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Is Nuclear Power the Answer?

By Elizabeth Leathbridge, Albury

Recently the Atomic Energy Industry Council claimed that, as a result of increasing carbon emissions, the Earth would be 2% hotter in 2020 and 6% hotter by 2050.  Shocked, and I admit, questioning their motives, I read Dr Helen Caldicott’s book “Nuclear power is not the answer”.  

She argues that in the US, it takes about 15 years to plan, build and commission a nuclear power plant   All have relied heavily on government investment. None have been built since 1978, so the cost and time to complete such a project today is unknown. The fuel, uranium, is rare, expensive to mine and refine. Worldwide, enough is left for only 20 years before it becomes scarce, and more expensive.  

Carbon emissions are released by coal powered electricity and diesel used in mining, milling, enriching uranium ore, site remediation, transporting materials, also in manufacturing enormous amounts of concrete and steel to construct a plant. Once built, we could call the electricity “carbon emission free”, but it must operate continuously for 10 years to pay off these carbon emissions first.

Enriching uranium also releases CFC gas, banned worldwide for damaging our ozone layer. 

To keep their fuel rods cool, nuclear power plants require a continuous supply of water, which cannot be re-used later for other purposes as it becomes highly radioactive. The usual solution is to use sea-water, then evaporate it, leaving radioactive salt-pans.

From the day they start, nuclear power plants vent radioactive gases through the chimney. Most particles fall to earth within a 30km radius if the air is still. Some “decay” (become half as radioactive) within 8 days to 100 years, some take up to 240,000 years.  Some have already proven extremely dangerous to human health.   

Eventually the power plant itself becomes too contaminated and must be shut down, left to cool, dismantled and buried. Each year about 1/3 of the fuel must be removed and stored in a continuously cooled state for 30-60 years and then packed into special containers. Where would we dump it, guard it from misuse and ensure that it is properly sealed against escape?

Her book explained how catastrophic failures at 3-Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima occurred. All permanently ruined the surrounding arable lands.   

I finished her book hoping that we are all smart enough to use safer, cheaper, less environmentally damaging methods to power our communities – renewable energy anyone?