As Chernobyl’s 1986 radioactive cloud has gradually vanished from the public eye, nuclear energy is firmly back on the political agenda. Industry advocates and politicians, the world over, present the nuclear option as a kind of magic mushroom, which at once will help decrease the ever rising fuel bills and reduce greenhouse emissions. If only it were that simple …
Despite its problematic nuclear past, Britain is among the frontrunners in the world’s drive for an atomic future. The Labor government has given the green light for the construction of an additional 15 nuclear power plants. “It would be for the private sector to initiate, fund, construct and operate new nuclear plants, and cover the costs of decommissioning and their full share of long term waste management costs,” stated Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer, Alistair Darling.
Britain is by no means alone in its nuclear desires. The US, the world’s biggest producer of nuclear energy, plans to build an additional 30 plants, while Europe’s nuclear giant, France, is constructing its 59th.
Most countries in the MENA region have also expressed a wish to go nuclear. In 2006, Tunisia signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with France and aims to complete a 600 MW nuclear facility to produce electricity and desalinize water by 2020. Libya and Morocco followed suit. Algeria has had atomic ambitions since 1982 and recently signed a nuclear energy agreement with the US. Egypt aims to construct four nuclear reactors by 2020. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen and the UAE also have nuclear ambitions, while Iran seems well underway to complete its first nuclear power plant.
Advocates claim nuclear energy is a clean and cost effective solution, yet that remains very much to be seen. Sure, operating a nuclear power generator produces no greenhouse gas emissions and thus helps counter global warming. Yet the environmental argument comes across as rather cynical, knowing that the highly toxic nuclear waste requires to be stored in abandoned salt mines for tens of thousands of years, while the 1986 Chernobyl disaster caused radioactivity levels to rise even in Sweden.
Britain should be all too well aware of the dangers, as the world’s biggest nuclear disaster after Chernobyl took place in 1957 at its Windscale facility, today better known as Sellafield. A fire in the nuclear reactor produced radioactive fumes and waste water. The authorities immediately declared the fallout posed no public health hazard, yet within days heightened levels of iodine were found in local milk, while elevated radiation levels were reported in France.
But that is something of the past, some may counter. Not so. In 2005, Sellafield workers discovered that a pipe had leaked 83,000 liters of radioactive waste into a concrete chamber. Fortunately, the latter was especially constructed for such an incident, yet it had taken a stunning nine months for the leak to be noticed. If this can happen in Britain, what — with all due respect — is to be expected in a country like Yemen?
In addition, it is not at all guaranteed that nuclear power generation is cost effective. True, once built, a nuclear facility is much cheaper to operate than a traditional power plant. But building a 1,000-MW nuclear power plant costs a whopping $2-2.5 billion, while a modern combined-cycle gas turbine costs about one-fifth of that sum.
More importantly, the costs of nuclear waste disposal and the decommissioning of plants, once production stops, are enormous and hard to predict. In 2005, Britain’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), which oversees the dismantling and clean-up of closed nuclear reactors and reprocessing facilities, estimated that the operation would take up to 100 years and cost $110 billion. Today, the bill has increased to $146 billion.
Nevertheless, Industry Minister Darling is confident that private nuclear power operators are willing and able to make such investments, and still produce cost-effective electricity. The Brown government’s unfaltering belief in the blessings of the free market is all the more remarkable, in the light of Britain’s privatization of the nuclear sector, which has hardly been a success story.
In 1996, eight of Britain’s most modern nuclear power plants were consolidated into one private company, British Energy (BE). Six years later, the government was forced to step in with a taxpayers’ cash injection of $7.9 billion to save BE from bankruptcy. For both health and financial reasons, the nuclear option rather resembles a game of Russian roulette.
Instead of following Britain’s example by pouring tens of billions of dollars into private nuclear power generators, the MENA region, which is blessed with ample sunshine and remaining hydrocarbon reserves, should rather follow in the footsteps of Germany, which has vowed to shut down all nuclear plants by 2020, while investing in energy saving measures and truly sustainable energy sources, such as wind and solar power. After all, let’s not forget that the earth’s uranium reserves are as finite as its oil.
Peter Speetjens is a Beirut-based journalist.