are probably brave and desperate in equal measure. In Britain there are stories that workers at the Sellafield nuclear plant, facing yet another disaster, got to the point of crying for their mothers just before their meltdown was miraculously averted, so we can only imagine the nightmare of Fukushima 1 and 2.

Reassuring government statements are made, in the familiar pattern: everyone is perfectly safe from radiation, if they are not near it, to be followed by instructions to evacuate. Further vague statements from government officials are issued, belatedly clarifying the disaster, and the media helps out with tidy diagrams of cooling systems no longer able to cool uranium rods.

But it is not just uranium that powers nuclear plants. Nuclear power is built on deception.

In 1970, when the Australian government decided to go ahead with our own nuclear power plant at Jervis Bay, south of Sydney, Cabinet papers show it was in order to build five nuclear bombs a year. Fissionable nuclear materials are not a byproduct of making electricity - electricity is a byproduct of making nuclear weapons.

Even Japan, with its peace constitution, has created a nuclear reactor network and technology that means, at any time, it is within six weeks of making a nuclear bomb.

Some countries like France have become dependent on nuclear energy for their electricity, but it began to feed a pointless nuclear arsenal. Things go wrong, like at Champagne (yes, the place they make that drink) - accidents an inevitable aspect of working at a nuclear power plant. But the unholy grail, nuclear weaponry, is the ultimate prestige outcome of all this radioactive hardship.

Making electricity out of uranium is akin to warming a baby's bottle with a blowtorch. The nuclear rods get very, very hot, and they need to be cooled. When you have an accident, or miscalculate, the coolant doesn't get to where you need it to go. In Japan's case, the diesel generators failed, as they do in the worst tsunami imaginable, and the batteries lasted several hours and then went flat. Then trouble. The nuclear fuel rod temperatures rise beyond toleration levels. This isn't a nuclear explosion, not yet anyway, merely water being superheated, dividing into constituent hydrogen and oxygen, and ka-boom!

Because yes, hydrogen explodes. There's a containment vessel around every nuclear reactor, because the designers know that such accidents can happen.

But it's not over yet. More reassurances and worried brows. To prevent further explosions, or rather, to delay them while a way out of this nightmare is hoped for, steam is released. There's seawater to pump in, but the risk of this being contaminated with radiation, and or leading to further explosions must also be part of the apprehension. Caesium-137 and iodine-131 will have escaped into the air and water. Before long, neighbours are receiving levels of radiation they would only get from natural background sources in a few months, or a year. Too early to tell. Official words about "no immediate threat", but no time to define "immediate." Back to the problem of cooling pumps.

But any number of things can go wrong. Some nuclear plants, especially if they use graphite, can catch fire from the buildup of heat caused by the nuclear materials continuing to heat. Or the nuclear rods get so hot they melt into each other: "meltdown" or "China syndrome" is when the materials start melting through the basement and potentially deeper still. If the plant meets groundwater then the water will superheat and explode. In the back of everyone's minds there's a theoretical possibility of the nuclear materials actually going critical, and turning into a nuclear bomb. A danger no one needs while trying to recover from cities and tens of thousands of people being washed away.

You will recall that there was a proposal in the final years of the Howard Government to build 25 such nuclear power plants around Australia. We would supposedly do what the Japanese with all their technologies obviously cannot - build safe, for the most unlikely risks. Back in 1987, Prime Minister Bob Hawke said we could bury the safe nuclear wastes of the world at Tennant Creek, because it was so geologically stable. On January 22 1988 , there were three earthquakes at Tennant Creek, the largest tremor magnitude 6.7 on the Richter Scale. Nature is unpredictable. On December 28 1989 , we had a Richter 5.6 earthquake in Newcastle , a place you might have otherwise thought was well situated for a nuclear reactor.

The extent and number of nuclear disaster are often hidden. You've heard of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl (as well as all the reassurances that this could never happen again), but up until this unfolding disaster, there have been around 57 accidents since Chernobyl, (25 years ago this month). Most of the accidents recorded in nuclear plants have occurred in the United States, but Japan has had its share. On September 30 1999, in Ibaraki Prefecture, workers at Tokaimura accidentally added too many buckets of uranium to the precipitation tank, and the materials went critical. As in chain reaction. Two were killed. On August 9, in Fukui Prefecture, five workers were killed at the Mihama Nuclear Power Plant.

In Tokyo, a network of scientists, activists and common citizens work together to create a nuclear free world through an organisation they call CNIC (the Citizens Nuclear Information Center). For years, CNIC has documented the case against the nuclear fuel cycle in Japan, including the Fast Breeder Reactor Program, Plutonium Holdings, and of course the perennial (millennial) problem of nuclear waste. On February 24, they urged Japan to reject financing nuclear reactors in the United States; in January, five were hunger striking against Kaminoseki Nuclear Power Plant, and in December, CNIC petitioned against constructing a nuclear power plant in Vietnam.

Adelaide-raised Philip White has been a Japanese resident for 16 years and is now international liaison officer for CNIC. In an email to me, Philip writes, "The current situation was predicted by scientists. The scientists and non-government organisations like CNIC have warned of the double whammy of earthquakes and nuclear disaster." He points out the obvious contradiction of safe action now: "In many ways the response required to an earthquake (get out of weak buildings) is the opposite to the response required to a radiation accident (stay inside). Evacuation is complicated by the destruction of infrastructure. This is all common sense, but the government and nuclear industry refused to heed the warnings."

CNIC's co-director Hideyuki Ban is one of the few critics of nuclear energy on a formal policy review council created last December. "The original intention was to make only minimal adjustments," Philip White says. "That direction must be completely changed. The main focus should be how to achieve a smooth phase out of nuclear power."

When I asked whether there was anything else he would like us to know in Australia, he replied, "Australians are being told that it couldn't happen in Australia. Australia might not be prone to earthquakes, but I don't think I have to remind Australians about the many other types of natural disaster to which it is prone. These all pose risks to nuclear power stations and to managing nuclear disasters."

You take a simple principle like warming a baby's bottle with a blow torch, and then spend enormous sums of money trying to guess what can go wrong, including devastating a region the size of Europe, or Japan, calculating risk, dismissing probabilities of, say, a 9.0 Richter Scale earthquake close to your doorstep, a tsunami that washes out your diesel generators and affects 1800 km of coastline, and now you have a nuclear, human-made disaster on top of an appalling natural disaster, without the infrastructure support (as basic as a road you can drive down) to act.

There must be easier ways. They're called renewable energy.